Whether it was watching her mother being active in politics or helping her grandfather, Lawrence Diedrich, a former state representative and senator who unsuccessfully ran for the U.S. House in a special election in 2004, politics run in the family for junior Ellen Nelson.
“I’ve been working on political campaigns since I can remember,” Nelson said.
But now, Nelson, along with other students, is capitalizing on the opportunity to work on campaigns through the university’s Campaign and Democracy class. This semester, she’s been working on Republican Nancy Rasmussen’s reelection campaign for District 17 of the South Dakota House of Representatives.
Elizabeth Smith teaches the Campaigns and Democracy course, which is taught the fall of every federal election year. Students are required to work eight hours a week on a campaign until election day, after which the class critiques the campaigns. The students are able to choose which campaign they work on and are evaluated by a campaign supervisor.
Smith said the opportunity opens up doors for students.
“They actually enter a network of campaign professionals, they become known to their party officials and people who then get elected into office,” Smith said. “Two years later, when campaigns are organizing, they will often tap those same students. They’re inserted into a network that becomes their job search network for the future.”
For the students working on campaigns for the upcoming elections, it’s passion that drives them to the work.
“It’s fun to feel like you are a part of something and making a difference,” Nelson said. “Everyone has a voice because they have a vote. When you work on a campaign, you almost get to have more than one voice, (because) you’re helping others utilize the right to vote as well.”
Senior Jason Thiel is also taking the campaign class and has been working on Democrat Michelle Maloney’s race for the District 17 South Dakota Senate. Thiel, a non-traditional student and Maloney’s campaign manager, has previously worked on campaigns in Colorado.
Thiel has done work designing the website, setting up social media pages and designing pamphlets, business cards and other materials for the campaign.
However, campaign work isn’t always what it looks like from the outside, Thiel.
“It’s a lot more work than people realize, and it’s not all parades,” Nelson said. “It’s not all the glamour you see in campaign ads. There’s a lot of hard work behind the scenes.”
Through his experience working on Maloney’s campaign, Thiel has become passionate about state and local governments.
“My ambition will be to run for office one day,” Thiel said. “This campaigning has had me do a lot of soul searching, and what I’ve concluded is that I don’t want to run campaigns, I want to run for office. One thing I’ve been learning is a lot of the problems we face can be fixed at the state and local level — that’s where I’d like to focus my energy and make a big difference.”
After graduation, Nelson plans to continue helping campaigns.
“Our democracy is important, being a part of it is important, and it works better when people are involved and aware and when they care,” Nelson said. “I will continue to care, I will continue to vote and do what I can.”
As election day inches closer, Smith dedicates a class session to campaign ethics.
“Campaigns get emotional,” Smith said. “Almost every year, students are asked to do things that are probably outside of ethical and legal boundaries.”
Smith said by setting boundaries ahead of time, students can better make ethical decisions, like if they are going to engage in sign stealing.
“If somebody doesn’t think about that ahead of time, they may be tempted to do that at 10 o’clock at night,” Smith said.
The students’ work will come to a climax during the elections Nov. 4. Thiel experienced election night when he worked on campaigns in 2008.
“It was just explosive,” Thiel said. “The biggest high I’ve ever known.”
(Photo: Jason Thiel, a non-traditional senior majoring in political science at the University of South Dakota, poses with Democratic gubernatorial candidate Susan Wismer at the Turner County Fair this summer. Thiel is currently campaigning on behalf of District 17 Democratic Senate candidate Michelle Maloney. Submitted photo / The Volante)