From 3M to Campaign Management

March 17, 2015

In 2011, Gene Nichols was newly-retired from his 32 year career in the healthcare division at 3M. His path to an active political life in retirement had begun just a few years earlier. In 2008, while volunteering on the Obama campaign, he met a fellow volunteer that recruited him to get involved with TakeAction MN, a partner organization of ours and a national model for state-based progressive advocacy. From there, Gene met a Wellstone Action trainer who encouraged him to go to a Camp Wellstone. “When I stopped working, it seemed the right thing to do,” Gene explained. “I didn’t want to run for office. I’m not the candidate, I’m the force behind it!’” And Camp Wellstone became the force behind launching Gene into the role of a campaign manager.

When he returned from his training in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, he got connected to Barb Yarusso (also a Wellstone alum!) who was beginning her 2012 campaign as a first-time candidate for state house in a conservative set of St. Paul suburbs. “We sat down and talked, and the rest is history!” Gene said.

But any campaign manager knows that it’s never that simple.

For Gene, the biggest takeaway from Camp Wellstone was the emphasis on building a campaign plan. “3M taught me in my corporate life to have a plan of action, and I’ve been successful doing that. The theme throughout Camp was to have a good campaign plan. Knowing who your constituents are, who your voters are, where you have to spend the ‘people time’ and the money, what’s on people’s minds, the whole gamut…we took nothing for granted because you can’t rest on your laurels and think you have it made.”

It also helps to have a good candidate and, as Gene explains, Barb was the ideal. “She is dedicated to this state.” Gene also appreciated that Barb respected his Wellstone training: “I had my Wellstone book the whole first campaign. The book would come out, and I would say, ‘This is what it says on page x!’ and Barb would laugh. My personal experience added to the credibility of the campaign.”   

In a conservative district, they ended up winning by 1531 votes. And in a bad year, in a tough district, they won again in 2014.

During the campaign off-years, Gene is active as the Political Action Committee Chair for TakeAction MN. He works with their Political Director to set the direction and screen candidates that they will later endorse. Gene says the work is exciting: “I get to see all the candidates and their values.” He’s also been insistent that they get more involved in municipal elections. “We can have an impact on decisions made that influence the people of Minnesota, not just at the legislative level, but getting involved earlier on.” Gene feels strongly about leadership development, like what he experienced with Wellstone, and believes his legacy will be to build a strong foundation for candidate recruitment and candidate training. Additionally, Gene is active locally as the chair for the MN DFL in his district and was recently appointed to the Shoreview Human Rights Commission by the Shoreview City Council.

When Gene reflects on what brought him to this type of work, he thinks about the Wellstone green bus. “I remember the green and white bus! Paul was everywhere. He was all over the place! I was just so impressed with his level of political engagement. And it’s between my own family’s engagement and Paul Wellstone that I am delighted – I know this is the right thing to do. There are good people that came before me and I have to carry on those missions the best I can.”

And we’re delighted, too, that Gene has found his place in the progressive political movement to carry on this work.