Other articles by the same author
- Legacy of playing together updated
- In Season: August 29, 2015 updated
Michael Johnston, retired schoolteacher, challenged six term incumbent Richard VanderMolen for the Kent County Commission seat in the 13th district.
At first, it was reported that Johnston had won by a narrow five votes, but later it was discovered that some errors had happened when entering ballots at one precinct. The correction of the error brought VanderMolen up with 32 more votes than Johnston.
Before the error was corrected, VanderMolen reported that he believed he had lost the race due to a third candidate who had garnered 6% of the votes.
"That was Judith Kapteyn," says Johnston. "I didn't know her, and I met her on the night of the Chamber of Commerce endorsed open forum. My opponent wasn't there, which was shocking actually. He was endorsed by the Chamber of Commerce. I got to know Judith-at least as much as you can when you're there. We were asked questions and Judith turned to me and said you know, you're more like what I'm running on with your background. She was running very much as a one-issue candidate, with the courts. And as I listened, I thought You're right Judith-I probably share a lot of your same views on that. Dick said that he thought that cost him votes, and I guess I would disagree. I mean, the candidate herself said I was probably more in agreement with her. I think it would probably have gone more [in my direction] if Judith hadn't been in the race, just based on her comments."
Johnston says he ran his campaign "on a shoestring," visiting over 2500 homes and speaking with over 1000 registered voters in his area.
"Out of that 1000, 11 people knew who their current county commissioner was. He's been in office 20 years-about half of those on the Kentwood School Board and the other half on the Kent County Commission, and so for me and the people in the area, it was kind of astonishing because good or bad, you usually hear something," says Johnston.
Johnston's campaign ran on the idea of keeping in very close contact with his constituents.
"I just believe that when you tap into the voters, and get their opinions, their views, their resources and then you talk back and forth, it really enriches the community. Especially now that we're so diverse, we're missing out on tremendous creativity," he says. "A lot of people don't know what the county commission does. I really believe as a retired teacher that you need to keep lines of communication open. It's fundamental. …I've heard all about the issues in Kentwood and I also heard great ideas [from the public] on how to handle them. None of that has been tapped into. So between Facebook, website, column maybe in the local paper, I intend [if I win] to keep very close relationship with the voters so it's a two-way communication."
Johnston's favorite part of the campaign, he says, was getting to know voters and helping first-time voters-especially on election day when he had the chance to help many first-time voters, new citizens in Kentwood, understand their ballot.
"I was there 13 hours [in the parking lot on election day], and many were first-time voters. I'm proud to say that I helped over 200 of them with a rather complicated ballot," he says. "It was one of the highlights of my whole campaign. You know, you're allowed to campaign beyond the 100 foot mark from the door, and I was 200 feet. So I had a card table and I had the ballots on foam core so people could come over and I would help them. It was a complicated ballot for everybody, much less first time citizens."
Johnston says he feels it is part of the job of the commissioner to represent those new citizens.
"Kentwood is an incredibly diverse community. It's changed dramatically even since 2008. As you know, West Michigan was basically settled by immigrants-originally they were Dutch and Polish and German… fast forward, we have a large immigrant population. On the Board of Commissioners, one of the biggest things is to represent all of those new citizens, just like back then. It took a while for those new citizens to get integrated fully," he says.
It is still to be determined if Johnston will be able to represent the citizens in his district. Currently, the vote tally is in official canvassing, which will be completed November 20, after which point Johnston will have a chance to challenge the canvassing and ask for a recount, if he desires to do so. Either way, says Johnston, he ran a good campaign.
"We went door to door and my opponent has been in office for 12 years, six terms, and most people didn't know him. I think that going door to door and running a very grassroots campaign is why we came so close to winning. I have no regrets. Even if it looks like I have lost, I can't think of anything differently that I would do," says Johnston. "I loved hearing the voters' stories."
Please note: The above video was created, says Johnston, as an homage to the late Minnesota Senator Paul Wellstone, who created a now famous 30 second commercial called "Fast Paul" to announce his grass roots.
the red penner, ink slinger, storyteller, page changer. when not working as the managing editor at The Rapidian, holly is typically found scribbling in her journal, playing in her studio, getting muddy in the garden, or experimenting in the kitchen. she has a not-so-tiny boy for a son and a very patient man for a husband.