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Democrat Tom Nelson Looks To Take 8th Congressional District Seat Away From Republicans

Family, Faith Are Nelson's Motivating Factors

Courtesy of Nelson For Wisconsin

Tom Nelson is a lanky 40-year-old who, by all accounts, dotes on his two young children.

His day job has long been in state politics before becoming Outagamie county executive. But now he’s looking to take the 8th Congressional District seat out of Republican hands.

Incumbent Republican Reid Ribble announced early this year he would not seek a third term representing northeastern Wisconsin. Nelson’s opponent is former U.S. Marine Mike Gallagher.

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At a recent Hillary Clinton rally hosted by Clinton’s daughter, Chelsea, Nelson took the stage and told a crowd of hundreds that he initially didn’t think he would enter the race.

“Back in February or so, when Congressman Ribble said he wasn’t going to run, I turned to my wife, Maria, and asked her what she thought,” Nelson said. “Before I could say anything, she said, ‘No.’”

A lot has changed since February.

By early fall, he was at his Green Bay campaign office rallying volunteers, employing a slogan he uses a lot on the campaign trail: “This is the most important election of our lifetimes.”

Nelson’s Path

Nelson has been the Outagamie county executive since 2011. Before that, from 2005 to 2011, he was in the state Assembly for three terms.

In fall 2007, he gained national attention by camping out in the Assembly chamber to protest a budget impasse.

It was seen as grandstanding by some, but earned him points with his fellow Democrats such as state Sen. Dave Hansen, D-Green Bay, who said of Nelson, “I think he’d be a great congressman.”

Hansen has gotten to know Nelson through their time as fellow lawmakers, and he said the camp-out was in earnest.

Nelson is “someone with a lot of courage that understood that that budget should be passed and we should move forward,” Hansen said. “He fought really, really hard, and some people could say he won the argument. But you stand up for what you believe in. And he’s always been able to do that.”

When asked if he thought the sit-in was a publicity stunt, Hansen stood firm.

“No, I think he believed in his heart,” Hansen said.

Beyond The Politics

Nelson is like many his age in some ways.

His favorite band is probably Pearl Jam, and he’s a fan of authors like John Steinbeck and Jack Kerouac, he said. But in some ways he’s a throwback, saying family and a deep faith are his motivating factors in running for Congress.

His political role model is his father, who never ran for anything. Instead, he was a Lutheran pastor who began a church in the Fox Valley.

“He started his church the old fashioned way,” Nelson said. “He went door-to-door talking to future parishioners, talking to members of the community about his faith and his beliefs.”

The then-4-year-old Nelson said it was a formative experience, and he came to learn of a connection between his father’s grassroots ministry and politics.

“I used that as a starting point because it was at a very young age that I understood the importance of service,” he said. “My dad found that in the ministry. I found it in public service.”

All that door knocking experience came in handy when he made his first Assembly run. Since then, Nelson has become a famous knocker and doorbell ringer.

“Twenty-four years later I found myself walking the same blocks, knocking on the same doors that my dad did 24 years ago,” Nelson said, adding people often recalled memories of Nelson’s father knocking on their front doors all those years ago.

Family is Nelson’s No. 1 priority with church a close second. But his passion for politics and public service are driving him to try to take the 8th Congressional District back from the Republicans, and he has faith they will do just that.