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Wide White: Paul R. Nelson for Congress, Woodville, WI

Friday, January 14, 2011

Paul R. Nelson for Congress, Woodville, WI

This is part 5 of my summer job series. Click the following links for part 1, 2, 3, or 4.

By the time I got my 5th summer job I'd spent 7 summers between 4 jobs and was a college graduate. Aren't summer jobs over by then?

Well, technically, yes. But I was offered a job as a campaign manager for a U.S. congressional campaign and being that it was a temporary job, I consider it sort of a summer job. Besides, I'm getting a lot of really positive feedback on this series so why not extend it to one more post?

This job is in some ways the most exasperating and embarrassing job I've ever had and also the most life-changing. I was in my last semester of college in the fall of 2005. I was the president of the College Republicans on campus and was doing what I could to engage students politically in a civil manner. I'd been frustrated with the rather partisan tone I'd seen previous College Republican leaders take things on campus and was trying to help change that.

In our congressional district we were represented by Ron Kind, a moderate Blue Dog Democrat. The district was comprised of 19 counties in Western Wisconsin stretching from the Illinois border to Eau Claire. It was a 5-hour drive from north to south. The only candidate running for the Republican nomination was a guy named Paul Nelson who lived in Woodville, just 20 minutes from our school. I was able to get some of the college students involved in showing up to hear him speak and help him out a few times. By November he approached me about managing his campaign. He'd been impressed with my coordination of the students on campus and wanted me to apply that to his campaign full time.

I was planning to go to law school when I was done with college so this would be a diversion. However, law school wouldn't start until the next fall at the earliest and I still wasn't sure how I was going to pay for it anyway. I was seriously considering the National Guard to help pay for it if possible. I also knew that if I wanted a career in politics a job as a campaign manager for such a high-profile race was a great place to start.

Our first step was to negotiate salary. He asked me to draw up the contract. That really should have been my first warning flag. Typically an employer offers a salary and the employee then accepts, rejects, or counter-offers. When he asked for me to draw it up, I turned to my aunt for advice. She suggested I aim high because nobody ever offers more than you ask for! I asked for $45,000.

I wasn't stupid. I knew $45,000 was too much for a temporary job straight out of college managing a campaign with no experience doing that and a liberal arts degree in history backing me up. The reaction from the candidate was predictable. He countered with something along the lines of $33,000 with a $12,000 bonus if he won the election. I thought it was a fair compromise. Built into the $33,000 salary were my living expenses, with something like $500 a month being deducted from my paycheck in exchange for living in a studio apartment on the second floor of the candidate's house. The place really wasn't worth $500 a month but I wasn't going to complain.

Let me tell you a little bit about the candidate. My initial impression was of a Christian guy who home schooled his kids, was part of a very conservative home church, had a successful realty business, was a Marine veteran, and was politically passionate to say the least. While I wasn't exactly head-over-heels fawning over him, he seemed like a genuine guy who was a viable candidate.

My first memorable red flag came on a trip to Washington, D.C. We went to a conservative organization called the Leadership Institute for training in political campaigning. It was the type of seminar and workshop series that leaves you feeling like if you dot your i's and cross your t's following their methods, you will win your election! (NOTE: If you ever leave a seminar feeling like you suddenly have all of the answers, A.) they were successful and B.) there's a reasonable chance you're delusional.) While we were at this event the candidate, who was a spotless family guy back home, suddenly took up swearing on occasion. It wasn't a big deal to me but was odd given what I'd seen of him to this point. One evening we went to a bar and restaurant and he took up drinking. Let me rephrase that: he took up a LOT of drinking! He was so hungover the next day he couldn't sit through the workshops and had to leave a few times to throw up.

So 2 months into the campaign I knew that the guy had a bit of a double life, acting one way at home around family and church people and another when with a different crowd. That was a bad sign.

I also should have raised a red flag before I even started with the campaign when an expensive fundraiser on a river boat brought in a very meager crowd, half of whom was there for free for the purpose of adding bodies and making the event look halfway respectable (which it still wasn't).

But hey, I was running a campaign! We were traveling to all 19 of those counties, he was speaking at events, I was on a first-name basis with the attorney general and governor candidates (the attorney general actually won and is still in office and one of the two governor candidates just won election in 2010 and is Wisconsin's new governor). For a political junkie it was as exciting as it gets!

I spent a lot of time doing opposition research, finding parades to fit into our schedule, writing and sending press releases, traveling to events, trying to find volunteers, and trying to maintain my sanity in the midst of the 24/7 campaign schedule. The candidate took some time to let me know that he thought I should be working harder at one point that summer. Never mind that I often stayed at the office until midnight and was in by around 8:00 AM every morning or that my only day off was Sunday and even then, I was still on standby and often barely had time to make it to church before I had to be at another event. He documented the times I was posting updates on my blog and demanded no blogging while I was in the office. Never mind that many of those posts came out of the issue and opposition research I was doing. He also wanted more recruiting and management and less opposition research, campaign strategy, and other things that he considered menial. And at first I really tried to buy it. I told myself that he had some fair points. After all, he continually talked up his business résumé so I had to trust his wisdom and experience. Maybe I did just need to work harder than I was. Maybe I did need to quit those blog posts that took a whole 5 minutes of my 16-hour days. And so I tried to comply as best I could with what he wanted me to be doing.

As the summer dragged on and fundraising was almost nonexistent, he started to get increasingly desperate. He frequently came back to me with edits to my weekly press releases that inserted more forceful language. It started to get to the point where I was simply uncomfortable sending them. They were too harsh, too mean-spirited, too far-fetched. I remember one press release that had to do with a "wall of terror." He had photos printed of every Muslim terrorist who had been a part of 9/11 or any other terror act. He put them up on a wall and used them to show that if someone was Middle Eastern and was wearing a turban, we should profile them. That's right, he was advocating racial profiling. He went on the evening news in Eau Claire with that wall of terror behind him hammering his point home in defense of racial profiling. Nobody really cared about the issue but he was going to make it an issue!

I was really starting to hit my breaking point. But I was committed. I had signed that contract committing to the campaign through the end and I didn't want to back out on a commitment. So I plugged ahead, hoping something of the campaign could be salvaged.

Mercifully, it all came to an end in September when the candidate called me up to his office and asked for my letter of resignation. I couldn't have been more relieved. I asked him why and he simply responded that his expectations weren't being met. That was fair enough. Mine weren't either.

After I left the campaign it went from bad to worse. I started receiving calls from volunteers and staffers for other campaigns throughout the district asking what happened. I'll never forget a response I got from one of the staffers for gubernatorial candidate Mark Green: "WHAT?!? What are they going to do now? You're the only hope that campaign had!" That helped put to rest any insecurity I may have had. A colleague in the campaign office cried and gave me a hug as I packed my things. It was strange to be walking out, but it was so freeing!

The campaign continued to grow increasingly vicious. They ran through 3 or 4 campaign managers in the 2 months after I left. They aired a couple of TV ads that were literally the most controversial ads in the nation. The ads warranted the candidate time on the radio with shock jocks Opie and Anthony, but not on CNN. To this day I see clips from his ads aired on shows discussing how low political campaigning can get.

I'll never forget something the candidate told me the first time he took me aside for a walk around town to discuss his problems with my performance. He said, "If you want to just sit in a corner researching, that's fine, but anybody can do that, Joey. You'll never make more than about $50,000 doing it. You'll never make six digits as a data geek." He added something about needing to know how to manage and motivate people. (Never mind that we were competing with a number of highly competitive statewide races for volunteers and he wasn't open to collaborating with those campaigns for shared resources.) He also said he was running for Congress instead of state assembly because a Wisconsin assemblyman made $50,000 and a congressman made $160,000. "Joey, I've been a successful businessman and frankly, that would be a step backwards for me."

I say all of this because it makes the end results so sad. After the campaign ended the candidate filed for bankruptcy. His reputation in the area was in ruins and he moved to Wyoming, where last I heard he does flooring. As easy as it is to vilify him, I feel bad for him. He sold his dream home to run for congress. He believed passionately about what he was doing. And it all fell apart.

I could write a week's worth of posts on memories and lessons learned from this campaign. I learned that there are no more passionate people than political grassroots activists. They are the reason politics in America is so polarized, yet they are the lifeblood that keeps political campaigns going. It's a strange balance every candidate has to play between keeping the activists working on the ground happy while also appealing to the middle-of-the-road bums sitting on their duffs watching a political ad pop up between reruns of The Simpsons. It's the bums (okay, and a number of intellectual moderates) who decide these elections but they're rarely the ones putting in the manual labor for the candidates.

I fielded one complaint from someone who was offended by the behavior of a volunteer who was being very obnoxious at a 4th of July fireworks display. It wouldn't have been so bad if he hadn't been sitting next to the candidate wearing a campaign t-shirt and talking loudly about how stupid the opposition was. I tried in vain to keep him off the campaign but it was another area where the candidate and I just didn't see eye to eye.

After I left the campaign I was pretty anxious. I'd never just been jobless and I began a frantic job search. I had no income source and a new girlfriend who would be needing a new ring a few months later. I had no idea where to turn but I was confident politics wasn't it. I knew I wanted to stay in the Twin Cities because of that girl. My dad offered me a job with him but it would have meant moving away from that girl and besides, as previously stated I was pretty convinced the manufacturing world wasn't for me.

One of the volunteers on the campaign was a senior software engineer for a software company in Minneapolis. I knew nothing about software companies but I knew I needed a job and with my history degree and political experience, just about anyone who was willing to hire me and pay a moderately decent wage was fair game. That engineer sent me an email and referred me to his HR department. I had a job less than 2 weeks after leaving the campaign, working as a Customer Operations Analyst in client support.

I was promoted 6 months into working at that job, largely because of the management experience I had on the campaign. Oh, and that girl I married? I met her at a church I was going to because of where I was living while working for the campaign.

I've tried to disassociate myself from that campaign as much as possible. My résumé lists the vague "Nelson for Congress." With enough Google searches someone could still track me down to the campaign but I don't want to make it easy for them. I'd hate for someone to think I was associated with that train wreck without knowing the full story.

There's a bright side to every experience, no matter how frustrating. This was one of the more exasperating experiences of my life but was also what led me to my wife and my career. I'm thankful for the experience. I'm equally thankful I never have to repeat it.

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Anonymous Bill Roehl declared,

With enough Google searches someone could still track me down to the campaign but I don't want to make it easy for them. I'd hate for someone to think I was associated with that train wreck without knowing the full story.

Well now that simple Google search is going to pin you to it but at least they'll know the story ;-)

1/14/2011 7:48 AM  
Blogger watchman declared,

Oh, wow. I didn't realize you worked for THAT candidate. I actually remember the dust up over his 'sex not soldiers' ad.


That kind of politics could sour most anyone.

1/14/2011 9:42 AM  
Blogger Joey declared,

Bill, I'm happy to have this come up in a Google search. I'd rather someone who's curious to have the whole story than wonder.

Watchman, yeah, it was THAT candidate. I saw that awful ad run in the background during a story on something like CNN about how low candidates go. That was at least 2 or 3 years after he'd run. I'm so glad I was off the campaign by the time the ads were put together. I think I really would have lost it. In his defense, he was really just trying to go along with the hardcore Leadership Institute path of focusing on a negative (and apparently even making up negatives). It obviously was the wrong path to take.

1/14/2011 10:21 AM  
Anonymous Dstew declared,

JMoney for president 2012!


1/14/2011 12:42 PM  
Blogger Keithslady declared,

I like the last 2 sentences!

1/16/2011 3:26 PM  

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