Late last year Hope College senior Johnny DeMaagd made two major life decisions in quick succession. In November he opened a coffee shop in Middleville, Michigan. Then, on Dec. 31, he announced his candidacy for state house representative of Michigan’s 87th district. DeMaagd says his interest in local politics grew out of his interactions with customers at his café, Left Field Coffee. As he listened to their concerns, he began to hear common themes. Internet access was spotty and inconsistent across the district, making it difficult for students to keep up with schoolwork. Roads were in poor condition. Auto insurance rates and healthcare expenses were unreasonable. DeMaagd liked being able to provide coffee and conversation to the residents of Middleville, but he wanted to do more.
As a representative, he would be able to begin addressing some of their problems. Although he’s officially running as a Democrat, DeMaagd’s platform formed not around his party’s views but around the issues expressed by Middleville residents. He wants the companies to provide better internet access in a region that has been underserved due to its socioeconomic status. He perceives a need for an overhaul in Michigan’s auto and health insurance industries. Environmental protection is also high on his agenda—he mentioned a concern for protecting Michigan’s precious freshwater resources. DeMaagd is a sociology and chemistry double major with a business minor, and he sees connections between the focuses of his campaign and his fields of study. His interest in people and the systems that shape their lives has drawn his attention to some of the dysfunctions in his district’s political structures. His background in science informs his understanding of the region’s environment and the importance of conserving it.
The framework of Hope’s liberal arts education has also encouraged him to think outside his majors and draw connections in a way that has broadened the scope of his learning. The election in which DeMaagd will run is still many months away, but he knows that he has plenty of work to do before 2020. He’ll need to raise a substantial amount of money for his campaign, and he’s aware that there are pitfalls in campaign financing. “It’s important to get truly local support,” he said. He explained that in state elections as in national ones, major businesses use their contributions to gain leverage over candidates. Elections are impacted not just by the unwanted influence of industries but by manipulation of district lines—DeMaagd mentioned that Michigan is one of the most heavily gerrymandered states in the country.
In addition to financial support, he’ll need connections. He’s started to network in local political circles, but he’s already come up against some of the obstacles associated with being a young political newcomer. “I’ve been looked down on because of my age,” he said, and added that he’d been told it would be a better idea for him just to work on someone else’s campaign. DeMaagd is aware he’s going up against tough odds—if he wins the primary, his opponent will be the experienced two-time incumbent Julie Calley—but he’s up for the challenge. With his concern for his district’s residents, his desire to influence policy based on his understanding of both the social and natural sciences and his strong connection to the region, he won’t let himself be disqualified.