By KENZIE TERPSTRA
Capital News Service
LANSING – “I knew that when it came to a degree, it needed to be in something I was interested in, almost like I’d figure the rest out later,” said Sen. Mary Cavanagh, D-Redford Township, who tried many degree paths in college, including biology, teaching and marine biology before settling on anthropology.
Cavanagh is among the state’s legislators whose present careers seem a long distance from what they expected to be doing when they were undergraduates or early in their working life.
“I learned about evolution when it comes to old cities, humans and culture and how people developed into the people we are today, either physically, culturally or linguistically,” Cavanagh said.
Cavanagh comes from a line of politicians. Her grandfather, Jerome Cavanagh, was the mayor of Detroit from 1962 to 1970. Her father, Phil Cavanagh, was a state lawmaker from 2011 to 2015.
The senator said she was able to see firsthand what being in politics meant and how much time it consumes.
“I decided a long time ago that I didn’t want to be in politics,” Cavanagh said.
Wanting to contribute to her community, during college Cavanagh worked in the Detroit Public Schools on increasing graduation rates as an AmeriCorps member and also for a nonprofit organization that served the most vulnerable populations in the state, such as homeless people.
“In every space that I worked in, I saw the lack of funding, the lack of support and the lack of priority at the state level,” Cavanagh said.
After graduating from Wayne State University amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Cavanagh recognized a need to act.
“I decided that it was going to be a young Irish Hispanic American woman that can pull up a seat at the table and have some of these really hard conversations that people weren’t having,” Cavanagh said.
Cavanagh said her education in anthropology helps her reach across the aisle in the Legislature to have such hard conversations with Republican colleagues and to understand what the people in her community need.
Similar to Cavanagh’s situation, Rep. David Prestin, R-Cedar River, did not plan on being in politics.
Prestin was an entrepreneur, small business owner and emergency first responder before being elected to the Legislature.
Prestin began in the food and beverage industry, working for a corporation that had bars, nightclubs, sports bars and restaurants across the country. After getting experience under his belt, he went on to open his own sports bar in Milwaukee in 1997.
After moving to the Upper Peninsula, Prestin bought a truck stop that had gone into bankruptcy.
“We pulled it out of bankruptcy, got it reopened and ran it from 2007 all the way to 2017,” Prestin said.
Prestin said his entrepreneurial background is of major importance in helping him serve as a legislator and gives him the ability to relate better to his constituents.
Prestin said living in a remote location in the UP, he saw a need for volunteer firefighters and joined the local fire department.
“A few years after that, there was a massive wreck and I realized that our department had no medical staff,” Prestin said.
This drove Prestin to take a class to become a medical first responder and, shortly thereafter, he became an emergency medical technician.
Prestin worked as both a business owner and EMT for eight years before selling his truck stop and running for Menominee County commissioner. He served for two terms before returning to school to become a paramedic.
Prestin said that when the COVID-19 pandemic began, he was working at a hospital-based advanced life support system in Wisconsin, where paramedics are stationed at the hospital rather than a specific department station.
“When we weren’t running on calls, we were working in the emergency room side by side with nurses and doctors,” Prestin said. “Everything that happens in an ER, if the nurses were doing it, we were doing it right alongside them.”
Prestin said he had a unique perspective from seeing how both Wisconsin and Michigan were handling the pandemic.
“What occurred through the pandemic is what motivated me to run for the Legislature, so I just decided to jump in,” Prestin said.
Rep. Natalie Price, D-Berkley, was a high school English teacher after receiving her bachelor’s degree in English from the University of Exeter in England.
Price said her experience as a teacher helps her connect with her constituents.
“When I meet with my constituents, I bring that same mindset of learning and listening so that I can ensure each of the residents in my district has a voice in Lansing,” Price said.
Price said she often thinks about her first year teaching because her work in the Legislature reminds her of what teachers do daily.
“Teachers have to make decisions that balance the needs of their students with a constantly changing environment,” Price said.
Price said being involved in politics was never on her radar.
“After the election in 2016 of Donald Trump, I felt like I needed to get involved,” Price said.
She volunteered for Voters Not Politicians in 2017 and was elected to the Berkley City Council in 2019.
As a council member, she led the way to ban conversion therapy, expand the city’s nondiscrimination policy and secure a base minimum wage for all city employees.
Price said she decided to run for state office to change the direction of the state and country.
“I wanted to give a voice to those in my community, those who for too long have felt that their needs were being ignored,” Price said.
Other legislators with unusual backgrounds include Rep. Jimmie Wilson Jr., D-Ypsilanti, who attended the Michigan Institute of Aviation and Technology and became a licensed aircraft mechanic, according to his campaign website.
Senate Majority Leader Winnie Brinks, D-Grand Rapids, graduated from Calvin University with a bachelor’s degree in Spanish and worked as a caseworker prior to running for state election.
Although law has been a traditional career path to state office in the past, the Michigan Bar Journal reported that only 13 lawyers are currently in the Legislature, with one in the Senate and 12 in the House.