Skip to content

Advance work can be a scream. Just ask Rep. Wiley Nickel

He spent time behind the scenes, from the Dean scream to Obama ’08 and more

Rep. Wiley Nickel got his start as an intern for Dianne Feinstein and Dick Gephardt. Before long, he was working as an advance staffer, staging rallies and events across the country.
Rep. Wiley Nickel got his start as an intern for Dianne Feinstein and Dick Gephardt. Before long, he was working as an advance staffer, staging rallies and events across the country. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Wiley Nickel points toward a yellow and blue “Believe” sign taped above the door of his congressional office. “The question is, what would Ted Lasso do?” he says.

The Apple TV+ series about a stubbornly optimistic soccer coach wrapped up its third and seemingly final season last year, and Nickel is about to say a goodbye of his own, thanks to gerrymandering in North Carolina. But he isn’t ditching the motto yet. 

The Democrat sat down with Roll Call this month to talk about the earliest days of his political career, beginning with an internship for the late Sen. Dianne Feinstein. Before long, he was traveling the country as an advance staffer for Al Gore. 

“You have just a few days to put on a massive event. … You always get something wrong, there’s never a perfect trip,” says Nickel, who went on to lead advance teams for Barack Obama and others. 

He can think of more than one logistical nightmare, including a certain otherworldly scream that may have doomed the presidential hopes of Howard Dean. But “if you do the job right, you can help the campaign get out their message for the day.”

When Nickel ran for office himself, he started out as a state legislator and then surprised some election forecasters by winning a competitive House race in 2022. His first term in Congress will be his last for now. After Republicans in North Carolina redrew the congressional map in their favor, he announced he wouldn’t seek reelection — but also teased a Senate bid in 2026.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

Q: What were some of your first jobs in politics? I know you interned for Feinstein.

A: It was the summer before college, and my job was opening mail. You had some people who were mentally disturbed and would write stuff, and that was a little scary. You saw what then were the far-right extremists, who could be not very nice in their letters. 

We thought it was tough then with civility, and it’s obviously gotten much worse. But responding to mail was also a great way to learn about policy issues.

I split my next [internship] summer between Dick Gephardt and the White House, and then the next summer was “Face the Nation.” 

Q: How did you get into campaigns and advance work?

A: I love politics and public policy, and I wanted to work for Al Gore, someone I really admired a lot. My father died from lung cancer, and he gave a powerful speech at the convention about losing his sister to lung cancer. 

I got on with the Clinton-Gore campaign in ’96. I worked as an advance staffer, and I took my college class schedule down to a really small amount so I could spend most of my time traveling during the general election. Thankfully, I got to continue working for Gore once I finished school, and then on his campaign [for president in 2000]. 

Q: What were some highlights?

A: When you’re doing advance, you wake up sometimes and you don’t know where you are, because you’re going from one city to some other random city. 

You get in quickly, and you have just a few days to put on a massive event. You want a good event and a full crowd. If it’s an empty place, it’s a bad story. 

I think back to Al Gore’s last campaign rally on South Beach at midnight on Election Day, or Barack Obama’s last big rally with 100,000 people in Manassas, Virginia, before he got elected president. I didn’t sleep for three days, but it was a great event.

Q: What’s so special about advance work?

A: It’s a part of the campaign that’s deliberately not talked about as much. You want the attention to be on the candidate and not on the production. 

Security is a big piece, and you also have the production and event planning, the crowd-building and the politics of it. 

It’s a huge operation, and you have these countdown meetings where you could have 50 other people who are part of the logistics. You just try to get it as close to perfect as you can, but you never quite can. 

Q: What are some things that can go wrong?

A: I remember [early on] I made these sunglasses that were really cool. They said Clinton-Gore ’96, but nobody bothered to look [at where they were manufactured], and they weren’t made in the U.S. That was certainly a lesson.

Later I worked for Howard Dean’s campaign, and I was in charge of the Dean scream speech. I was a site advance staffer, and that was my event. “ARRYARGH!”

We didn’t have enough money to do it right. I had been in charge of Al Gore’s Iowa victory speech four years before, and we spent something like $20,000 on that. But for this I had like $2,500 as my budget. For sound, he didn’t have monitors pointing at him, so Dean couldn’t hear himself speaking. It was so loud, and no one in the room heard [his enthusiastic scream]. When they played the video back you could hear it, but in the room you couldn’t.

That was a simpler time. Every day, Trump does like 10 things that are worse than yelling “ARRYARGH” and it just goes without notice. 

Q: Do you have a favorite campaign?

A: Obama 2008, you could just feel it on the campaign. It was truly a broad change to America. Standing there with Obama in Chicago, in Grant Park on election night — few things can compare to that, other than [winning] my seat in Congress, which was a wonderful night too.

Q: How have you drawn on your staffer days since coming to Congress? Any full-circle moments?

A: There’s a big group of us House Democrats who belong to an environmental caucus, [the Sustainable Energy and Environment Coalition]. And Al Gore is going to come talk to our group, so that for me will be a full-circle moment.

After working on the Hill and working in campaigns, you get the hard work. You understand the staff work, and I think I’m a better member because of it. 

Q: You’re not running for reelection, but you’re talking about a Senate bid in the future. Which former boss will you call for advice?

A: All of them. Every single one. You know, [former California Rep.] Dennis Cardoza, for sure. I was his finance director, and we’ve stayed in touch. But you want to get as much advice as you can.

Recent Stories

Spared angry protests at Morehouse, Biden pushes post-war Gaza plan

Capitol Lens | Duck dodgers

Election year politics roil the EV transition

Thompson’s animal welfare, whole milk priorities in farm bill

Schumer plans vote on border security bill that GOP blocked

Republicans look to reverse rule based on gun law they backed