Within months of losing his job and health insurance during the last recession, Justin Mendoza’s late father was hospitalized with an infection in his legs. Three days later, he returned home with $10,000 in medical debt he would never be able to repay.
Mendoza believes it didn’t have to be that way, that his father might still be here had he been able to receive proper care after the initial hospitalization. But he couldn’t afford health insurance on the private marketplace and he was just above the threshold for Medicaid.
“He never truly recovered,” Mendoza told Pride Source. “He never really went back. He went back when something major would happen — a fall or feeling a pain somewhere, but he didn't get the regular care that someone would need, especially with circulation problems. He ended up dying in 2019 of heart failure. And when I was settling his affairs and taking care of things, that's when I found out about this debt. He was a really private guy. We didn't talk about it.”
It's no wonder Mendoza has a passion for healthcare policy today, both in his work as an advocacy lead for Partners in Health, a group focused on building equitable health systems globally, and in his run for Michigan’s 42nd State House District.
“In the state of Michigan, just over one in 10 Michiganders don't have health insurance right now,” Mendoza pointed out. Like his father, many people will fall through the cracks. As an elected official, preventing folks from falling through those cracks would be his throughline.
In addition to healthcare reform more broadly, fixing the state’s auto no-fault reform legislation, which went into effect in 2021, is at the top of Mendoza’s list. He explained how the recent changes to Michigan’s car insurance, formerly among the best in the country, have left in the lurch the very people it promised to serve better. Many don’t realize that lower rates mean less coverage in the event of a catastrophic injury. And companies that provide care are unable to stay in business because their reimbursement rate has been cut.
“That means that people are not receiving round-the-clock care when they need it,” Mendoza said. “This is oftentimes folks who have been paralyzed or who might have had a traumatic brain injury. Folks who really do need someone to just help them adapt to the environment around them, pretty much all day ‘round, and we've left these folks without the care and support they need because of that policy.” He said he frequently hears these concerns from constituents and from healthcare providers in his district.
Lately, Mendoza said he’s also hearing from constituents about the ramifications of overturning Roe v. Wade. He’s hopeful that the Reproductive Freedom for All ballot initiative will pass and amend Michigan’s constitution to enshrine the right to choose, yet he’s savvy enough to know it’s not a done deal.
“I'm not a doctor,” Mendoza said. “I'm certainly not an expert in obstetrics and gynecology. I shouldn't be the one who decides this for you.” And while he plans to vote for the ballot initiative, “If there is a majority of staunchly anti-choice politicians in office — like my opponent — then we will lose some concessions even on this afterwards. I don't want to predict too much, but I know that they'll come after it in some way, shape or form.”
Among Mendoza’s other top priorities as a state representative would be amending the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act. He believes it’s not enough that the Michigan Supreme Court recently ruled “sex” discrimination also includes discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. “We’ve just learned from the Dobbs decision that establishing precedent isn’t the end of the line,” Mendoza said, clear-eyed. He was likening it to the Supreme Court decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, which many fear has opened the door to reevaluating other precedents, such as marriage equality.
These and other issues, like common sense gun reform, workers’ rights and quality public education, are what Mendoza hears are on the minds of the voters in his district that he talks with every day. It’s an area in the southwest part of the state, outside the city of Kalamazoo, and includes several communities where Mendoza was raised.
“I grew up in Otsego,” Mendoza said. “My parents divorced when I was young, so I bounced around from Otsego to Plainwell to Cooper Township.” After studying biology at Central Michigan University and receiving a Master’s degree in public health from Yale, Mendoza followed his career to D.C. and Boston. In response to the pandemic, as a coalition builder, Mendoza was able to win language in the American Rescue Plan that secured billions of dollars in public health investments for marginalized groups.
At that time, because he had the opportunity to work remotely, Mendoza was eager to return to his southwest Michigan roots. Today, he lives in Parchment, a small town in Kalamazoo County with a population of just under 2,000, with his wife Izzy and two dogs.
In contrast, Mendoza’s Republican opponent moved to the district within a couple days of the deadline as a registered elector. Keep in mind there is no requirement that he actually live in the apartment he’s renting there.
“Parchment has this just wonderful community feeling to it, where folks are welcoming,” Mendoza said about why he loves where he lives. “It seems like the entire community, or at least most of the younger families, come out to all of these events and enjoy hot chocolate and wassailing in the winter time and summer concert series right here in our park. I just fell in love with it when I was in middle school and was reminded of how much I loved it when I moved back here.” He added that the area, and especially Parchment, is unique politically in that neighbors tend not to be rude to one another over their political differences. The focus is on what’s happening in their own community.
To illustrate the welcoming nature of his district, Mendoza told Pride Source he hasn’t experienced any hate during the campaign related to his Latino heritage or his sexual orientation. “Not yet,” he said. “It’s almost been surprising, but I also think we sometimes hear the worst stories.”
If elected, Mendoza, who is bisexual, would be the first Latino LGBTQ+ person in the Michigan State Legislature. He said representation is critical.
“When I think back to growing up in southwest Michigan, and even my own coming out story, I didn't talk about my sexual orientation until in my 20s,” said Mendoza, who is 31. I didn't really come to terms with or figure it out until later.” Growing up in the '90s and early '00s, Mendoza said he didn’t see elected officials or community leaders who were openly LGBTQ+. As it’s been said, you can’t be what you don’t see.
Representation is also important for what that demonstrates to the general public. Seeing people who are out in positions of authority puts a face on an abstract group of people. Interacting with queer individuals leads to breaking down barriers and helps humanize the community. “Ultimately, in the end, we're all just humans trying to survive, trying to build our lives and trying to do the best we can for our communities,” Mendoza said.
“Growing up, I didn't have very many leaders in the U.S. to look at who had a last name like Mendoza,” he said. “I think that now we've got a lot more across the country, which is really great. There's a Hispanic and Latino caucus at the Michigan Democratic Party. It's great to see folks representing the community and coming up into it.”
“For me, I occupied this kind of weird half space where my father is from the Dominican Republic and my mother's family is from Kentucky, Michigan — and it's kind of this mixed multi-generational perspective, but I also think that's important because that's a lot of America. There's so many of us who have multiple heritages that come together.”
Michigan’s 42nd State House District encompasses townships in Allegan and Kalamazoo counties surrounding the cities of Kalamazoo and Portage on the North, South, and East side, and ending on the western border of Kalamazoo County. Additionally, it extends into Otsego, Gun Plain, and Ross Townships.Learn more about Justin Medoza’s campaign at justin4mi.com.Election Day is Nov. 8. Early voting begins Sept. 29.