A champion for small towns

Big change can happen at the local level when a CMU student engages in local politics

| Author: Ari Harris

James Johnson still has about 24 credits left to complete before he'll graduate from Central Michigan University at the end of 2019, but he's already getting a head start on his dream career.

The political science major from Marion, Michigan, landed a full-time position as a legislative aide in constituent relations with Michigan state Rep. Jason Wentworth — a role that would make his late father proud.

James Johnson, left, and Rep. Jason Wentworth in the Capitol in Lansing, Michigan

Following in his father's footsteps

Johnson came to CMU hoping to make a meaningful impact in the lives of others, a calling he picked up from his father. The late George Johnson always told his children how proud he had been to serve as the mayor of Omer, one of Michigan's smallest towns.

Service to his community was one of the hallmarks of his father's life, Johnson said. Before and after his service as mayor, George had been involved on the school board, served as police chief, and held leadership positions on several community and nonprofit organization boards.

"My father told us to always think big and work hard for others. He was always looking for ways to improve our community and considered himself a promoter for our town," Johnson said.

A phone call to start it all

Johnson decided to honor his father's legacy by entering public service — and he wanted to keep it positive and local.

In his political science classes at CMU, Johnson said he often encountered the message that politics should be about problem-solving, not about party divisiveness.

In his class with David Rutledge, he enjoyed hearing speakers from many political perspectives and their emphasis on maintaining civility while seeking solutions together. Rutledge is the Griffin Endowed Chair in American Government at CMU and leads the twice-annual Griffin Policy Forums.

And his classes with Sharon Kukla-Acevedo outlined the values of working for change as a public servant at the local, regional and state levels of government. While many people focus on big issues in national politics, Johnson said he was more interested in the day-to-day issues impacting the lives of people in his hometown.

"Issues like road improvements and funding for schools affect every person, in every party, every day," Johnson said.

He contacted his state representative's office and asked for an unpaid internship.

The request impressed Wentworth, an alum of CMU's Master of Science in Administration-Leadership program.

"It is not very common for someone to reach out directly to our office seeking an unpaid internship. James displayed a deep interest in the campaigning process and made clear that he was eager to learn more and help in whatever capacity he could," Wentworth said.

As an intern, Johnson spent hundreds of hours out on the road knocking on thousands of doors — an experience he called a crash course in canvassing.

"At one point I knocked on about 600 doors in four days. I learned that every voice and every vote really matter in an election," he said.

His work on the campaign sent him back to Omer, where he was surprised to meet many people who remembered his father's impact on the community, including a couple whose marriage his father officiated more than three decades ago.

Racking up miles on the road to a new career

The miles spent on the road, knocking on doors and speaking with voters paid off at the end of 2018 when Wentworth invited him to join his team full-time as a legislative aide in constituent relations.

"James spent hundreds of hours training for the position he now holds, including dealing with complex constituent cases. His hard work, both in the office and on the campaign, earned my trust and confidence that he can excel in this position while finishing his degree," Wentworth said.

And he knows his work is making a difference for the people in his community.

"I help our constituents resolve issues and connect with the right government departments to deliver services they need. It feels great to know I am making a difference in their lives."

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