Athens-Clarke County Commissioner Mike Hamby called Commissioner Kathy Hoard to invite her to one of Mayor Nancy Denson’s campaign events. Hamby, as Hoard tells it, mentioned the names of several people who would be there and said that Denson’s new campaign manager would be in attendance as well. Then he told her the campaign manager was 18 years old. “I thought, ‘Has she gone crazy?’” Hoard says. “I was worried about her mental health.”
That 18-year-old, Athens native Houston Gaines, is now 19 and a freshman at the University of Georgia. (Full disclosure: I taught him at Athens Academy.) It turns out Hoard’s fears were unfounded. Gaines ran a winning mayoral campaign that involved raising $100,000, cutting way back on his class schedule, and, in Gaines’ words, “trying not to look like we were trying too hard.”
Gaines’ start with Nancy Denson—and with politics—dates back to her first mayoral campaign in 2010. He was 14 and Denson had known his late grandfather, Judge Joseph Gaines. Gaines’s mother volunteered him to put up yard signs. Because of his age, “I couldn’t drive around and put them up, but I put them together,” he says.
In 2013, he began his freshman year at UGA. In August of that year, Gaines got involved in Denson’s volunteer initiative, The Mayor’s Call to Service, as the university outreach coordinator. He worked in that capacity, while taking a full course load, from August until October. In November, Denson contacted Gaines and asked him to build her campaign website and help manage her social media presence. While they worked together on that, Gaines began asking questions about other aspects of the campaign and its finances because he was interested in learning about politics. Denson responded by asking him to do more and more with the campaign. Eventually, in December, she asked him to be her campaign manager. Denson says his age wasn’t an issue; she was “so unbelievably impressed with his maturity, his work ethic, his morals.”
Gaines realized the role would be a full-time job, and was able to parlay his work into internship credit at UGA winter semester. “The first week of classes was just running all over campus getting signatures,” he says. Gaines enrolled in two political science courses at UGA—he intends to double major in political science and economics—and was able to earn credit for the work he was doing on the campaign. Once that was in place, Gaines turned the majority of his attention to working on the campaign. Going to class, he says, became a break from work.
Gaines says he spoke with some strategists who had worked for statewide campaigns, but “a lot of it was just kind of using my brain and just saying, ‘Hey, you know, let’s do this.’” He viewed his job as running two consecutive campaigns. The first campaign began immediately and lasted until qualifying ended on Mar. 7. It “was targeted to five people” who might be considering entering the race. The intent of that campaign was to “raise money and be visible,” to show potential opponents that they’d be facing an uphill battle. It was during that time that Denson’s campaign raised most of its money, including an ambitious $20,000 in five days.
Gaines laughs a little when talking about fundraising. “The most effective way to raise money is Nancy calling and asking for it,” he says. “She absolutely hates calling people, asking for money. But I would give her a list [of names and say] ‘This has to get done’… She had a lot of names for me that were not nice.”
That pushing and focus on fundraising gave the campaign a lot of freedom in later weeks. “As soon as qualifying ended, we never asked anybody for another penny,” Gaines says, noting how unusual it is for a campaign not to be looking for funds.
When qualifying ended, the second campaign began, this one aimed at voters. Gaines used billboards and frequent radio ads, saying, “I think if you’re going to be part of a medium, you have to own the medium.” At this point, Gaines shows that he has clearly become an experienced and sophisticated campaign manager. He also brought to the campaign VoteBuilder, a database that provides detailed voter history and information, that allowed the campaign to target likely voters and spend money effectively.
The second campaign culminated on election day, which, for Gaines, started at 3 a.m. and was spent tying balloons to yard signs, making phone calls, waving signs and then waiting for results. Many supporters were ready to declare Nancy victorious before all the precincts had reported, but Gaines didn’t want to jump the gun. “I was nervous about calling it,” he says.
Viewing the campaign safely from the other side of the finish line, Gaines calls running an Athens mayoral campaign a “weird, in-between level” that requires fundraising and spending but also doing grassroots work like addressing envelopes and knocking on doors. The hardest part, he says, “was not having the candidate with me,” because she was busy being the mayor.
Denson says one reason she and Gaines worked so well together was their similar personalities. Each describes the other as a friend. (In fact, Gaines says they’re “best friends.”) Denson says they were both intensely focused on the campaign. One night, she says, she woke up at 2 a.m. with a thought about the campaign. She texted it to Gaines and was surprised to get a text right back.
Hoard, a Denson supporter, notes the same round-the-clock commitment. She recounts one night when her phone rang around 11 p.m. It was Gaines, apologizing for waking her, but looking for input. As for her initial skepticism about Gaines’ age, she says that when she is on her deathbed and recounts her most mistaken assumptions, her underestimation of Houston will be one of them.
Both Denson and Hoard hope and expect to see him working at the local, state and national level eventually. Gaines says he’s going to return to life as a full-time student, but he’d like to work on a statewide campaign and maybe, if his life leads him in the direction, run for office himself. “You can’t set out to be a politician. It’s how your life goes… It would be neat to serve people in that way, but it’s life experiences that give you that opportunity.”
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