GRAND RAPIDS — Since she was a whiz in all the science classes she took, her father wanted her to become a doctor. So Nadine Klein took her dad’s advice to heart — sort of. She earned a doctorate, but in law, not medicine. And she did take more science courses, but the political type instead of the physical kind.
“In my junior year of high school, I got involved in the student council and I just loved the political process, giving to the community and that type of work. So I decided I was going to be a political science major when I was a junior in high school, much to my father’s chagrin,” said Klein with a laugh.
“I still remember he was driving me to school one morning when I told him, and he was not happy at all.”
Today, the likable 43-year-old native of Columbus, Ohio, isn’t carrying a stethoscope or asking patients to open wide and say, “Ahhh.” But she is serving her second term on the Kent County Board of Commissioners representing the 19th District, and handling family law and other legal matters for Brinks & Associates as an associate attorney.
“I moved to Illinois when I was a freshman in high school. Then I went to Hillsdale College in Michigan and then Valparaiso Law School in Indiana. So I just kind of picked Grand Rapids,” said Klein.
When she arrived here, she went to work for a fairly large law firm that no longer exists and left before it went out of business. Klein then joined the appellate division of the county prosecutor’s office because she wanted to stay in the city and start her second career here.
“I liked the political climate in Grand Rapids. I was a poly-sci major and didn’t know what to do with that; that’s why I ended up in law school. I wanted to go someplace where I could get elected, and I knew Kent County was fairly conservative,” she said.
“Since probably my junior year in high school, I’ve wanted to get into politics.”
Klein didn’t take the easy route for her entry into the political world here. She took on fellow Republican Ken Kuipers for the 19th District seat in the 2004 election. Kuipers was the incumbent then — a longtime commissioner and past commission chairman.
Some observers gave Klein only two chances to win: slim and none. But she won then, and won again last fall. She said she was able to topple Kuipers because then-state Rep. Jerry Kooiman, also a Republican, energized her first campaign by endorsing her for the post.
“His led to other endorsements. He helped me out a lot and I was able to defeat Kuipers, who was there for 20 years. That is unheard of, and generally it’s a no-no to run against an incumbent of your own party,” she said.
“And I got (former commission chairwoman) Kathy Kuhn to help me out.”
Right about the time Klein won her first election she started at Brinks & Associates as a contract lawyer. But less than a year later, in July of 2005, she became an associate there. While her practice focuses on family law, she also defends clients against auto insurance and workers’ compensation claims, and also does some personal injury work.
When asked what she likes best about being a lawyer, Klein responded: “Being able to help someone.”
“Usually people don’t want to go see a lawyer. In the kind of work I do, we’re helping people when they’re not at a happy point in their lives. Being able to help them get on with their lives and get things turned around, organized or resolved, I like doing that.”
When Klein was in the prosecutor’s office, she handled an appeal of a drunk-driving case that helped make the state’s DUI law tougher. While she was in private practice at Dykema, she won a case that gave a father custody of his two kids at a time when a dad usually loses.
“The kids were just not in a good place with their mother. It wasn’t abusive or anything like that. It’s just that their dad was a lot better for them,” she said.
By some of the actions she has taken on the county commission, Klein has made it clear that healthy kids and healthy homes for kids are not only vital to her personally, but also a mission she has chosen to undertake. She made that commitment shortly after her tenure as a court-appointed attorney in the juvenile division ended.
“I saw a lot of kids in neglect cases and termination-of-parental rights cases and that really affected me — to see what good counseling and good preventative work could do to help a family, and when those supports weren’t there, how it could hurt a family. And then having kids myself …” she said, then paused before speaking again.
“Kids are our future, and it’s really important that they be given a good start in life. They need to have a healthy home environment to be able to function as adults, or even as children. They’re our most valuable resource.”
Nadine has been married to Greg, a computer programmer and analyst for Alticor, for a dozen years. They have three sons: Michael, James and Maxwell. The trio ranges in age from 5 to 9 and all play baseball, keeping mom and dad hopping from diamond to diamond.
“And they’re very quick,” she said of her sons, while laughing. “The boys keep me pretty busy. They’re involved with sports and involved with school, and I’m involved at church.”
Klein is very active at St. Paul the Apostle Catholic Church, serving on the Women’s Guild and Education Foundation Board at the parish. She has a seat on several county boards including public works and a citizen group that advises the zoo. Klein is also vice chair of the county’s Legislative Committee and chairwoman of the network 180 board.
Klein said she is at a happy place in her life right now as an attorney, wife, mother and volunteer. She said she sees herself continuing those roles for the immediate future, but possibly expanding the one she has as a county commissioner.
“I don’t see any change legally. I love working with Sharon Brinks. It’s very nice that she is a Kentwood city commissioner, so we have the love of politics in common. She understands my schedule,” she said.
“I would just say getting more involved with the Commission and continuing in my leadership role.”