At 22 years old, Ron Owens is a force to be reckoned with. Last September, the openly gay, politically active, then-student decided to take time off from his senior year at Michigan State University’s James Madison College to seize the opportunity to hit the road with Gretchen Whitmer’s gubernatorial campaign. Known for her 15-hour days and campaign stops in each of Michigan’s 83 counties, Owens has been with Whitmer every step of the way. But as her deputy political director, Owens is far more than just a travel companion. He is tasked with maintaining existing relationships and fostering new ones to help propel Whitmer toward a November win and then on to govern in 2019.
“I am always on the phone talking with our elected officials making sure that they are looped in on the things that we are doing on the campaign, and making sure that we get feedback so that we can better run a campaign here in Michigan,” Owens said. “Also, early on I helped with the endorsement process, getting a lot of the endorsers on board for Sen. Whitmer. I’m also kind of like her right hand.”
Owens expresses nothing but praise for Whitmer and loves his work joining her on the campaign trail. He said that the experience has given him an even greater appreciation for the state.
“Every day is different on the road. One thing that I’m really grateful for is Gretchen’s energy. She is always energized and loves talking to voters. I thrive off of her energy, and her love for Michigan. Before jumping on this campaign, I was always thinking of, ‘What are my goals? What do I want to do next?'” Owens said. “But working on this campaign and being so close to Gretchen has given me such a love for our state. We have such a beautiful state, and it’s filled with such amazing people. And this is a place that I want to continue to grow my career and my life and my family.”
Passion for Politics
Owens grew up in Saginaw, and it was there, in high school, that he discovered his calling. It began with fulfilling a high school requirement for community service hours, for which he knocked doors for some local candidates. In his freshman year of college, Owens interned for state Rep. Adam Zemke, then for Congressman Dan Kildee and Senator Debbie Stabenow in Washington, D.C. the following summer. He has also worked for State House Democratic Leader Sam Singh and was an organizer for Hillary for America.
Owens’s passion for public service is rooted in the values that his mom, a single mother of three, taught him by example. His mother, grandmother and great-grandmother are all nurses.
“One thing that my mom instilled in my siblings and me, was to one: always be kind to other people; two: always work twice as hard as anyone else; and three: whenever you’re working you should always be doing something that is benefiting others,” Owens said.
When asked to name his role models, Owens cited his mom as one of his greatest inspirations.
“With the odds against her, with a lot of issues that may have come up in the household, she taught us to stay true to our values,” he said. “But she also made sure that we drove to go the extra step … made sure that we know that all the dreams that we asked can be accomplished as long as we put a plan forward.”
Owens’ other role models are political ones. There’s Whitmer, of course, and he said he is grateful for the friendship they’ve built.
“I talk to her about … anything that I want, because … we have that comfortable relationship,” he said. “I told her about this interview, I told her about the struggles that have come with trying to come out to my mom.”
Owens also admires President Barack Obama as well, calling him one of our greatest presidents. He beat the odds, said Owens, and accomplished so much for our country. Owens was in Washington D.C. when marriage equality became the law of the land, and that experience became one of the highlights of his early career as he saw the White House lit up in Pride colors.
Not Without Obstacles
Like Obama, Owens said he has experienced the kind of racism that presents itself when white people seem to act “pleasantly” surprised that black people can be “well-spoken.” Owens went on to describe those microagressions.
“I remember interning in D.C. at one point, and people are always like, ‘Oh my gosh, you talk so well!’ So those were always things that came up since … I remember in high school to now,” he said. “That kind of stuff still happens.”
Because of his sexuality, Owens has faced additional challenges, too. He said his extended family can sometimes be closed-minded about the LGBTQ community, along with people in his hometown. Still, he remains positive.
“There are a lot of beauties that come with being a black gay man in America … I think that there just needs to be some exposure in order to get folks comfortable with people standing in their own light and loving who they love,” he said. “I think there are some challenges, but I see a path to us all eventually being on the same page.”
Today, Owens is confident and seems to be comfortable with his identity, but that self-assuredness wasn’t easy to build. He came out to himself and some friends only a few years ago, and even at his first inklings of being gay, Owens had a hard time accepting that truth.
“My mom made sure we were at church every Sunday, and I remember, at night, hoping that it wasn’t true. That God did not make me gay,” he said. “But … ever since I have come out to myself and to my friends, I love the person I am. I am proud to have stayed true to the values that my mom instilled in me, and did it while being fabulous.”
Now that Owens is able to embrace who he is, he has a message to share with others who may be questioning themselves.
“If there is anyone out there that’s reading this article, that has had similar experiences as me, or is struggling to come out to other folks, I say just stay true to yourself, stand in your light, but do it at your own time,” Owens said. “And make sure that you have a support system that has your back.”
A Progressive Future
Accepting himself has made Owens more confident in his career, too. While he doesn’t have a set plan for his future yet, when asked about it, he recalled the words of a favorite teacher, “A goal without a plan is just a dream.”
“I am usually looking at, ‘What are my next steps?’ he said. “Hopefully, not getting ahead of my skis here, but if Gretchen is elected governor, I would love to, after being on this campaign for so long, help set an agenda, a progressive agenda, here in Michigan that moves families forward.”
And his own political campaign is definitely something that Owens has been considering.
“And, you know, one day I could see myself running for office. I think that Michigan is a beautiful state with beautiful people, and I would love to be able to serve people in any capacity that I can throughout my lifetime,” Owens said. “But right now, I am determined to win this election in … November and see what happens next.”