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What a long strange trip it’s been for Rep. Wiley Nickel

From the Grateful Dead to Congress, the North Carolina Democrat likes to ‘bridge those divides’

Rep. Wiley Nickel, D-N.C., began his career as an advance staffer, which meant he was traveling “all the time.”
Rep. Wiley Nickel, D-N.C., began his career as an advance staffer, which meant he was traveling “all the time.” (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Corrected 11:22 a.m. | Like a lot of members of Congress, Wiley Nickel’s office is decorated with a bunch of photos of him alongside more famous politicians. There he is, deep in discussion with President Barack Obama, or sharing a laugh with Joe Biden. Unlike most members, though, these photos come from Nickel’s time before office, when he was an advance staffer for Vice President Al Gore and then Obama, or his time as a campaign staffer for Rep. Dennis Cardoza of California. 

Born in California, Nickel moved around a lot as a kid, and his career scouting locations and setting up campaign events meant he was traveling “all the time.” Perhaps that played a role in cultivating his love of the Grateful Dead, the jam band as famed for their roving legion of Deadhead fans as their meandering musical stylings. He ended up in his wife’s hometown of Cary, N.C., and that’s where he eventually won a state Senate seat in 2018 and then a U.S. House race in 2022.

Nickel won the freshly court-redrawn 13th District in a squeaker, facing inflation head-on when most Democrats tried to ignore the issue. He thinks that’ll help him when the district gets redrawn again, this time by the Republicans in control of the state legislature, presumably into a harder one for a Democrat to carry. 

Nickel sat down recently in his photo-lined office to talk about music, listening to voters and why Longworth is low-key the best House office building. 

This interview has been edited and condensed. 

Q: You outed yourself as a Deadhead this month by giving a tribute to the Grateful Dead on the House floor. Since then have any other fans come out of the woodwork? 

A: People from all over have reached out about it, which has been pretty amazing. It’s just one of those rare places where, regardless of your political party, you have a huge group of people who have embraced and supported a truly American invention with the Grateful Dead, the touring jam band. That’s what I’m trying to do here, is bridge those divides.

Q: You were an advance staffer for many years. I saw a photo of you and Al Gore and Joe Lieberman. Your arm is in a sling, and it looks like you’re drenched in either sweat or rain. What’s the story behind that photo? And do you ever look at your own campaign events now and think, “I could do a better job”?

A: I did advance for like 20 years. If you do advance, you want the biggest events, and this one was the Joe Lieberman vice presidential announcement. I was in charge of it for the Gore campaign. We spent a lot of time preparing, but we didn’t know who the choice was going to be. 

We did it in Nashville, and it was so hot. If you look, you can see Al Gore and Tipper have literally sweat through their entire suits, which is really hard to do. But it was so hot that day, and I had just been in Arkansas with a bunch of other advance friends and had an accident on a Jet Ski. So I had this cast on, and the cast was just liquid sweat. But I did it one-handed, and it was a good event.

[When you’re a member of Congress] you don’t have a whole staff doing this stuff. Now I’m just glad when I can get a banner that’s hung right. That’s like a success for us. In a congressional race like ours, the focus for my staff is getting people out to vote. Instead of spending a week planning a good-looking event, it’s going to be a lot better if they spend a week talking to voters. 

But I think we had some good ones. If you look at our election night, we did a good job, and I got to come in and help.

Q: You grew up in California and even ran for state Senate there in 2006. How did you decide to move to North Carolina?

A: My mom was in TV news, so we moved around a lot. I only lived in California maybe seven years. I was born there, but my mom divorced my dad, and so we moved around. I was there for law school, was there for that campaign, and I worked on the farm in the summers with my dad.

When I did advance for President Obama, the Obama campaign, it’s a job where you just travel all the time. So you can do it from anywhere, and we were talking about moving to D.C., but my wife wanted to be home in North Carolina. So we picked Cary, which was certainly a great choice. It’s one of the fastest growing areas of the country, so a lot of people are following our lead because it’s such a wonderful place to live. Twice the house for half the money. And people are nice. 

Q: In your office you have a framed bit of the Congressional Record. I’m guessing that’s your first speech on the floor, and you made it about immigration. Why did you decide to do that?

A: You come to Congress, you want to do big things, and I believe that’s the place where we can do the most to help our economy and my constituents is if we can pass bipartisan immigration reform. 

[They] were close to getting something done in the last Congress, but it means strong border security, a place where some Democrats, certainly on the far left, are going to be uncomfortable. It means immigration reform for the Triangle, for our ag community, for DACA recipients. We can do all those things if we work from the center. I’m trying to bring it up every time I can, [and it’s something] I want my staff to invest time and resources in. For the Problem Solvers Caucus, I’m on the immigration task force, and I really, really want to get it done.

Q: Unlike most Democrats in 2022, you actually ran on the issue of inflation. You brought it up. What was the thinking behind that? And as you think ahead to the next election, it looks like you might face a harder map. How are you dealing with that uncertainty?

A: Inflation was the issue my constituents were talking about. It was hitting people really hard, and still is. We need to do a lot more to continue to address rising costs. But we also ran on abortion and democracy, and I got elected because pro-democracy Republicans made their voice heard. We performed a lot better than Cheri Beasley, and we had a lot of ticket-splitters who voted for Ted Budd but gave me a chance.

It’s a question I think about every day, what’s the district going to look like? The main thing is you just focus on doing the job you were elected to do, and the rest sorts itself out. We’re more optimistic that we’re going to have a district that is about the same as what we have now. I have what we think is one of the fastest growing districts in the country, so it’s moving in the right direction. The work I can do is continuing to push and fight for fair maps. 

I’ve learned since I’ve been here that when you have fair maps, you get people willing to work toward the center. The people I do the most work with on the Republican side are the ones in similar districts. They’re the ones who want to get things done. When you have these super blue and super red districts, there’s so much less incentive for people to work across the aisle. If we want to get things done, we need more districts like the 13th District.

Quick hits

Last book you read? “Oh, the Places You’ll Go!” My daughter keeps picking it for bedtime. 

Last adult book you read? “Grace” by Cody Keenan. I worked for President Obama with him. And right now I’m reading Kim Stanley Robinson’s “2312,” a good sci-fi book.

In politics, can the ends justify the means? Yes. As a party, we need to have sharp elbows. My focus is on getting things done, and sometimes you gotta be tough.

Something your close friends know about you that your constituents don’t? I like alt-rock, like The National and Vampire Weekend. I had a ton of fun at The National show [this year] and got to visit with them. They’re politically aligned, is the way I can say it.

Least popular opinion? Here on the Hill, Longworth is the best building to work in. It’s close to everything, and that’s the fun of it. You’re close to the floor, you’re able to see the people you represent. It’s always packed. You go to some quiet corner of Rayburn, and it’s just not the same.

This report was corrected to reflect Nickel’s role as a former campaign staffer for Dennis Cardoza.

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