Getting involved and questioning the rules

October 25, 2010
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The biggest break Andy Johnston has experienced so far in his work life included pots and pans. Spoons and plates, too.

Johnston, who directs legislative affairs for the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce, had a career-deciding epiphany because of his job doing dishes at a sorority house in East Lansing.

Before Johnston trekked off to Michigan State University, a neighbor he admired greatly gave him some advice that ultimately took Johnston down his career path. The elderly neighbor, whom Johnston respectfully called "grandpa," told him to try to get a handicapped parking pass at MSU and to become a dishwasher at a sorority house. He didn't apply for the parking pass, but he did get a job at the Delta Gamma sorority house.

"Because of the relationships I made there, I met one of the alumnae of the sorority. After a night of talking politics, she said, 'You can come work for me.' So I got an internship," he said. "After having that experience of working with the Michigan Republican Party and helping to plan and run and execute their Mackinac Leadership Conference, the political bug just bit me hard."

Johnston earned a degree in international relations and public policy from MSU's James Madison College, and also studied to be a teacher. And if he hadn't washed dishes at the sorority house, he might be working in a classroom today instead of in the chamber's Pearl Street office.

"Who knows? Things tend to unfold themselves as they should. Teaching is something I'd still really, really like to do at some point down the line. I love doing the reverse job-shadow days and talking at my old middle school to the seventh and eighth graders about what I do at the chamber. It's really exciting. I'm very passionate. I loved school growing up, and I want to share that enthusiasm with kids," he said.

"I also remember being on Mackinac Island thinking that I love teaching and that it's something that I want to go back and do, but I'm going to see where this takes me. I've driven in a presidential motorcade as a volunteer and in a vice presidential motorcade, and I wanted to see where those experiences were going to take me."

Years later, those experiences led him to the Grand Rapids chamber. Johnston came to the chamber in 2005 from the Michigan Senate, where he worked as an aide to Republican Sen. Jason Allen.

"That was a great experience because he represents northern Michigan from Traverse City to Rogers City and all the way to the Sault, and to see that part of the state was great. Those smaller communities up in northern Michigan love their parades, and Jason Allen was in every one of them. There is nothing like being behind the Posen Potato Parade's polka truck for like an hour," he said with a laugh.

"I'm one of those fortunate people in that I truly do love my job. I love representing the small businesses out there. It takes such an enormous amount of risk to go out there and start a business, and they're the ones that create value and wealth and jobs in our society. I feel like I'm trying to look out for them and trying to create an environment that is going to help them succeed, because if they succeed everybody succeeds, and we'll all be a lot better off," he said.

"I've always been interested and excited about politics, partly because I love to question why, and why the rules are the way they are and why can't they be changed. So, to do what I do for the chamber means I get to have a role in setting those rules and how our community and our state is going to be shaped," he said.

GRACC President Jeanne Englehart, who is leaving the post in a few months, said Johnston is passionate about helping the chamber's members. "He has the rare ability to listen to members' concerns and translate those issues into action. Whether it's helping someone with a permitting problem, a tax issue, or providing advice to aspiring political candidates, he is the 'go-to' person. He has earned the respect of our board members, the staff and the community. Andy represents the best of the chamber and is a great example of our commitment to the community and our members," said Englehart. "He is a terrific young man and a huge asset to our chamber team."

Jared Rodriguez, senior vice president of government affairs for the chamber, said Johnston leads the chamber's health and wellness initiatives, is a great advocate for the business community, and always looks for the positive side of legislation or problems in Lansing.

"Andy is a tireless advocate for our chamber membership and takes customer service to a new level. He has helped various members throughout the years with every problem imaginable, from water leaking into their basements, to sign ordinances, to persons breaking chairs outside downtown eateries. Finding a solution is his number one priority," said Rodriguez.

"Overall, Andy is a committed team player, always looking to learn and further develop professionally. Having hired Andy in 2005 and having worked with him for five years, I know there's no one better to have on your side," he added.

Andy and Claire have been married for four years and celebrated their anniversary by taking a cruise to the Bahamas. They live in Lowell with a 9-year-old Boston terrier named Brutus. Andy has known Claire for quite a while, and he swears he never resented her for what she did to him a long time ago.

"She beat me in the first election I ever ran in. I was the alternate to her being the class representative in sixth grade. We were good friends throughout high school, but didn't end up dating until our junior year of college at Michigan State. My mom used to always go through the yearbook and pick out the girls I should be dating in high school. Claire was always in the top three," he said.

"It's just awesome being married to somebody who is your really good friend and partner. That's a pretty special thing that doesn't happen all the time."

Claire majored in classical studies at MSU and earned an archeology master's at Florida State University. Today, she is the curator and education director of Charlton Park in Hastings. The park stretches across 310 acres along Thornapple Lake in Barry County and features a historic village and museum.

"So I'm a forced volunteer," he said with a smile. "It's like a mini-Greenfield Village, and I get to staff a hardware store or the general store. I've also learned how to demonstrate blacksmithing — but poorly — to people who come out."

Having that long relationship with Claire isn't unique for Andy. A few years ago, he was up north celebrating a friend's birthday with other friends and a waitress asked how the guys knew each other. "We looked around the table and said, 'We all went to pre-school together.' So I definitely have some lifelong relationships that have played an important role (in my life)," he said.

Kim and Joni Johnston, his parents, have been key figures in his life. Kim is a chiropractor and small business owner. He owns and operates Johnston Chiropractic Offices at 34 Burton St. SW, and has instilled a fondness for small businesses in Andy. Joni taught third grade in the special education curriculum at Godwin, helped with millage campaigns, served on a school board, and now works at the Alternative High School in the Godfrey-Lee system. She gave Andy his affection for education. "They've been great role models," he said.

Johnston stays active in the community. Healthy Kent 2010, the West Michigan Film Video Alliance, the West Michigan Film Office and the Lowell Light & Power board are a few of the nonprofit groups with which he is regularly involved. He also serves on a lot of committees through his post at the chamber, such as the Alliance for Health and Activate West Michigan, while also volunteering for Junior Achievement.

"It's one of my passions — to get really involved. Everybody is always looking for good board members. I just went through the Leadership Grand Rapids class and that was one of the things they really stressed. The reason I'm in politics and public policy is because you've got to get involved to make a difference," he said.

In his spare time, Johnston likes to golf and he also more recently has begun playing disc golf at Fallasburg Park near his home in Lowell. "I'm also a beginning home brewer," he said.

"I'm also an information junkie and that's one of the reasons I love my job at the chamber because it involves so many different things, and just to be up-to-speed on different things goes hand-in-hand with that."

As the person who directs legislative affairs for the chamber, Johnston is busier than usual during an election season. He educates legislative candidates and others running for public office as to the legislative priorities of business owners and why those issues are significant to them.

"With term limits, that role is even becoming more important. Four thousand bills are introduced every legislative session, and it takes a long time to become an expert on these issues. So I'm hoping to be a resource for them so they can learn about what our issues are and, hopefully, introduce and get policy enacted that will improve the business environment. Yeah, it's a little busier but we're always running a mile a minute at the chamber — and I like that," he said.

"We need to get substantive reform enacted that is going to set the stage for a long-term, sustainable plan for Michigan that is going to revitalize the state."

As for his own long-term, sustainable plan, the Business Journal wondered if Johnston would consider running for office.

"I get asked that question a lot, and I should probably have a snappy answer to it. It's something I've thought about. I love what I do right now, but I think if an opportunity presents itself, I think I would need to jump at it. I love to serve the community and that's what I get to do in my job. If an opportunity came up in an elected office, I'd love to do that, too."

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