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Ten questions for Jim Nielson AIA of Utah

In November, Jim Nielson AIA of Utah won the District 19 seat on the Utah State House of Representatives. As one of three AIA members nationwide to win election to their state legislature for the first time, Nielson recently sat down for a BSA Q&A on his campaign experiences and vision for his public service.

Why did you decide to run for office?

I had a strong background in politics growing up and was involved in politics before I decided to become an architect. In many ways, this job is a continuation of something that started when I was 7 years old, when I first walked doors for my father when he was running for the House of Representatives in 1966. For me, it was the culmination of a lifetime as thinking of public service as a noble pursuit. I grew up with the now unusual view that politicians weren’t despicable, bad or liars. I grew up admiring those who make public policy. I believed that, regardless of party, by and large the people who opt for public service do it for good reasons, and they strive to make a difference. I saw my dad in that light, and he was a real hero of mine. So once the opportunity presented itself, I thought I’d give it a try.

Was this your first time running for election?

I ran for the state Senate two years ago. That was a learning experience. I decided to enter the race late in the game because people across a broad political spectrum had encouraged me. But I hadn’t spent enough time planning and wasn’t very well financed, while my opponent was very well prepared and had a lot of his own money. Afterwards, I thought, OK, well, next time I’ll do this the way I meant to do it. I’ll plan ahead; I’ll raise the money I need; and I’ll work really, really hard. Then I think I will win.

Will you continue to practice as an architect while serving? Why or why not?

I will definitely continue to practice. Architecture is my career and my love. Politics is important to me, but it is an avocation. Fortunately, we have a part-time citizen legislature in Utah that allows me an opportunity for public service without giving up my career.

How does an architecture background help in public service?

Architects have unique abilities that public service could use. As design professionals, we are creative problem solvers. Every time we work on a project, we reinvent how we solve a problem—not just the solution itself, but the process by which we arrive at that solution. Every design exercise is a one-of-a-kind procedure. A public-policy challenge requires first deciding how to approach solving the challenge and then creating a solution using this new paradigm, and there is no other profession as ideally suited to that as architecture.

What are the top issues facing your constituents?

There’s no question that the biggest issues for us right now are economic development and education. They are neck and neck, and it’s impossible to separate them. We need to create opportunities for jobs and economic success, while making sure our kids are educated so they are prepared for the jobs our economy will provide.

What are the top initiatives on your agenda?

My top issue is families and children, but the issue people see on the surface is the economy and education. I’m a conservative, and I think we need to rediscover the foundation of what makes America strong. [French historian and author of Democracy in America]Alexis de Tocqueville said, “America is great because she is good.” Yet the concept of personal responsibility seems to be waning within our society. Are we going to build a society that nurtures children and builds community, one that fosters cooperation? Are we going to return to being a society that isn’t as divisive and angry as the one we live in today?

How will you measure the success of your first term?

I won’t measure my success by which bills I pass because I am starting with bills that are a challenge. Significant changes in education funding and tax policy probably won’t fly initially. So I’ll be looking at success in terms of whether or not I helped move the conversation forward on those issues most important to my constituents.

I’ll also feel successful if I’ve been transparent—if I not only voted responsibly but also communicated the reasons for my votes to my constituents. I am adding a blog to my website where I can post about every significant bill that came up for vote in terms of how I voted and why.

What role can government play in getting the building industry working again?

I’m a free-market person who’s in favor of public-works projects when they make sense. Maybe it’s because I’m a design professional, but I am more willing than most of my conservative friends to support a recreation center and other public projects that I’m pretty certain the private sector would never be able to build. I admire the public willingness to build universities and schools. For communities, those types of projects are key.

Will public-works projects drive economic recovery? No, they won’t. But it is wise for the government to build during times of recession whenever possible, even if we have to borrow to do so, for two reasons. First of all, during a recession, buildings are essentially on sale. More important, construction work during a recession also helps keep a vital sector of our economy busy so that—when the government has resources and needs to build in the future—there won’t be as much inflationary pressure. If neither the public nor private sector is building during a recession, contractors will go into other fields or go bankrupt. So what we see time and time again is incredible inflationary pressure once the economy heats up—far higher in our industry than in the economy at large. I can’t tell you how many times we’ve seen double-digit changes in construction costs in the course of two months.

Government also should be very cautious about putting burdens on private companies that are barely surviving. Additional taxes in today’s economy will force businesses to cut elsewhere. Usually companies respond by reducing employment. In the long run, that leads to lower overall tax revenues. I am fundamentally opposed to raising taxes or regulatory burdens during times of economic crisis.

Was the AIA helpful to your campaigning efforts?

I got verbal support from AIA Utah. They were encouraging, but we didn’t work directly together. They were with me in spirit.

I emailed [ArchiPAC,] the AIA political action committee (PAC) in Washington, but never heard back from them. Our local AIA chapter had put together a PAC this year, and I thought I might receive a contribution, but I didn’t. I ended up doing just fine in terms of fundraising, so I didn’t need to follow up on a contribution.

What could the AIA and its local chapters do to better help citizen architects?

Financial help in the early stages of a campaign would be most valuable. Ultimately, a successful campaign attracts financial backing, but in the early going, it can be challenging. My wife and I ended up putting up $10,000 of our own money as seed money. We rely principally on my salary as an architect, and we have a Utah-sized family, so we are not wealthy. It would have been nice not to have had to go all in financially with the hope of getting paid back in the end.


Genevieve Rajewski is a Boston-based freelance writer who covers science, nature, animal issues, travel, food and passionate people for acclaimed publications such as Smithsonian, Washington Post Magazine, Wired.com and The Boston Globe. Her website is genevieverajewski.com.