Why We Run: Nelson Roman

Nelson Roman serves as a City Councilor in Ward 2 of Holyoke, Massachusetts. Last year, he was elected on a community uplift-focused platform — and as an openly gay, HIV-positive, formerly homeless person. Below, he talks with us about owning his story and proudly serving his community.

What inspired you to run?

It kind of all ties into my story as a person. I am not originally from Massachusetts. I was born-and-raised in Connecticut. A really traditional, Catholic Puerto Rican upbringing. I moved to Massachusetts when I came out of the closet, around twelve years ago, and I ended up becoming homeless here. I was on the street for about two years, really just having nothing. And I realized pretty quickly that I was part of a cyclical system that was disproportionately impacting marginalized communities — Puerto Ricans, specifically. There are more Puerto Ricans per capita in Holyoke than anywhere else in the United States.

Fortunately, I was able to get funding, through an organization called Home Base, that allowed to me to get an apartment, get stabilized. My first job was a case manager helping other families get out of homelessness. I started doing organizing in the LGBTQ community, in the Latino community.

What I saw there was a lot of structural racism. These communities didn’t have the knowledge or self-efficacy. We didn’t have the tools to get to the next level. I also contracted HIV around this time.

I stayed in the nonprofit world working with homeless and marginalized families. I worked my way up at this nonprofit. They had a resource center helping 3,000 families a year connect the dots: food access, clothing access, resources and referrals to where you could get help. When, under Republican leadership, the state realigned funding, this resource center closed completely.

I lost my job.

And then, also, I realized: this isn’t about me. This is about the community. All these people we were helping were from the most down-and-out neighborhoods. The medium income is $14,000 a year. How are they going to continue to uplift themselves? How are they going to get out of this cycle? Unless somebody is there to fight for them.

Not one elected member of public government came to rally around the closing of that nonprofit. Not one person said: “Enough is enough.”

So I said, “Screw this, I’m just gonna run.”

The only way to fix this world is to have somebody in there fighting for the people. So I bucked up the courage. I went canvassing, I got enough signatures, and that is what inspired me to run. That intersection of being sick and tired of being sick and tired, of trying to do the activist work, but realizing you need somebody in power to be standing up for you. I prayed somebody would be different. Then I realized, I had to be the difference.

I won with 60% of the vote.

What was the best campaign advice you got?

Yes. So the biggest campaign thing, for me, right away, being somebody in a smaller community, is three things. Calvin, one of the union guys, he’s kind of like my mentor, he told me the three things I had to know:

  1. Your win number. What do you need to win? What is that number and how do you figure it out? And he explained the math to me. So I knew, going into election day, that I needed 415 votes.
  2. You, yourself as a candidate, need to speak to your voters at least four times. Don’t send volunteers. They want to spend time with you. What better way for them to support you than when you show up at their door? Your personal connection is way better than anything else.
  3. Events and PR stops don’t win elections. It’s that 1–1 facetime. Where events are good, they are not going to be as valuable as direct voter contact.

I buckled up. I learned to fundraise. It’s one of those dreaded things but you have to do it. I walked my turf at least six times. I sent five direct mail pieces. We were really on top of that personal connection. The direct voter contact. I mean, really, that’s it. Those were the best pieces of advice I got.

Fundraisers and events are good. But while all the other politicians were at all of those events, I was out knocking doors. Because a lot of people in my ward couldn’t afford to go to those events or didn’t have access to them. They were at home. And I was out there, doing my thing, talking to them.

What was an unexpected obstacle you had to overcome?

As a first time candidate — it was just, every time I was on the trail, and my opponent would push that he was a family man, the whisperings when I knocked on door people would be like: “You’re the gay kid.” I’d have to be like, “Yeah, but those are not what my issues are.”

It’s an emotional rollercoaster not to have control over the narratives that get out there about you. There were so many nights where I would cry and be upset. If I didn’t have my support network, I don’t know what I would have done. You can’t vent to the world, but if you have those few people you can vent and scream and shout to, you will be okay. They will walk you off the ledge.

Another obstacle was just resources. I was raising money, but I didn’t have campaign headquarters. I just used my apartment. I transformed my living room. No sofa, just a table and chairs. I had my win number. I had a whiteboard. You literally have to do phone-banking in one room and sleep in another. And we’d start early. Like 2 or 3 AM, and I’d have 15 people in my apartment.

That’s the way it is in local elections. You are literally working out of you apartment and out of your car. You know those organizing bags they have for shoes? Well I bought one and I was organizing all my papers and materials in the trunk of my car with that. I had my folding table, two chairs, and campaign signs at all times, in the trunk, ready to go. You have to get innovative and creative.

When you’re a first time candidate, people don’t know you. There’s a lot of pressure about who you’re going to get to volunteer for you. Me? I used all my network. I called it the United Rainbow Coalition, because it was a lot of people from the LGBT community. You think of campaigns, you think of Bernie, and all these random people just sign up to support you — but if nobody really knows you, you have to build that network of people who really believe in you. Me using my friends, family, and co-workers — people who really knew me — they were able to speak from the heart about me and make that connection with voters. It was the best third party validation I could get. Finding random volunteers was tough.

Anything you wish you’d known before you you’d run?

There’s a lot of things! The one thing I wish I knew I had known was the fact that — and I know it sounds cliche — but literally, your whole personal life… you don’t have anymore secrets. Nothing is yours. Your life is under a microscope.

When I was going on these tours and there were whispering or grumblings about me being gay, I said “Listen, I’m not scared or afraid of any of that, but let me be very clear off the bat: I’m proudly gay, HIV Positive, proudly Puerto Rican, and formerly homeless. This is who I am.”

I wish I knew that things were your trials and tribulations, would be tried to be used against you, and you just have to own those and put it out there. It actually adds to the richness of your story and your life. A lot of people out here are struggling and marginalized, and they want somebody who can relate — not somebody on a diff stratosphere.

I wish I knew that going in. I wish I had known it would matter that much to people, to relate to my story.

When my opponent had his wife and kids at events, it made me feel almost guilty. But I had my family. I had my partner.

There are two or three other young people running this year, so they’ve actually sat down with me and asked for that one piece of advice. I said “Listen, you have to come clean. And let everybody know your personal story. Whatever you had to do in the past, own that. Drug addiction, sex work, formerly incarcerated.”

That has made you who you are today. If you’ve come out the other side, there are people out there who have too, and they want you to be their voice, and push for reforms, and listen to them.

I wish I knew that going in: your trials and tribulations aren’t skeletons. If you own them, they’re positive. I now wish I had put my story in my first mailer! But you know, you try to go the traditional way. But people see that all the time. They want to know the man behind the politician.

What’s something about you that might surprise people to know?

The most surprising thing, believe it or not, is that I’m a huge theater nut and dancer. I did twelve years of jazz/dance/hip hop. Theater and the arts are my life. I’m a big Hamilton fan! You know, broadway shows. Everyday I work in a soup kitchen and every day I am always listening to broadway tunes. When I was younger, I got to sing on stage with Kaycee and the Sunshine Band.