Tanner Glenn was a student in Rich Nixon’s history class at Corinth Holders High School in Clayton, N.C., just three years ago.
Now Nixon is running for a seat in the North Carolina legislature, where he hopes to push for a renewed investment in public education. And Glenn — who is a 20-year-old sophomore at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill — is running his campaign.
It’s a rare alliance for politics, and one that both hope will lead to a victory in November. They know each other well, in the way that only teachers and students do. And though neither has much direct experience with building a political campaign, each believes deeply in the other.
“I can’t ask for anyone who’s more enthusiastic or energetic than Tanner,” said Nixon, 60, a North Carolina native who has taught for 37 years. “He thinks well, he’s got keen perception, and once he sets his mind on something, he does it.”
Glenn, an activist with the local Democratic Party and a volunteer for Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, said that when he heard Nixon had filed for office, he knew immediately that he wanted to help. It was Nixon’s Advanced Placement class in U.S. history that inspired him to become politically active, Glenn said.
“Because of this profound impact he had on my life, I could only imagine the kind of impact he could have as a legislator in Raleigh,” said Glenn, who plans to take a break from college in the fall so he can focus on the campaign full time. “He cares so much for this state and the education system.”
The pair don’t yet know who their opponent will be. They are seeking the District 26 House seat, which is being vacated by a Republican incumbent. Two Republican candidates are campaigning for their party’s nomination, to be decided by voters in a March primary.
Nixon — who is aware that he will have some name recognition at the polls, though not necessarily the positive kind — said that he was moved to run for office because of what he described as an assault on public education by the Republican-dominated legislature.
“We’ve lost a lot of funding, and it’s gotten to the point where the public school system is really challenged,” Nixon said.
North Carolina’s state spending on public education fell 14 percent between 2008 and 2014, according to a recent report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. The state’s public schools spent about $8,390 per student in 2013, according to federal data, below the national average of $10,700 and among the lowest in the nation. Gov. Pat McCrory has touted a $700 million increase in education spending during the past year, but advocates say that’s not enough after years of declining investment. Average teacher pay rose in 2015, but even with that increase North Carolina’s teachers are still among the country’s worst-paid, with pay ranking 42nd among the states, according to the National Education Association.
Nixon, who has served in leadership positions with local and state affiliates of the National Education Association, also opposes efforts to strip teachers of their job protections and changes to the state’s teacher-salary schedule that raised compensation for new teachers without comparable increases for veterans.
Glenn said he believes that Nixon’s focus on public education will resonate with voters across the political spectrum. “I think that people care less about party if they know they have a candidate who will listen to them and who knows the needs of the district. Rich is that candidate,” Glenn said.
Glenn grew up in a Republican family and considered himself a Republican for most of his life; he interned for the North Carolina GOP when he was 16.
Then he took Nixon’s class, he said, and though Glenn never knew his teacher’s political leanings, the experience pushed him to think more deeply about his own political beliefs.
Class time was reserved for hands-on activities and explorations of primary source documents. Nixon’s lectures were delivered on videos that students watched at home, and they often featured cameo appearances by his pug, acting as various historical characters.
And in that way, the teacher turned history into a series of stories about real people to whom Glenn could relate. He particularly admired Theodore Roosevelt for his efforts to establish national parks and bust monopolies to force fair competition among businesses.
The summer after taking Nixon’s class, Glenn volunteered for the state Democratic Party, and he found he agreed with the view that government can and should play a significant role in addressing social problems.
He went on to found a Teen Democrats chapter in Johnston County, where he impressed local party leaders, and he has remained involved in party politics as a college student.
Sharon Castleberry, who chairs the Johnston County Democratic Party, said she has complete confidence in Glenn despite his age and inexperience. He has developed a network of activists whom he can call upon as he runs into questions in the coming months, she said.
“We are already enjoying having him pick our brains and hear his plans for Rich and the campaign,” Castleberry said by email. “But enjoying more that he wants to build upon our efforts to do better for more folks, to be better than us. For anything we have ever done or will do for him, he can’t give us a better compliment.”