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Inside Track: Rodriguez is comfortable being a voice for West Michigan
Calder Group founder seeks to help shape public policy and infuse clients’ interests at all levels of government.
Think of Jared Rodriguez as a policy wonk who has a soft spot for a certain city in Michigan.
Naming his start-up Calder Group PLLC was a deliberate choice for Rodriguez. He and his family may live in Portland, but it’s clear his heart is in Grand Rapids.
“The Calder is a prominent fixture in Grand Rapids,” he said, referring to the bright red sculpture in downtown, “La Grande Vitesse” by Alexander Calder. “I thought it was a good signal to send in West Michigan.”
2013 was an eventful year for Rodriguez. It included the birth of his fourth child, the launching of the Calder Group, and becoming co-chair of the Community Literacy Initiative, formerly known as Greater Grand Rapids Reads, a literacy nonprofit whose mission is to improve literacy for people of all ages in West Michigan.
Rodriquez said he agreed to join the Literacy Initiative for personal and professional reasons.
“I struggled at a young age with reading,” he said. “Reading didn’t come natural to me but not because of a learning disability such as dyslexia. And after third grade, you read to learn. I was still struggling then.”
The ability to master reading — and thus learn new skills — impacts the quality of West Michigan’s work force, Rodriguez said. It’s partly for that reason he believes it would be wise to expand the initiative’s outreach by getting other nonprofits to work together to achieve the same goals.
“One out of eight Kent County residents are considered ‘low literate,’” Rodriguez said. “There are a lot of good organizations that are right now focusing on early childhood education, such as First Steps, Believe to Become and Talent 2025. The challenge is to get other community initiatives to not be a ‘me too,’ but to start now to make those partnerships so we can leverage those pools of access that are already out there and form a regional plan beyond Kent County’s borders.”
Rodriguez said it was a step in the right direction when state legislators agreed with Gov. Rick Snyder to earmark an additional $130 million over two years for the Great Start Readiness Program. The funding will pay for an additional 16,000 children to receive a quality preschool experience.
“That was a big victory,” Rodriguez said. “I have seen many leaders break down silos and be very inclusive. If the region goes well, the state also goes well.”
Shaping public policy stokes Rodriguez for making needed reforms in state laws. That’s why his Calder Group has a quasi-mission. He describes it as a full-service issue advocacy, political campaign/organization management and fund development firm that seeks to help shape public policy and infuse clients’ interests at all levels of government. It also serves as a strategic partner for helping persuade and mobilize voters, donors and public officials in regulatory affairs, appropriations and public policy by, in part, building grassroots coalitions for clients in and outside the state of Michigan.
In February 2011, Rodriguez co-founded the nonprofit advocacy organization West Michigan Policy Forum as an independent entity. Previously, it had been part of the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce. As president, Rodriguez provided leadership, education and the voice of Michigan business executives to help guide the governor and Legislature in turning Michigan around.
Rodriguez had secured funding for and managed the WMPF’s biennial conference of Michigan CEOs since 2008. He led the efforts in developing the WMPF into a consortium of more than 600 business leaders from 11 Michigan counties with the dual task of creating an improved business climate and creating jobs.
Its initial goals included eliminating the Michigan business tax with corresponding spending reductions; implementing a right-to-work law; increasing funding for health care providers with effective prevention practices; streamlining Michigan’s permitting processes required to launch a new business; and updating funding for transportation infrastructure. Of those goals, increasing transportation funding and streamlining Michigan’s’ permit process remain a work in progress, Rodriguez said.
Rodriguez said he sees early signs of positive change with passage of the right-to-work law, which states that workers do not have to join a union.
“We’ve been told for years companies will not consider a state that’s under Right to Work,” he said. “By being a right-to-work state, it shows all the companies we have all the tools in the tool box to help grow better jobs in the state. It’s too early to tell how many companies will locate here. Companies do not want a hostile work force and employees do not want to part with their hard-earned dollars without a choice. A ‘right-to-work-force’ union is more focused on their customers rather than politicians.”
Before forming the West Michigan Policy Forum, Rodriguez served as the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce senior vice president of government affairs from December 2001 to February 2011. As the chamber’s chief lobbyist,he was responsible for all lobbying efforts at the federal, state and local levels of government.
“That was my break to get involved in helping the business community in West Michigan to succeed,” said Rodriguez. “It allowed me to get into lobbying policy work and change the work environment, and opened my passion to shape public policy in West Michigan.”
Under his direction, GRACC launched a successful Regional Policy Conference that helped to increase the chamber’s profile as a business lobbying association in the state.
In December 1999, Rodriguez served the Michigan House Republican Campaign Committee. His responsibilities included organizing regional fundraisers, implementing major donor programs and assisting the Speaker of the House with caucus messaging and fundraising. During his tenure with HRCC, Rodriguez was a leader in raising more than $1.5 million throughout 1999 and 2000. Helped by his fundraising efforts, the Michigan House Republicans maintained the first back-to-back House Republican majority in more than 40 years.
Rodriguez also has worked on central staff for the Michigan House of Representatives. As field staff for the House Republican Caucus Services, he focused on candidate research and member recruitment, as well as overseeing the re-election and daily office activities of two southeast Michigan representatives.
While he’s done his share of rubbing shoulders with elected officials, Rodriguez doesn’t have any plans to run for office — for now.
“I would never say never, but running for political office at this time in my life is not something I desire to do,” he said. “I would much rather be outside the legislative system, solving complex problems.”
Rodriguez is a graduate of James Madison College at Michigan State University where he received a Bachelor of Arts in international relations with a minor in economics.
He is decidedly old school when it comes to his work ethic and sees that as a definite positive.
“I was reared in a way that you need to work hard for what you want and need,” said Rodriguez. “It’s not going to be handed to you, and if you don’t do it, someone else will so you might as well give it a chance.”
What gets Rodriguez going in the morning isn’t the prospect of someone giving him an “attaboy” compliment.
“I’m not a person who needs a slap on the back — public notoriety,” he said. “I like to try and create the path — let’s try something different. If it doesn’t work out, it doesn’t work out. ‘It can’t be done’ isn’t in my vocabulary.”