GRAND HAVEN — When political newcomer Anita Brown was looking for a campaign manager to help guide her in the race for the Michigan House of Representatives’ District 89 seat earlier this year, she thought she found a good one in Alma College student Sam Nelson ’21.
It didn’t matter that Nelson, 21, was entering his senior year at Alma, Brown said. What was more important than Nelson’s age was the fresh perspective and diligent work ethic he brought to the campaign.
Brown’s faith in the young politico paid off on Aug. 4, when she pulled off an upset in the Democratic Party primary over challenger Erik Nordman, winning by an almost 2-to-1 margin.
“I realize you don’t see many 21-year-olds leading campaigns, and you see fewer leading winning campaigns,” said Brown, whose district encompasses Grand Haven, Ferrysburg, Spring Lake and a handful of townships on the shores of Lake Michigan, “however, his age was nothing but a benefit to me.
“There were several instances where he was open to ideas that someone with more successful experience might not have been,” she continued. “Of course, he’s also a very hard worker, organized and resourceful — that has nothing to do with age. He’s just a great campaign manager.”
Nelson, a political science and communication major, originally planned to spend his summer working at the Shiv Nadar School, near New Delhi, India, with fellow members of the Model United Nations team at Alma. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, those plans fell through.
So, he returned home to Grand Haven, and was pleased to find an intriguing opportunity. In an area that is usually considered a Republican Party stronghold, there was a competition in the Democratic race as both Brown and Nordman were vying to run against two-term Republican incumbent Jim Lilly in the November general election.
Nelson had served on campaigns for other candidates in the district before, but never led a campaign himself. After speaking with Brown, he knew it was a chance he couldn’t pass up.
“I thought Anita was a really interesting candidate,” Nelson said. “She hasn’t run for office before, but in the past few years, there’s been this surge of interest in public life and democracy, and she decided she couldn’t sit on the sidelines anymore. People are really yearning for down-to-earth, approachable and earnest representatives right now, and she is all of that.”
The size and scope of the campaign produced some interesting challenges, Nelson said. He was the only full-time worker, and Brown’s opponent had raised significantly more money for advertising and staffing than she did.
The pandemic also altered their playbook in important ways. Instead of the door-to-door canvassing and meet and greet events that are common to local political campaigns, Nelson said, they focused a lot on building an online audience — targeting people who they felt would actually go out and vote for Brown on election day, rather than just say they would do so.
“I feel like there’s been this over-professionalization of campaign work in recent years,” Nelson said. “Sure, it was strange that we didn’t knock on a single door during the whole campaign. We made a lot of phone calls and Zoom conferences, and all I really tried to do was capture who Anita really was. A lot of my time was spent telling people, ‘Yes, she’s the real deal.’”
Although Brown wasn’t necessarily expected to beat Nordman, Nelson had a lot of emotion invested in the outcome of the race. On election night, he was too on-edge to watch election results in real time, and instead went sailing the lake.
He was awfully surprised to receive a call on his cell phone from a radio news reporter, not long after the polls closed, informing him that Brown was out to a commanding lead.
“They were asking me if I could get a quote for a story from Anita, and I immediately started turning the boat around, stammering, ‘Sure, I could do that!’” Nelson recalled with a laugh. “Not long after, her opponent conceded, and the rest was history. It was a happy moment.”
Nelson intends to return to Alma in the fall to finish out his senior year. He said while he will watch from afar, he won’t be able to lead Brown’s campaign into the November election against Lilly — a decision that was somewhat disappointing to the candidate.
“I understand Sam needs to devote himself to his studies and I’m happy for him, even though I wish he could be here with me,” Brown said. “He’ll be able to do anything he wants to do in life when he graduates, but I believe this is his niche. I hope he stays in politics. He has so much to offer.”
Derick “Sandy” Hulme, Arthur L. Russell Professor of Political Science and faculty advisor of Model UN at Alma College, said he wasn’t surprised to hear of Nelson’s success in the political realm, despite Nelson’s age.
“Sam is a thinker about how to connect with people in different ways and how to do it in a compelling fashion,” Hulme said. “He was telling me that his experiences in the Model UN have given him the ability and perspective to connect with different people, using different mediums, and have it make sense to targeted audiences. That is obviously one of the central goals in any political campaign. He has combined his interest in political science and communication to enable him to be successful in this kind of a role.”