This was not the life plan of Jon Horford: knocking on doors, talking to potential constituents on one of those snowy days in late March in Michigan that can make you wonder why you live here.
Horford, a well-traveled former college and professional basketball player, has answered that for himself. This is home.
“I love Lansing. I’m from Lansing,” the brother of the NBA Al Horford and son of Titus. “I feel like he has a lot of potential. He is a great mix of people. I have always felt welcome in Lansing. It feels good”.
Some of the people who answered his doors in Lansing’s Westside neighborhood on this frigid Saturday either recognized him or knew his name, or connected the dots after the 6-foot-9 man standing on the front steps introduced himself. .
Horford, 30, was a basketball star at Grand Ledge High School, then played at the University of Michigan and the University of Florida, before embarking on a professional basketball career that spanned the Florida Summer League. NBA 2015 and training camp, brief stints in the Dominican Republic, Belgium and longer G-League stops in Canton, Ohio and Grand Rapids.
The journey from basketball player to political candidate is more natural for Horford than he imagined. Because, well, he never imagined doing this.
Horford, a Democrat, is running for the state House in the newly drawn 77th district, which encompasses Lansing north of the Grand River, DeWitt, parts of Grand Ledge, Eagle Township and Westphalia. His competitors so far for 77th place are also Democrats, Logan Byrne of DeWitt and Emily Dievendorf of Lansing. Sarah Anthony, D-Lansing (68th District), could have run in 77, but instead she is bidding for State Senate.
About “five or six years ago,” people who knew of his volunteer work training and mentoring children began suggesting that he consider public office.
“I have opinions about a lot of things. But in all honesty, I never really got involved in this way,” Horford said. “For a long time I wasn’t sure that (public office) really mattered. And then I came back from playing, I had retired from playing a little over two years ago, and I wanted to get involved in more ways than just working with kids. … So I started calling people in the area, elected officials, just to see if I could talk to someone and see what they would recommend. And the first person who responded to me, actually the only person who actually responded to me in a month, was Angela Witwer.”
Witwer, the two-time Democrat elected in the competitive 71st District in Eaton County, settled on Horford immediately. She was familiar with him. She had played basketball with her nephew at Grand Ledge.
“Even when I was in high school, I always gave back to kids who needed a little more attention,” he said. “I saw him as a young teenager become a very active man. I knew that Jon had all the qualities of leaders.”
At the time, Witwer was looking for someone who could eventually replace her in ’71, before redistricting. He gave Horford access to her, and her daily schedule, so he would understand the routine and details of her job.
“For the last two years, I’ve been following her,” Horford said. “We talk almost every day. And she has been an amazing, amazing supporter and mentor of mine. I heard (that she should run) before, but it wasn’t until Angela said so and then went ahead with the action…”
Horford is big on tutoring. He’ll tell you that if it wasn’t for a family friend, Larry Turnbow, he would have quit basketball somewhere before high school.
“He was a bench warmer, man,” Horford said. “(If I quit) I won’t get my scholarship to Michigan. I did not get my master’s degree in Florida. I don’t play professional basketball. My life looks completely different if I don’t have someone there for me. So I’ve tried to provide that to the kids in the community for a long time. And I think some people, the people involved with that, have seen it.”
Witwer, obviously, among them.
Horford credits him for important presentations in the community, for helping him get into the bipartisan Michigan Political Leadership Program (MPLP) in the state of Michigan, and for guiding him through this process.
“I wouldn’t be doing this if it wasn’t for Angela,” Horford said. “I didn’t have that belief yet. She saw something in me.”
Even if he will no longer be his successor.
Horford and his wife, Cristina, bought an old house in downtown Lansing and placed it in the new 77th district. It’s a district they know well. They had previously lived downtown, in the stadium-style apartments overlooking the Lugnuts’ stadium, before moving to Delta Township. The redrawn 77 also includes the high school they both attended, Grand Ledge.
Horford was born in Lansing and attended Forest View Elementary School before his family moved to Delta Township and Grand Ledge Schools.
“I really think Lansing has the potential to be one of those cities that people want to come to and raise their families, people want to come on the weekends and do things,” Horford said. “…People want something better for Lansing. I think it’s possible, but we all have to find ways to work together. That’s another topic, a topic that comes up all the time. It’s, how can we find ways to make sure that all of the stakeholders who want what’s best for Lansing can collaborate on their approach, get everyone moving in the same direction? It’s something that’s on a lot of people’s minds.”
On his campaign trail that Saturday morning in Lansing, he encountered only one Republican, a man he seemed to connect with through courtesy, basketball and a willingness to listen. For the most part, this was an easy neighborhood, full of receptive voters, relative to other areas of the district.
His job is also to convince people in this new district who have never before been represented by a Democrat or a black man, never mind a 6-9 black man, that he is the best option. He has to walk to the houses of people who might be threatened by his very existence and get them to see him differently.
Horford pointed to a “Black Lives Matters” sign as he approached a home and mentioned how welcome it made him feel.
That has been part of his job as co-chair of Grand Ledge United, an organization whose mission is to build a more racially diverse, inclusive and equitable Grand Ledge by making people feel welcome in a typically white but changing community. Her resume also includes serving on the Governor-appointed Michigan Black Leadership Advisory Council Health Committee and previously served as Vice Chair of the Eaton County Parks and Recreation Commission.
“You have to get a large part of the population to want to vote for you for one reason or another, to want to support you, to believe that you would be the best representation for them in the state House,” Horford said.