University student pursues political goals in D.C.

Erin Ghere

Leaving behind a burgeoning career in University politics, an academic tenure 34 credits shy of graduation and his girlfriend, University junior Kevin Nicholson moved to Washington D.C. in October to pursue a dream: presidency of the College Democrats of America.
Nicholson, who plans to return to the University, was elected president in a relatively close vote and has already faced impeachment charges and financial improprieties in just the past six months.
He spent his freshman year at the University getting involved and then took off running.
By the end of his sophomore year, he was a member of the Student Senate Consultative Committee’s executive subcommittee, treasurer of the University College Democrats and chairman of the Student Services Fees committee.
“(The University) is where I cut my teeth and learned how to deal with people,” Nicholson said.
“He always struck me as someone who is very strong in his beliefs … he wants to do what’s best,” said Vicki Casey Larson, adviser to the student fees committee.
“He is aware that there are other opinions, and he seems to respect those opinions and points of view,” Casey Larson added.
“He was really involved,” said Brianna Halverson, current co-chairwoman of the University College Democrats.
A hard worker, Nicholson also has a fun side and a great sense of humor, she said.
At the end of his sophomore year, he took on another challenge — he ran for president of Minnesota Student Association in 1998. He lost.
“I thought, ‘If I can’t win this election, what can I do?'” he said.
Still, during spring 1998, Nicholson began another campaign, this time successful.
In mid-October he was elected chairman of the College Democrats of Minnesota. After the elation wore off, Nicholson realized just how much work the organization needed.
“There wasn’t anything there,” he said.
CDM was cut off from the state’s Democratic-Farmer-Labor party, had few members and no communication.
“(The DFL) didn’t know who we were or what we were doing, and we were a nuisance,” he said.
Nicholson and his staff worked for four months, raising money and building membership. In that time, the organization grew from 10 to 1,500 members as Nicholson re-established ties with existing chapters around the state and attracted new members.
By February, the organization had some clout, he said, “to represent the youth views for Minnesota.” What was formerly a jumble of loose groups was now a well-respected system.
As the growth of CDM continued, Nicholson considered another challenge. In April, after only a week of deliberation, he began campaigning for president of the College Democrats of America.
Although he had strong support behind him, he went into the July election facing stiff competition. Nicholson’s main rival was a member of the current administration’s executive board.
After anxiously waiting for seven hours in a “hot and sweaty” convention hall, the results were announced. Nicholson became the first non-executive board member ever elected president.
“That was a good night,” he said. Out of 600 votes, Nicholson won by only 80.
Five months worth of campaigning — including personal visits to nearby states, nationwide mailings, hundreds of e-mails and searches for endorsements, including Sen. Paul Wellstone, D-Minn. — had paid off.
Nicholson, who was surrounded by most of his good friends, called his parents to tell them the good news at two in the morning.
“It was the only time they were happy to be woken up by a late night call from me,” he joked.
His dad replied, “What the hell are you going to do now?”
The bombs started to fall immediately.
Charging ahead
As history repeated itself, Nicholson found the College Democrats of America in dire need of repair. The organization was in poor financial straits, and organizational disarray was not far off.
“What we didn’t know was that quite a bit of debt had been run up in secret,” Nicholson said.
He inherited the organization’s $90,000 debt.
Immediately, the organization’s two permanent staff members, who were found to have accumulated much of the secret debt, resigned. “We cleaned house,” Nicholson said.
With the more than 50,000-member student organization faltering, Nicholson made the decision to move to Washington D.C. rather than fulfill his presidential duties from the University, as had traditionally been done.
Once settled, Nicholson began making changes and causing ripples some members disagreed with.
The first major conflict between Nicholson and the CDA’s executive board came when Nicholson approached the five-member board to request a salary.
As president, Nicholson receives a $2,000 stipend per month — $1,300 after taxes, he said. After $700 each month to rent a single room in a house near Capitol Hill, the remainder was inadequate to live on in Washington, he argued.
The board did not react well to his request and used it as a mechanism to pursue additional grievances, including his initial election, Nicholson said. Four board members were from his opponent’s slate and were upset their partner had not been voted into office.
“They would’ve impeached me the day after the election if they thought they could’ve,” he said.
In addition to the salary request, there were disagreements about how the organization should be run.
The conflict reached a breaking point: A campaign to impeach Nicholson was begun near the end of last year.
An e-mail sent to all 50 state chapters from the executive board said the members voted against the salary, saying “we did not believe it would be in the best interests of CDA to spend $24,000 to pay a student.
“We fully expect Kevin to abide by the board’s decision,” the e-mail concluded.
In response, the executive board was doused with e-mails opposing the impeachment and eventually dropped the fight. Since then, one member has resigned and another has failed to re-contact CDA, but has not officially resigned.
Noah Shuber, who resigned, was unavailable for comment.
“It’s politics, and it’s unfortunate, and it’s a waste of time,” Nicholson said. “I’m happy that I won the fight.”
Moving forward
Even with all of the disruptions, CDA has accomplished many of its goals and continues to repair itself.
The debt has been reduced by 25 percent, Nicholson said, and it is declining more each day. The national organization has also been able to facilitate some programming and has reconnected with most of its state federations.
But there is still more to be done.
From the two-room CDA Washington office — which is home to three computers, half-a-dozen phones and a basketball hoop — Nicholson continues his plan of change.
The organization wants to continue building campus subsidiaries, membership and communication. They have already begun encouraging college students to vote and supporting the campaign efforts of Democratic candidates.
But Nicholson has even loftier goals, including establishing 40 solid state federations, freeing the organization completely of debt, and creating the foundation of a legislative lobbying arm by the time he leaves office, he said.
Laying a foundation
In the near future, Nicholson plans to graduate from the University, attend law school and join the U.S. Marines in the pursuit of his biggest dream: president of the United States.
“Elected officials should never expect someone else to do anything they wouldn’t commit themselves to in a heartbeat,” Nicholson explained. The Marines will prepare him for his future as an elected official, he said.
“Personally, I couldn’t sleep at night knowing I was putting someone else in a position I wasn’t willing to do,” he added.
As for the remaining steps to the presidency, Nicholson said they are up in the air, although he hopes to attend law school in the Midwest or on the East Coast.

Erin Ghere welcomes comments at [email protected]