Lower takes on Lansing: A day in the life of a freshman state rep


By Elisabeth Waldon • Last Updated 6:22 pm on Sunday, April 02, 2017

Jim Lower, the Michigan State House representative for the 70th District, stands in front of the state Capitol in Lansing, where the Republican from Cedar Lake spends much of his work week. — Daily News/Elisabeth Waldon

LANSING — A portrait of Theodore Roosevelt and a bust of Thomas Jefferson are prominently displayed in the downtown Lansing office of Michigan State House Rep. Jim Lower.

Jefferson and Roosevelt were both Republican presidents, but that’s where their similarities end.

Jefferson, an attorney, was a founding father who drafted the Declaration of Independence and called for limited government, setting the tone for a young nation’s future. He organized the Louisiana Purchase, nearly doubling U.S. territory, and appointed the Lewis and Clark expedition to take advantage of the acquisition.

Roosevelt led an adventurous life, including stints as an explorer and soldier, but he wasn’t welcomed by the Republican establishment. Yet he unexpectedly became president when William McKinley was assassinated. Roosevelt was known for being a progressive reformer who declared war on corruption and expanded government’s powerful reach.

Lower, who has been in office three months, likes to fancy himself a bit Jefferson — with a penchant for drafting and restructuring legislation — and a bit Roosevelt — a high energy go-getter. The presence of the two presidents in his office is a constant reminder of the balance between championing limited government and taking advantage of government powers.

A proud supporter of Donald Trump, Lower wants to challenge the status quo and take on the establishment, but he also wants to eliminate red tape and inefficient practices.

Lower’s office is on the 10th floor of the State House Building. His desk is situated next to a large picture window which frames the Capitol building across the street. Photos of Lower and his wife Kristen — a vet tech who also managed his campaign — adorn the desk. Roosevelt dominates the wall above the desk while Jefferson keeps a watchful eye from across the room.

There’s nothing random about Lower and his approach to being a state representative.

“There’s reason and purpose to literally everything I do,” he says.

 

FIRST 160 DAYS

Rep. Jim Lower enjoys a brief break in between a busy Wednesday of meetings catching up with his legislative director Danielle Sirianni on the 10th floor of the Michigan House Office Building in downtown Lansing. — Daily News/Elisabeth Waldon

Forget the typical significance of a politician’s first 100 days in office — Lower started working on his first legislation the day after he was elected last November. He got a two-month head start on his 42 freshman colleagues and he’s still trying to run ahead.

“He says this all the time: You only get six years, if you’re lucky, and we’re already three months in,” says Lower’s legislative director Danielle Sirianni.

“The mood is very positive, it’s what can we get done today?” she said. “What can we do to better Michigan? He’s looking for solutions. We have a lot of people who come in and complain, and he’s very consistent in asking them to also bring solutions with their complaints.”

Lower is a leader in his party — he was selected by his colleagues to serve on House Speaker Tom Leonard’s leadership team as chief deputy whip for the Republican Caucus — and he acts like a man in charge.

It’s not yet 10:30 a.m. on a Wednesday, but Lower has been in motion since before sunrise.

His alarm goes off at 5:50 a.m. and he tries to leave his home in Cedar Lake by 6:30 a.m. so he can get to Lansing by 7:30 a.m. Sometimes he listens to music in his car — a 2010 Ford Fusion already loaded with 240,000 miles — but more often than not he spends the drive making phone calls. He claims to have an almost eidetic memory.

“I don’t have to write it down,” he says. “I will remember it.”

Lower stops by two fundraising breakfasts around 8 a.m., grabbing fruit and coffee at both. Then he heads to his office for some quiet time before meetings get underway.

At 9 a.m. Lower meets with officials from the Michigan Chemistry Council — which represents BASF, Dow Chemical and Amway — to discuss energy policies. At 9:30 a.m., he meets with the Michigan Professional Firefighters Union, followed by a meeting with officials from Michigan Legislative Consultants and Direct Energy at 10 a.m. (again, to talk about energy, as Lower is a member of the Energy Committee).

 

HIS FIRST BILL

From left, Michigan Sheriffs’ Association Executive Director Blaine Koops, Kent County Sheriff Lawrence Stelma and Rep. Jim Lower listen Wednesday as Montcalm County Sheriff Mike Williams testifies before the Michigan House Local Government Committee on behalf of Lower’s House Bill which would allow financially distressed counties to apply for grants to fund sheriff’s deputies. — Daily News/Elisabeth Waldon

Lower has Tax Policy Committee at 10:30 a.m. After the hourlong meeting, he returns to his office to briefly check in with Sirianni before heading to Local Government Committee, which he chairs.

The meeting begins at noon, but Lower wants to get there early. He’s introducing his first bill and he’s in an especially buoyant mood. House Bill 4423 would create the Sheriff Patrol Assistance for Financially Distressed Communities Program for counties that lost five or more deputies between 2007 and 2017.

Lower is hoping $15 million will be approved for his bill, which would help Michigan’s 22 most financially struggling counties. Reimbursement from the state would be based on the current rate counties charge to contract deputies with local municipalities.

Lower wrote the legislation with Montcalm County in mind, as Montcalm County has lost 12 deputy positions since 2011 — nine of those positions in the last year alone.

Lower invited Montcalm County Sheriff Mike Williams to testify in support of the bill, along with Kent County Sheriff Larry Stelma and Michigan Sheriff’s Association Executive Director Blaine Koops.

Lower turned the meeting over to 38th District Rep. Kathy Crawford so Lower could testify on behalf of his bill along with the three sheriffs.

Williams noted multiple ballot proposals have failed in Montcalm County in past years, including two law enforcement millage proposals in 2002, two law enforcement millage proposals in 2012 and a Headlee override millage proposal in 2016.

“We’ve done everything we can to supplement our revenues,” Williams said. “This bill would be very helpful to three-quarters of my county.”

“This is a problem that is affecting all of law enforcement in Michigan,” added Koops, noting that Michigan has lost more than 4,000 certified law enforcement officials — going from a high of 23,157 officers in 2004 to a current low of 19,084 officers. “That’s why we support this legislation. Right now we are not safer than we were eight years ago.”

 

ON THE FLOOR

Michigan State House 70th District Rep. Jim Lower, left, and 99th District Rep. Roger Hauck walk with their brown bag lunches to the Capitol in Lansing to grab a bite to eat before Wednesday afternoon’s House session begins. — Daily News/Elisabeth Waldon

After the meeting, Lower and 99th District Rep. Roger Hauck of Mount Pleasant walk several blocks to Zoup! where Lower orders a turkey sandwich and soup. The colleagues take their brown bag lunches and hustle to the Capitol building where they manage to eat a few bites before the House session gets underway at 1:30 p.m.

The House is comprised of 110 representatives and, unlike its quieter neighbor the Senate with 38 senators, the House floor has the noisy, excited atmosphere of a buzzing hive of worker bees. Lower works the room, having multiple informal but important visits with his colleagues, only returning to his desk to cast a vote electronically.

When Lower is at his desk, he sits next to 102nd District Rep. Michele Hoitenga of Manton, who is chairwoman of the House Communications & Technology Committee. She jokingly says Lower always shares his last cookies with her on the House floor when her stomach is growling.

“He’s a truly effective leader for many of us in the freshman class,” Hoitenga said. “He is always a phone call or text away when I have a policy question or just need an understanding ear to listen when I am frustrated. I value his advice and guidance because I know he cares about the issues and about the people around him.”

Lower’s desk is near the back of the room, not far from Rep. Thomas Albert of Lowell who represents Lower’s neighboring 86th District and is chairman of the House Financial Liability Reform Committee.

“Jim is the real deal,” Albert said. “He is a great colleague, he has a deep understanding of policy and, most importantly, he puts his constituents first.”

Caucus gathers at 2:40 p.m.

“Caucus is really interesting,” Lower shared. “Since it’s confidential, people will tell you what they really think of a bill, and that’s the point. It’s to air any problems that we have and see where we’re at. It’s a final step before we put something up for a vote in the House.”

Lower is back in his office by 3:15 p.m. to meet with Secretary of State officials about a package of proposed election reform bills. Although he doesn’t believe anything inappropriate occurred during the state’s last election, he wants to make changes to restore voter confidence in the election process. He hopes the bills will be ready to introduce in the House in the next three weeks.

Lower’s final meeting of the day winds down by 4:20 p.m.

“There’s always the pre-meeting, the meeting and the post-meeting,” he semi-jokes.

His schedule allows him some rare downtime before a dinner at DeLuca’s Pizza in Lansing with his wife and colleagues. Lower looks forward to the gathering as an opportunity to let loose and have fun with his fellow representatives.

“People say of politics, ‘Oh, the reps don’t really know each other,’” he declared. “Maybe that’s true in D.C., but it’s not true here. I make it my business to know everybody.”

Rep. Jason Wentworth of Clare, who represents the 97th District and is chairman of the House Military & Veterans Committee, backs this up.

“I have been impressed with Jim’s ability to anticipate obstacles, his unique ability to build lasting relationships and his ability to think about all factors when crafting policy,” Wentworth said. “Jim has an innate ability to know when to move forward with a decision and drive issues to closure through bringing others along with him. Jim takes ownership of everything around him, he leads through his actions and he is consistently accountable.”

 

SPRING BREAK

Rep. Jim Lower is chairman of the Michigan House Local Government Committee. Lower introduced his first bill at this committee Wednesday: Legislation aimed at providing grants to municipalities that have lost sheriff’s deputies, such as Montcalm County. — Daily News/Elisabeth Waldon

Evening is approaching, but Lower is full of energy as ever, gesturing with his hands while talking. He only has one cup of coffee in the morning — he likes it for the taste.

Lower doesn’t need caffeine. He’s always been full of ambitious energy. A middle child with two sisters, Lower says his parents instilled in him a passion for hard work. His father, Matt, previously worked at Greenville’s Electrolux before it was shuttered and now works as a draftsman at Greenville’s Aga Marvel. His mother, Karen, worked for Ionia County’s Michigan State Extension Office for 20 years.

Lower completed a bachelor’s degree in economics in two years, followed by a master’s degree in business administration in two years. He was easily the youngest member of the Ionia County Board of Commissioners, where he served alongside Julie Calley of Portland, who is also a freshman representative this term for the 87th District.

Lower was a legislative assistant in the House and Senate, then took a job as Edmore’s village manager for a year and a half (his Twitter handle is still @JamesEdmore) before resigning to run for House.

“James is one of the few freshmen who was able to hit the ground running,” Calley noted.

Since the House is in session Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays, those are the busiest days of Lower’s week. Mondays and Fridays are more flexible, giving him opportunities to meet with constituents. He tries to avoid working on Sundays, opting to attend church and spend quality time with his wife.

The House will be on spring break the next two weeks, but Lower will hardly be on vacation. He plans to work on legislation, meet with representatives, senators and constituents, tour businesses and travel to neighboring districts to help his colleagues with their own issues and projects.

“With term limits, I have a maximum of six years in the House to make a difference for our state,” he said. “I cannot afford to waste any time.”

 

LOWER’S HOURS

70th District State Rep. Jim Lower, R-Cedar Lake, will host the following office hours events to meet with constituents:

• 9:30 to 11 a.m. April 21 at Wendy’s in Alma

• noon to 1:30 p.m. April 24 at Montcalm Community College’s Les Morford Instructional Building

• noon to 1:30 p.m. May 19 at The Rusty Nail in Carson City

• 2:30 to 4 p.m. May 22 at Catch 120 Grill (the former Ed’s Restaurant on M-46) near Howard City

Lower can be contacted via email at JamesLower@house.mi.gov, by phone at (517) 373-0834 or by mail at S-1089 House Office Building, P.O. Box 30014, Lansing, MI 48909. Visit gophouse.org/representatives/central/lower/ for more information about Lower’s office hours, proposed legislation and committees.

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