Benjamin Nelson would be an ideal hire for any employer: team player, upbeat, energetic, enthusiastic — and dedicated.
Right now Nelson is the Southeast Iowa field organizer for Democratic presidential candidate Kamala Harris.
Nelson is so enthusiastic about Harris that few of his remarks during his interview with The Hawk Eye came forth without embedding the senator's name, so we'll sum them up here:
Benjamin Nelson strongly urges you to vote for Kamala Harris in the 2020 Iowa Democratic caucuses Feb. 3.
His is a paid position; he's not an uncompensated volunteer, and he does have a life outside of the Harris campaign.
"Working in my hometown has allowed me to spend a lot of time with my family, which I really enjoy," Nelson said. "I also spend time with my co-workers and several of my friends from high school."
The 22-year-old Nelson grew up in Burlington and attended Blackhawk and Grimes Elementary schools before moving over to James Madison Middle School, where he was in the second-to-last class to move on to Burlington High School.
His first job was at Happy Joe's Pizza & Ice Cream on South Roosevelt Avenue.
Nelson graduated in 2015 from Burlington High School in 2015 and went to the University of Iowa; he graduated last May with a bachelor's degree in both economics and philosophy.
Nelson said his political roots go back to BHS.
"We formed this club called Phoenix Effect with my history teacher, Ryan Osbourne," he said. "He was kind of our advisor, and the whole purpose of this club was to reinvent the culture of BHS and instill a lot of pride into what Burlington High School was, and what the town of Burlington was. We would go talk on the radio, give the latest happenings on the positive things that were going on in the community and in our high school system. And that instilled this idea of growing where you're planted. We wanted to be like that phoenix rising from ashes-type thing. You know how we can be when we're seniors and high school."
Nelson took the Phoenix Effect to heart and up to the University of Iowa, where he got involved in student government and served as the student representative on the Iowa City Council for two years.
"I very much knew I wanted to get involved in politics in some way, shape or form," he said.
Nelson's graduation coincided perfectly with the the Iowa caucus presidential campaigns kicking into gear, and he wanted to get involved.
"At the University of Iowa, I had the opportunity to see nearly every major presidential candidate come through and speak," he said.
Nelson chose the Harris campaign after hearing her speak at Memorial Union in Iowa City last spring.
"Her message was one of local activism and local engagement, and that's something that resonated with me, the way she was interacting with the people in the room," he said. "She understood where she was and why she was here. And I thought, 'That's the campaign I want to work for.'"
Nelson worked on the campaign's fellowship program over the summer and was offered the opportunity to come on full-time as a field organizer.
"I accepted that with a caveat position of, 'OK, if I'm going to accept this position, I want to be working in my hometown.' I wanted to be working in Burlington, Iowa, because what I learned in high school and what I practiced in Iowa City was growing where you're planted," he said.
He said Burlington and Des Moines County voted red for the first time in a long time in 2016.
"We're typically blue, a union shade of blue, and my grandfather was a union carpenter before he became a small business owner," Nelson continued. "I grew up with that sort of local activism and understanding the importance of getting involved in your community. And I wanted to carry that on."
Nelson didn't run for any student body office in high school. He was a three sport athlete: he lettered in football and soccer and was co-captain of the wrestling team his senior year.
"Freshman year, I started out at 120, senior year I made it up to 138," he said of his weight class in wrestling. "I had an even record, so I wasn't good, but I wasn't bad either. I did not make State, but a lot of my good buddies did, and I was really excited for them."
Wrestling is, as all high school grapplers know, the hardest six minutes you'll ever work in your life. But Nelson gained leadership development and an understanding of what it takes to achieve your goals.
"And the experience of cutting weight," he added with a wrestler's knowing grin.
On the gridiron, Nelson was an outside linebacker, a good slot for a quick 160-pounder. In terms of body weight, football is the opposite of wrestling, and beef is better than scrawn.
"I was kind of quick but certainly not able to hold my own in that inside box," he said.
Sharon Yang, who works closely with Nelson as Iowa press secretary for Kamala Harris, came from Des Moines for Nelson's interview with The Hawk Eye.
"Ben is an outstanding member of our team here in Iowa," Yang said. "I think it's really valuable to have someone who is from this community, and who knows the people and knows the issues that people care about, come here and organize and be Kamala Harris's representative here. I think he's eloquent and really cares, and that passion comes through. That's why it's important to have organizers like Ben on our team."
This isn't Nelson's first presidential rodeo; in 2016 he caucused for Bernie Sanders in Iowa City and knocked doors for Hillary Clinton in the general election.
"I was full-onboard," he said. "I'm very much a lifelong Democrat."
If Harris is elected president, will Nelson get a job in Washington?
"I would love to go to Washington and experience what that community is like and what that job environment is like," he said. "But that's well over a year away and it's a little bit hard to forecast that."
And if she doesn't win?
"There's a lot of forks in the road," Nelson said. "I'm considering returning to law school after a couple of years, maybe get a master's in Public Policy. We'll see whether the winds blow me that way."
We unfairly asked Nelson which of the big three — Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders — he would support if Harris doesn't get the nomination.
"I think all three candidates have strengths, and I think there's a lot to be said about what their campaigns are and what their messages are," Nelson said. "I do firmly believe that Kamala Harris will be the next president of the United States, and I think she is the best option of this historic field that we have. There's a long ways to go to the caucuses and I'm excited just to see Iowans listen to her message and ultimately decide that she's the one."
Answered like a true politician.
We tried to sidetrack Nelson from his one-track-Kamala intentions, just to see if we could — and failed.
He isn't a vegetarian, his favorite restaurant in Burlington is Lindo Mexico, and his favorite color? What else? Blue.
"That's a Democrat answer," Yang kicked in.
"Yeah. Blue became my favorite color 'cause I'm a Cubs fan," Nelson said.
Nelson is also an experienced candidate: He once ran for student body president at the University of Iowa. He narrowly lost.
"It was a great experience in democracy in action," he said. "You learn a lot about grassroots activism, campaigns, local issues."
Nelson pondered his past for a moment before continuing.
"But the whole reason I'm here is because of Kamala Harris," he said. "I can't separate my story from the campaign because it's a for-the-people campaign."
Well then, what do you want to be when you grow up?
"Whoo," Nelson said, taken aback by a non-Harris answerable question. "I've got to tell you, I'm living the dream right now. Like with this job, moving back to my hometown — it's my favorite town in the entire state. My job is very much to get involved with the community and empower the community to work with the campaign and take ownership of the campaign, and by extension take ownership of their own community. I very much see myself as a resource for these community members who want to become active but weren't sure where to get started. I'm really excited to just be here chatting politics with folks like you, folks like my grandparents, folks like my former teachers."
Sounds like the Phoenix Effect is in full swing.
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