Saturday, October 16, 2021

City Stars: How Lisa Babcock became an East Lansing City Council member

March 23, 2021
Lawyer Lisa Babcock photographed on March 13, 2021.
Lawyer Lisa Babcock photographed on March 13, 2021. —
Photo by Rahmya Trewern | The State News

When Lisa Babcock graduated from Lansing Eastern High School in 1984, her largest goal was to see the state Capitol dome in her rearview mirror as she left her hometown behind.

“I mean, I was out of here,” Babcock said.

Now, Babcock is a member of the East Lansing City Council. 

She grew up on the east side of Lansing, and as a kid, she and her friends would ride their bikes to East Lansing. Babcock’s urge to leave her hometown brought her to the University of Michigan. She originally wanted to be a journalist, but changed her mind and studied political science.

“A Detroit Free Press columnist who wrote about politics, Hugh McDermott, said to me one day, don't get a degree in journalism, get a degree in something you want to actually write about,” Babcock said.

Right out of college, Babcock worked for a weekly newspaper. She covered local government in Charlevoix County, Michigan.

“I learned about budgets, and zoning, and downtown development authorities, how to run a meeting, all these things that really helped me today,” Babcock said.

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Babcock said that she thought she would end up working for a publication in a big city. Instead, she found herself moving downstate to work for U.S. Senate candidate Bill Brodhead. Within two weeks, Brodhead had fired his campaign manager. Babcock was able to find a job, working on the democratic policy staff for energy policy within the State Senate. Babcock said that this work was interesting to her.

“I also looked around and realized that the life span of a minority staffer was pretty short,” Babcock said.

Babcock looked to her past experience as a reporter but became interested in a different position.  

“I remembered again, being up north, and being at the City Council meetings, and thinking, as much as I loved being a reporter, the second-best job in the room had to be the attorney,” Babcock said.

So, Babcock worked up the nerve to apply to law school. At 34, she began law school at Michigan State University College of Law, taking night classes. After completing law school, Babcock found a job with an energy company but quickly moved on to taking court-appointed cases. But the work was taxing for her, having to defend alleged criminals.

“I had no idea what people could do every day, and then do again the next day,” Babcock said. “You get all their charges reduced, you clear their record, and they're back three weeks later."

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In 2019, Babcock read about the city of East Lansing’s use of the bidding site eBay to auction off a piece of public land. The city had only notified around a dozen parties about the sale. This lack of transparency prompted Babcock to run for City Council.

“I thought, we can do better,” Babcock said. “It's a great community, but we can do better.”

Babcock said that she is still fighting for greater transparency and that she feels the city can still do better.

“I want the City Council and the city's direction to be known for fairness,” Babcock said.

Besides working on the City Council, Babcock continues to work as a lawyer and is working on a novel.

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Looking back, Babcock wished she had started earlier.

“Years earlier, I thought about running for office in Lansing, and I asked people, and they said things like, 'Oh, you're not ready, or you're not the right person,” Babcock said. "I'll never stop wondering what might have been if I had run, you know, at 35 instead of 50."

Babcock’s advice, especially to women in the position she was in, is to pursue things without waiting for approval from others.

“Don't ask for permission, especially for women,” Babcock said. “Don't ask for permission, don't wait for permission.”

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