Bob Nelsen had a front-row seat to history on Election Night. The Republican managing director of Arch Venture Partners in Seattle was literally at the front of the rally in Chicago’s Grant Park on Tuesday as Democrat Barack Obama was elected as the nation’s first African-American president.
“I was 20 feet from Obama, and about five feet from Jesse Jackson,” Nelsen told me on the phone this morning. Nelsen and his wife were right there on millions of TV screens around the world with some of Obama’s VIP supporters, including Oprah Winfrey and the Black Eyed Peas.
Nelsen, who normally votes for Republicans, has raised a few eyebrows among his venture capital pals for switching sides this year for Obama. Back in May, we noted that Nelsen believed he was the only Republican on Obama’s national finance committee. “Some people still think I’m nuts,” he says with a laugh.
The experience was unforgettable, Nelsen says. “The most profound part for me was watching a guy who I disagree with on a number of things, Jesse Jackson, essentially being real. He was not playing for the cameras. He stood there, for an hour, not saying anything, just literally taking in the moment, with tears streaming down his face.” He added that it was great to see so many older African Americans in Chicago “who thought they’d never live to see the day,” that a black man could be elected president.
We also chatted a few minutes about what this means for governing in the critical months ahead. The crowd was able to watch a telecast of John McCain’s concession speech, which Nelsen said he also appreciated as “powerful and real.” Since the problems facing the country are so big, he’s hopeful that leaders will be able to set aside partisan differences to work together. We both surmised that Obama will probably be able to move ahead with a serious alternative energy push, but probably won’t be able to advance the kind of health care reform he sought in the campaign. Alternative energy has serious potential to create jobs, an environmental benefit, and a national security imperative. Health care, Nelsen pointed out, “Has been messed up forever.” (Update: In a follow-up e-mail, Nelsen said he thinks Obama can still deliver health care reforms but maybe not right away. Health care is “much more controversial and tricky, and may take longer to implement,” he says.)
“It’s really a new chapter for the country,” Nelsen says. “Hopefully Obama will write his own chapter.”