State Rep. John Proos, R-St. Joseph, was elected to his first term in the Michigan House of Representatives in November 2004 by the citizens of Berrien County’s 79th District, which includes the communities of Benton Harbor, Bridgman, Coloma, Shorham, Stevensville, St. Joseph and Watervliet, and the townships of Bainbridge, Benton, Coloma, Hagar, Lake, Lincoln, Royalton, Sodus, St. Joseph and Watervliet. Over the past 10 years, Rep. Proos worked on the staff of U.S. Rep. Fred Upton, R-St. Joseph, serving in several different capacities, most recently as deputy chief of staff and district director. He also worked as vice president of Heritage Homes, Inc., of Michigan in Berrien County. Rep. Proos has served as Berrien County Republican Party chairman and has been a member of the Berrien County Republicans. He is also active in many southwestern Michigan organizations, including the Rotary Club of St. Joseph/Benton Harbor and the United Way of Southwest Michigan. Rep. Proos is also a member of the Lakeland Regional Health System Community Benefits Committee and serves as a mentor for Benton Harbor Area Schools. A 1988 graduate of Lake Michigan Catholic High School, Rep. Proos holds a bachelor of Political Science from Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wis., and a master’s degree in Higher Education Administration from Michigan State University. A lifelong resident of Berrien County, he resides in St. Joseph with his wife, Kristy, and their two children, Elena and Jack.
The follow interview with Contact Magazine Editor Al Zawacky took place in Lansing in mid-October.
Q. First of all, are you a credit union member or have you had any experiences with credit unions in the past?
A. I am a credit union member — my wife and I both. We’re members at First Resource FCU (SW) in St. Joseph. We joined in 1998, and the experience has been very positive. We’re using several different products at First Resource right now, including car loans. The service I really like is the ability to do on-line transactions — it’s a great time saver and certainly makes life a lot easier. And I’ve know their CEO, Dave Weichhand, for quite a long time. He’s a good friend and a great guy.
Q. How would you rate credit unions advocacy efforts both back home in the district and in Lansing?
A. Very good. Without making comparison to my other friends in the financial services industry, I do know from experience that First Resource and the other credit unions in the area are very active in their governmental advocacy, both at the state and federal levels.
One of my roles as deputy chief of staff and district director for Congressman Upton was to handle his schedule and make sure his time was allocated as efficiently as possible whenever he was home in the district. The credit union representatives were always wonderful to work with; we were always able to arrange at least one breakfast meeting every year with credit unions in the area. And one of the things I was impressed with was how well these people represent not only credit unions, but their community — many of them are pillars in the community, in fact, involved in a lot of things in addition to credit unions.
Q. How has your experience working for Congressman Upton helped you transition into your role as a lawmaker? Has this enabled you to “hit the ground running,” so to speak, here in Lansing?
A. I think this experience has been invaluable — particularly in the area of constituent services. When I worked for Congressman Upton, I was responsible for making sure that his constituent service office was well run, and that constituents were listened to respectfully and got whatever help we could offer. We may not have always had the answer that a constituent wanted to hear, but certainly one of the skills an elected official has to have is the ability and willingness to listen and comprehend, and then take action.
One of the things you realize is that, by the time constituents come to you, they’re generally at their wit’s end. They’ve gone through many departments, bureaus, agencies — what people often refer to disparagingly as “the bureaucracy” — and that can be a very frustrating experience. If we can cut through red tape and help a constituent with a problem, then we’re doing what we’re supposed to do. An appreciation for this process and how it works is something that I’ve been able to start with here in Lansing in my role as a state representative.
Q. How would you rate the experience of your first nine months of office?
A. I think it’s been very positive, and an excellent learning experience. Certainly I felt that I came here with a great deal of understanding and experience on how to set up a constituent office and how to ensure that the people who live in our district are responded to in a timely fashion. When I sought to bring people on staff with me, my objective was to first bring somebody on board who understood the 79th District, and so I was glad to be able to hire Becky Henley, who formerly worked on Congressman Upton’s staff. But I also knew that I didn’t have the legislative experience here in the state capital, with all the nuances that are unique to the Michigan Legislature. So I wanted to have someone who could assist in that area, and Mike Weber has been a tremendous asset, having previously worked with former Michigan House Speaker Rick Johnson. I think we have a very good team here.
Q. Michigan House Speaker Craig DeRoche, R-Novi, appointed you vice chairman of the House Energy and Technology Committee. Have you been involved in the telecommunications act re-write, and if so, are there any details you can share?
A. I’ve been very much involved, and that’s largely thanks to Energy and Technology Committee Chairman Mike Nofs, R-Battle Creek, who sought input from Minority Vice Chairman Frank Accavitti, D-Eastpointe, and me. The three of us have worked very closely together through the last five to six months, researching the current act, which sunsets at the end of the year, and proposing updates relating to new technology.
This has been a very rewarding experience, and I’ve been able to contribute some of my knowledge and understanding of the federal telecommunications laws. Congressman Upton was, and still is, the chairman of the Commerce Committee’s Telecommunication and the Internet Subcommittee, and he’s in the process of helping update federal telecommunications laws. So our discussions have bridged that gap between what is happening in Washington and what’s happening here in Michigan. And the guiding principles we’re using are establishing and maintaining strong consumer protection while at the same time creating a legislative and regulatory environment that is conducive to growth and investment by the telecommunications industry. We need to spur as much innovation, growth and development as we possibly can. If we can do that, it’ll mean an improved state infrastructure, more employment and a better future for everyone in Michigan.
Q. One concern among entrepreneurs and small businesses is having the access to capital necessary to grow and expand. Credit unions have been working hard to fill the need for more small business loans. Could you comment on the value of small business in your own community, especially in areas that are being revitalized like Benton Harbor?
A. There’s no question that small business is the lifeblood of the Michigan economy. Small businesses account for more than 50 percent of Michigan’s gross domestic product, and we need to remember that many of the largest corporations in our state can trace their origins back to small entrepreneurs who had a good idea and were willing to take risks. Whirlpool, to take an example from my own district, started out as two brothers who came up with an idea to build a product. That product line has changed and diversified over the years, but today Whirlpool is the largest appliance manufacturer in the world, employing 3,000 people in the twin cities of Benton Harbor and St. Joseph in southwest Michigan.
We in the Legislature have a responsibility to make sure that Michigan has a business climate that is friendly to today’s entrepreneurs and small business owners — so that we can find tomorrow’s Whirlpool, tomorrow’s Leco Corporation, tomorrow’s Ford Motor Company. It’s essential to our state’s future that small businesses start here in Michigan, grow and expand here in Michigan, and hire new employees here in Michigan.
Q. You have been touted by your fellow colleagues as an “up and coming” legislator. Any comment?
A. You’re only as good as the effort you put in at your job and the work you do with your colleagues. I don’t think a lawmaker should measure success by the kudos he or she receives. If I’m able to represent my district in a way that benefits the people who live there, then that to me is success.
Q. Under Michigan’s term limits, the longest anyone can serve in the Michigan House of Representatives is three terms or six years, meaning that you will likely no longer be a member of the Michigan House after 2010. Have you given any thought to what your future might be after that?
A. Of course, but — it’s way too soon to say. I distinctly remember the conversation I had with my wife about our decision on whether or not I should run for the Michigan House, and the issue that was most important was how this would impact our family. At the time, my wife was pregnant with our second child, and our first child was just a toddler. We both agreed that if serving in public office isn’t the right thing for our family, we won’t do it. I think everyone in public service, business or industry knows that you can’t succeed without the assistance and support of your spouse. Any decision I make down the road will involve a number of factors, but first and foremost among them would be whether or not it’s right for my family.
Q. Any issues that we haven’t touched on that you’d like to address?
A. Well — for entertainment purposes only — Notre Dame is an 111/2 point underdog this weekend against USC, and I’m not happy about that. However — take the Irish and the 111/2 — I think that’s a good number!
Q. I may take that advice! Thanks for your time, Rep. Proos.
A. My pleasure.