Eric-John Szczepaniak remembers leaving his job at the Alpine Township polling place last March with a novel idea formulating in his mind.
Having completed his work at the township for the Michigan presidential primary, the 18-year-old Szczepaniak started tossing around the idea of where he could fit into politics. Nothing major, he told himself. Maybe something local where he could further his interest in government or possibly in education, another longtime passion.
At first, Szczepaniak considered township office, but the then Kenowa Hills High School senior’s attention turned to education. He looked into school board openings within his own school system and found there would be a pair of six-year terms and a two-year partial term opening in the fall.
Despite no experience in running for office outside of high school positions he held, Szczepaniak threw his hat in the ring for one of the six-year terms on the Kenowa HIlls Board of Education.
His aim was true. Szczepaniak was elected Nov. 8 and sworn in at the Monday, Jan. 9 board meeting. He was named board treasurer and is the youngest public official elected in Kent or Ottawa county. Szczepaniak said he doesn’t feel any scrutiny from board members over his age.
“They seem okay with it. It seems like we all will hold each other to higher standards in helping each other out,” he said. “I don’tthink age matters.”
Campaigning Every Day
While the board seems receptive to having a teenage member, the original decision to run did meet with mixed reactions from friends and family, said Szczepaniak, who was a member of the Kenowa High Debate Club, student representative on the school improvement committee and class treasurer. Some thought the idea of a teenage board member was a bold move; others told Szczepaniak he was too young.
“There was a range of feedback,” Szczepaniak said. “A bunch of my friends were excited. Others had big concerns over time.”
Undeterred, Szczepaniak plunged ahead with his plans. Szczepaniak’s government teacher, Christine Soderquist, helped his friends register to vote, his parents offered encouragement and Szczepaniak worked to find support among existing board members.
Szczepaniak, now a freshman at Grand Valley State University and a political science major, figures he raised about $400 of the $800 he spent on the campaign. The real work, he said, came virtually every day.
“I probably campaigned every day in October and got a couple key endorsements, people I really wanted to get in my corner,” he said. “I would still get some flack, people said I was too young, that they knew of a better candidate.”
Among his early supporters was former Kenowa Hills board President Melissa Courtade. Szczepaniak was shocked when Courtade took him aside at his high school graduation in June and wished him well.
“She pulled me aside and said, ‘I hear you’re running. I hope you win,'” he said. “I guess she thought (the board) could use my voice. I had never met her; it was the coolest thing.”
Courtade subsequently was ousted as president by the board, and failed to be re-elected in November, following allegations she had made regarding a district social worker’s treatment of her son. She also filed a civil rights complaint. Szczepaniak voiced concerns about the board’s process, saying too much of the business was conducted at a public meeting and that more should have been handled privately.
Work Together, Get Things Done
Szczepaniak said foremost among his political influences is Bernie Sanders, who lost his bid as the Democrats’ nominee for president to Hillary Clinton. But in the end, Szczepaniak had more luck.
Despite his youth, lack of experience, no support from the Kenowa Hills teachers’ union and the backing of only one current board member, Kristi Menze, Szczepaniak staged his own political upheaval. He won election to the board by 45 votes, alongside top vote-getter Jeff Gustinis. Szczepaniak’s fellow 2016 KHHS graduate, Dominic Modderman, failed to win a partial two-year seat on the board.
“It was definitely an upset,” said Szczepaniak, who admitted there were tense moments when he thought his initial foray into politics would lead to nothing.
“There were a couple of moments when I asked myself why I was doing this,” he added. “There were some rough times, definitely. But this was something I wanted to do. A school board is nonpartisan and should work on both sides of the aisle.”
That nonpartisan attitude is exactly what Szczepaniak feels is missing from public office today. In fact, Szczepaniak has two friends, one Republican and one Democrat, who intend to run for office. Szczepaniak said he will work to support both, that it’s ideas and not party that attract him to a candidate.
Solve the acrimony found in politics, Szczepaniak advises, and business will be accomplished. That work has to include compromise, he said.
“What better way in education or politics than working together,” he said. “We all have to be honest. I want to help fix things.”
It’s an attitude that Szczepaniak hopesto carry forward into what he believes can be a long future of public office. His ultimate goal is to become a federal judge.
“Twenty years till my dream job,” he said.