By Jan Worth-Nelson
A contest for a seat in the state House of Representatives is shaping up in the 49th district, with three well-known Democrats having filed papers so far: Charter Review Commission member John Cherry, water crisis activist Lashaya Darisaw, and former Flint mayor Dayne Walling. The election is set for Nov. 6.
East Village Magazine is inviting candidates running for the seat to answer a series of five questions each. We promised we would run their answers here, unedited. The questions are not all identical — we have custom designed them around each candidate’s background and experience. Dayne Walling’s answers were featured here, Lashaya Darisaw’s are available here.
This article features questions and answers provided by John Cherry.
The 49th District includes Flushing, Swartz Creek, Mt. Morris City and Township, Flint Township and much of Flint. The seat is available because the current 49th District representative, Phil Phelps, is being term-limited out after the legislatively-mandated maximum of three two-year terms, though Phelps has served only five years. Phelps, also a Democrat, originally was voted into the seat in a 2013 special election after Jim Ananich, the previous 49th district representative, was elected to the Michigan State Senate. The district has a population of about 83,000, is 52 percent female, 67 percent white and 27 percent black, according to Wikipedia. The position pays a yearly salary of $72,000.
What have been the most significant commitments and activities of your recent life experience, and in what ways do those activities suggest your potential contributions to the 49th district constituents?
I have been blessed with a number of life experiences that I believe have prepared me for service in the Legislature representing the residents of the 49th District. My academic studies led to a BA in Environmental Studies at the University of Michigan. Subsequently, I obtained a Masters Degree in Public Policy from the Ford School at the University of Michigan.
I have worked at the Michigan DNR as an SEIU member since 2010. My tenure with the DNR has given me an opportunity to be a departmental leader in policy analysis, program monitoring, and employee engagement. These academic and employment experiences have assisted me in developing those skills which are necessary for effective policy development and implementation in the public sector.
My family resides in the College Cultural Neighborhood, where I moved after completing my degree. In 2013, my wife Teresa and I started a coffee business, Flint Coffee Company, in which we import coffee grown by her parents who are small farmers in the Amazonas region of Peru. We roast the coffee just north of downtown on the second floor of the Local Grocer building; and it is sold on the first floor, as well as at other local restaurants, cafes, the farmers market, and grocery stores.
My personal and family experience as a Flint resident have allowed to experience first-hand the numerous challenges that have confronted Flint residents and local businesses. That experience I believe is a particularly important consideration for anyone seeking to represent the Greater Flint area in the Michigan Legislature. In fact, it was those experiences that led me to seek election as a City of Flint Charter Commissioner in 2015. In that election, I was the top vote getter, and I subsequently was elected by my fellow commissioners as the vice-chair of the Commission, which drafted a new charter for the City. The charter was approved by City voters by a nearly 2-1 margin in August of 2017, at which point the Commission was dissolved. I believe that my activity on the Charter Commission demonstrated that I was an effective campaigner who could use the electoral process to build a strong governing agenda. Developing a consensus with my fellow commissioners, producing a real product, and successfully making the case for the Charter with the residents of Flint is perhaps the strongest statement that my background has prepared me to tackle significant legislative issues on behalf of the citizens of the 49th District.
These experiences demonstrate that I am not a stranger to hard work, I am good at solving problems and getting things done, and that I have been effective at giving citizens a voice in government.
However, the most significant experience and commitment in my life came with the birth of our first daughter, Diana. She was born on Feb. 11, 2017 at Hurley Medical Center. When Teresa and I became parents, it brought to the forefront the role that stewardship plays in our lives and the obligation of our elected officials. That obligation is to nurture the legacy that we have been given so that our children and those who follow us can enjoy a better life.
The birth of my daughter really brought home the importance of a government that cares about and listens to its citizens. Since we live in the City of Flint my wife was very careful about consuming bottled water during her pregnancy and after giving birth. Nevertheless, a couple months after our daughter was born, it was recommended that we have her tested for lead. As a father it was my job to hold her for the blood draw and as the technician had trouble finding the vein I had to hold her tight as she was crying, tears running down her face, not knowing why her father was hurting her. It was the most painful moment I have had as a father, and yet, I know I was blessed and lucky because the results of the test were safe, while for others it was not. Ultimately our experience, and the experiences of other parents in the City are the result of a government that didn’t care about its citizens. Citizens throughout Michigan have felt it in other ways as well. If they were falsely accused of unemployment fraud or if they resided in a veteran’s home, they have been victimized as well. All of these experiences reinforce the notion that the primary concern of government must be the welfare, dignity, and integrity of every individual.
How important will the Cherry name and family legacy be in motivating you to run and in your campaign?
A name does not provide motivation, but examples set by family members do reinforce motivation. I make the distinction, because when people talk about the Cherry name they think of my father, aunt, and mother (named Faris). However, other members of my family have just as deep a commitment to public service, if not deeper than those who have been elected. My grandfather, father, aunt and mother have been good public servants who put the community first, but I also have family who are teachers, firefighters, police officers, and veterans. Being an elected official is not an easy task, however, when you are putting your life on the line to protect the lives of others in your community or country I would describe that level of commitment to public service as greater. I find their personal commitments inspiring and humbling.
I also have another example of commitment to community that inspires me from my Faris side. My grandfather, Joe Faris, and his brothers owned and operated Faris Furniture on the corner of Saginaw and Carpenter roads for decades. They only sold it when they got too old to operate it any longer. It is now Hutchinson Furniture. They are an example to me of operating a business in the interest of the community. They kept the business in the City, maintained their property, and I have had numerous people over the years approach me to tell me that they bought their first set of furniture from my grandfather or my uncles. They were often the only ones willing to sell furniture to folks with bad or no credit. If you go by the corner today, you will see it is in good physical condition and I feel that is, in part, due to the way they operated that business.
What would be your top three legislative priorities?
Nearly a quarter of the workforce in Genesee County earns an hourly wage of $10 or less. That is simply not a wage in which you can raise a family with any level of security. I support an increase in the minimum wage. My number one priority is the enactment of policies to create a prosperous middle class. That means the 49th District needs infrastructure that will attract businesses and assist them in achieving success. That success also requires a trained and talented workforce. We need an education policy that recognizes that a basic education is a K-14 education—a high school diploma and two years of a post-secondary experience.
Over the past two decades we have seen a steady decline in the ability of our communities to provide basic services to its citizens. Consequently, we need to reform Michigan’s municipal finance system to provide for stable, strong communities that have enough funding to do the basic work of government. Neighborhoods and business cannot thrive unless our community is financially stable.
Finally, our experience right here in Flint, Michigan is Case One that Michigan needs to focus on the environmental and public health of our communities. That is a basic responsibility of state government, and Michigan’s failure on that front is legendary. I wish to make the effort to modernize and reform of Michigan’s legal and institutional commitment to environmental and public health a personal one. I believe my training suggests that I can be an effective advocate on behalf of the Greater Flint community.
How would you describe your anticipated “governing philosophy” and/or style? How would you counter trends of extreme partisanship and vanishing decorum? How do your aims in this regard connect to the flourishing or salvaging of our democracy?
I believe that the fundamental interest of government is ensuring the welfare, dignity, and integrity of every individual. That starts with respecting those you serve and those you work with to make that service meaningful. That’s my fundamental governing philosophy. As I consider issues that come before the legislature or other governmental bodies, I ask myself how they impact everyday people.
I don’t expect others to behave better than I am willing behave. In my interactions, personal or professional, I try to treat everyone with respect and consideration, especially those that I don’t believe receive respect and consideration on a regular basis. This type of personal action is no silver bullet to our broader political problems, but I have found that I have an ability to work with a wide range of people, and I am more effective and informed than I otherwise would be.
I might add as an aside, that fundamentally a citizen’s right to vote deserves respect as well. The outcome of an election should not be foreordained by the process of drawing legislative districts. In that respect, I am a strong supporter of those seeking to change the redistricting process in Michigan.
As a leader of the charter renewal campaign, describe what you consider to be the most significant achievement of that effort. And on a related note, how you do view the progress of its implementation?
The most significant achievement of the actual campaign was the depth and breadth of the victory, eight of nine wards approved the charter by double digits, with an overall vote of nearly 2/3 of the City approving the charter. This was done on a very limited budget. I believe it reflects the amount of time the Commission spent listening to the fundamental concerns of citizens and writing a Charter that directly tackled the concerns that Citizens raised. This helped give the campaign a great amount of manpower from people who participated in the process and wanted to see it enacted and were willing to campaign for approval.
I believe the conclusion that we can draw from that overwhelming victory is that the Citizens of Flint desperately want and support basic reforms to governance in Flint. I do not believe that they were of the mind that there were a couple of problems that needed correction. I believe they sought—in an overall fashion– the significant and broad elements of change presented in the Charter.
Implementation of the Charter is going slower than I had hoped, but not necessarily slower than I expected. Just as a cruise ship can’t turn on a dime, building an effective governmental culture takes time and effort. One of the items that we clarified and set forth in the Charter was the process by which Citizens could ensure enforcement of the Charter through the courts. So, I expect that if implementation drags too long, it will be utilized by citizens.
49th State House District:
EVM Editor Jan Worth-Nelson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.