By Jan Worth-Nelson and Tom Travis
When somebody texted John Cherry at home early in the morning after election night Nov. 8 to tell him the Democrats had taken the majority in the Michigan Legislature, he says he “literally started crying.”
The next morning, he hurried from Flint into his Lansing office as a state representative, a position he had held since 2018. On the wall, there was a white board listing all the bills he had been proposing and hoped to pass.
“I went down that list one by one and I said, “yeah, I can get that one done…We can do that…we’ll be able to do that” — all the stuff I was working really, really hard to do, and the world of possibility opened up.”
It was a great moment after years in the minority for Cherry, 37, newly elected that same night to a four-year term as State Senator — District 27 — replacing his friend, neighbor and colleague James Ananich. Ananich had term-limited out and is now CEO of the Greater Flint Health Coalition.
The 27th District expands Cherry’s previous constituency as a state rep: it includes part of Burton and all of Clayton Township, Flint, Flint Township, Flushing, Flushing Township, Gaines Township, Grand Blanc, Grand Blanc Township, Mount Morris, Mount Morris Township, Mundy Township, and Swartz Creek.
In an interview in his new office in the State Senate office building in Lansing, surrounded by artifacts of his hometown and the multi-generational political family he comes from, Cherry said he’s embracing “a very full schedule” as things ramp up in the new legislative era.
That particular day, Valentine’s Day, was haunted — the building and the seat of state government almost empty following the mass shooting at Michigan State the night before.
All of Cherry’s meetings that day were cancelled, but he came in from Flint anyway because, he said, ” I can’t afford to lose a day” — the raw tragedy of the night before, he asserted, sure to propel Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and the newly empowered Democratic majority even more definitively toward a slate of “common sense gun reform measures” which Cherry strongly supports.
As the new majority gets organized, Cherry is taking multiple committee assignments, reflecting his background, experience, and interests in both the policy and appropriations sides. He is chair of the Labor Committee, Agriculture and Natural Resources Appropriations Subcommittee, and the General Government Appropriations Subcommittee.
He’s also vice chair of the Natural Resource and Agriculture Committee.
“I’ve been fortunate in my committee appointments,” he said, “in that they align with a lot of the things that I’m concerned about.”
There are many bills pending with hopeful prospects. With other Democrats, he’s eager to see Senate Bill 4, amending the Elliot Larsen Civil Rights act to include LGBTQ citizens in civil rights protections. (Cherry’s staff said on Tuesday a vote is expected in the Senate any day this week) He’s co-sponsoring bills establishing universal lead screening and furthering a Jim Ananich proposal requiring schools and day care centers to install lead filters — that bill made it through the Senate but languished in a house committee.
He’s expecting — or at least working toward — a repeal of the retirement tax, an expansion of the Working Families Tax Credit including earned income tax credit; inflation relief checks; and semi-permanent funding source for the Strategic Outreach and Attraction Reserve (SOAR) the state’s economic development fund.
Cherry’s devotion to public service has been nurtured through a firm and longstanding family tradition. He is John Cherry III. His father, John Cherry, Jr., was a state representative for decades and the state’s lieutenant governor under Gov. Jennifer Granholm. His mother, Pam Faris, also was a state representatives from 2013 -2018. And his aunt, Deb Cherry, is the Genesee County treasurer.
His grandfather, John Cherry, Sr., worked for Bell Telephone but also was elected as the Montrose Township supervisor decades ago. His grandson still has the clipboard the senior Cherry carried in campaigning door to door — Sen. Cherry himself carried it with him while campaigning last year.
His family has always operated on three basic premises: work hard, be honest, and try to help the folks you represent.
“I think I’m very lucky in the sense that I was born into a family whose perspective on public service is as mature as it is: there are just a few basic things that you go by. It all boils down to those same three things.
“There’s a lot of political scandals that pop up, but if you follow those three things, a lot of the silliness goes away — you don’t get into problems when you hold onto those things.
Initially, Cherry came to politics reluctantly. As a University of Michigan — Ann Arbor student, he started out as a history/political science major but “hated it,” he says with a smile, and switched to natural resources and the environment, getting his degree in natural resources. Eventually, he got a masters in public policy from Ann Arbor as well.
“I told myself I would never run for elected office,” he says. He and his wife Teresa started a coffee business, Flint Coffee Company, importing from her family in her native Peru.
But then,, with an evolving taste for policy matters, he got interested in the Flint City Charter revision process, and ran for election to the charter commission in 2015. He was the top vote-getter and as vice-chair of the commission helped steer the charter revision through to the voters, who approved it 2-1. It took effect in 2018, the first revisions of the charter in more than 40 years. “That was a generational thing, and it involved policy minutia,” he said. “I like that.”
Following that, he ran for state representative in a race that drew wide attention because his competition in the primary was Dayne Walling, Flint’s former mayor, who after getting defeated during the water crisis was trying to edge back into politics. But Walling’s painful and decisive defeat by the new kid wasn’t the only way the water crisis propelled Cherry’s further entry into politics.
The water crisis, after all, burst unwelcome into the scene while the charter revision was going on.
“Watching stuff, in a way I felt ashamed — maybe that’s the best term — because that event was an event of government mismanagement.
“Because of the circumstances that fate dealt, I have the ability to be more impactful than other people — because I understand politics. Even if I swore off of it, I understand government, I was surrounded by everything — but I had decided to not involve myself in that.”
Yet he couldn’t escape the reality of what was happening. His own neighborhood was affected, and he knew people personally directly hurt by the water crisis damage. At the end of the day he felt compelled to take the next step in political involvement.
He said, “If you have the ability to have an impact and you don’t, then there is a degree of responsibility there.”
In his new office, there isn’t a white board yet. But he can tell you several things that were on it and which are of particular concern to him. One involves manufactured housing reform and another, a proposal to facilitate pension benefits for state corrections officers.
He described how, his first year in office as a state rep, during coffee hours at Swartz Creek senior center, he learned that a company out of Utah called Haven Park had purchased some mobile home communities and was “engaging in unsavory business practices and really jacking up rent.” .
At many manufactured home parks, the residents own their own homes, but not the land they’re anchored on — making them vulnerable to the property owners. Investigating further, he found that same company had purchased communities in Fenton area and his colleague, Republican State Rep. Mike Mueller, was hearing the same things.
Cherry and Mueller brainstormed possibilities and developed a bi-partisan bill package detailing “the most significant reform in manufactured housing regulation in decades.” He and Mueller ended up getting consumer advocacy groups, industrial association supporting it, got it through the house overwhelmingly– but it died last year in the Senate.
“tured home communities, and “if you don’t have regular oversight, it’s very easy to exploit people…the name ‘mobile home’ implies more mobility than exists — many have a compromised ability to move their house, and if you can’t afford the rent on the land, you can be evicted.”
The bi-partisan reform package, proposed last term (HB4296-HB4304) which Cherry expects to reintroduce and strengthen in a more comprehensive package, increases licensing requirements, weeds out bad actors, and would require fair market compensation to the owner if there’s a title transfer.
Cherry said between 300,000 and 500,000 live in manufactured housing communities in the state, many fixed or low income people. They don’t have high-powered lobbyists, or big PACs, but they are people who need help. he said.
He’s also eager to get to work on legislation to arrange for state conservation and corrections officers to be on a “defined benefits” schedule — a pension plan, in other words, instead of a 401K arrangement as most of them are now.The proposal would equalize benefits to those of state troopers.
Cherry says the reasoning is serious and sound: corrections officers in particular “have one of the hardest jobs in state government,” and many have shortened life expectancies or retire early — not giving them enough time through a 401K program to assure a secure retirement. Cherry’s staff confirmed they plan to introduce these bills by the end of February.
And as he plunges with renewed hope into the life of a legislator, Cherry is firmly bonded to his hometown, where his family recently added a new member, baby Ben, who joins six-year-old Diana. Diana attended day care at Mott Community College and takes dance lessons at the Flint School of Performing Arts
Cherry goes home every night to his house in Flint. He does all the family grocery shopping and might commonly be seen in blue jeans at the local Rite-Aid and elsewhere.
“It’s true — I genuinely live in my community,” he says.
And as a member of the new majority in state politics, he calls for an era of civility.
He concedes that being in the majority calls for somewhat different skills than those exercised by the minority. He recalls advice from his friend David LeGrand (D-Grand Rapids), narrowly defeated for a state senate seat in November, about the perils of majority rule.
“When you get in the majority, you can get arrogant, you can abuse power…If we want to get stuff done, we’re going to have to be humble, we’re going to have to plead…we have to be better internally in the minority if we want to achieve what we want to achieve… That has stuck with me. So, we’re in the majority and we should do what we think are good for the people of the State of Michigan, but I don’t want to be abjectly vindictive or bad to the folks on the other side of the aisle who may have good things that they want to do, and dismiss it because of the party that they’re in.
“There are people in our community who have always been represented by Democrats, and because of it being so partisan, some of the issues that they faced were not addressed, and that’s not right. If people in Lapeer have a major issue that needs to be addressed, I don’t want to stop because they’re being represented by a Republican.”
But he’s also prepared to keep his head on straight, unflustered and unmoved by cynical political manipulations.
“One of the things my dad told me when I got elected in 2018,” Cherry recalls, “was, just remember, your real friends are the ones you had before,and who live at home — not the ones in Lansing.”
EVM consulting editor Jan Worth-Nelson can be reached at email@example.com. Managing Editor Tom Travis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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