The campaign kid: 16-year-old pursues passion for politics

City Council candidate hires high school student to lead campaign
By Nicholas Johnson | Jun 07, 2017
Photo by: Nicholas Johnson Kamiak sophomore Niko Battle, 16, began working on political campaigns in Georgia at age 13. Three years later, he’s running a City Council candidate’s campaign in Mukilteo.

Like most people who file for a seat on City Council, Sarah Kneller was planning to run her own campaign – until she met 16-year-old Kamiak High School sophomore Niko Battle.

“I wasn't planning on hiring a campaign manager,” the Position 3 candidate said. “My original plan was to pool a community of resources and give it my best shot.”

That was before she received a blind email from Battle requesting an interview.

“We met at Red Cup for an interview, which was really more of a get-to-know-you talk, and I was so impressed with how well-spoken, organized, experienced and ambitious he was that I hired him right on the spot,” said Kneller, who has never before run for public office. “I had zero reservations.”

Kneller, 31, is one of four candidates looking to replace three-term Councilmember Randy Lord. Also in the running are Tony Markey, Troy Gray and Maxwell Chen. Voters will whittle them down to two in the Aug. 1 primary election.

“I reached out to a few candidates to see if any of them would take a chance on a 16-year-old,” but Kneller was the only one who responded, Battle said.

“For me, bringing Niko into our campaign was an easy decision,” Kneller said. “He's dynamic, creative and incredibly focused. He is wise beyond his years, empathetic, and his work ethic is out of this world. He hustles every single day.”

For Battle, who has worked on some six campaigns since first becoming active in politics at age 13, this is his first stint managing a campaign.

“It’s always been something I’ve aspired to get to; I just didn’t know it would happen this fast,” he said. “Local campaigns typically only have one or two paid people, if that, and the rest are volunteers, so I’m really excited to be a campaign manager. Now it’s a matter of putting all my skills together on this project.”

Battle had been taking a relative break from political campaigning when he decided to reach out to local candidates in May. He had been volunteering with The Alliance for Gun Responsibility, which had paid for him to attend a progressive political action training camp called Camp Wellstone.

“I was there for a weekend, and that’s when I decided I couldn’t handle not being involved in something, so I started sending out a few emails,” he said, noting that he was looking to work with candidates whose political values matched up with his.

“If Tim Eyman called me and said he was running for City Council, I wouldn’t work for him, but I doubt Tim Eyman would call me, anyway.”

Battle is president of the Mukilteo Area High School Democrats, vice president of the Washington State High School Democrats, and one of two state representatives on the High School Democrats of America’s national committee.

“I don’t shy away from the fact that I am a card-carrying member of the Democratic Party,” said Battle, who hopes to see this year’s elections shake up the makeup of Mukilteo’s council.

“We have a pretty much all-white, male council. To me, that’s a really bad balance, and I think something needs to be done about that.”

Battle is one of 15 members of the Mukilteo Youth Advisory Committee. He is a devoted member of Kamiak’s debate team, and he’s the only Kamiak student to have ever qualified for the Tournament of Champions, a national high school debate competition.

He also enjoys keeping up with local government. During Monday night’s City Council meeting, June 5, he was one of about 15 people to address a “welcoming city” resolution during public comment, despite heckling from Position 2 City Council candidate Peter Zieve.

“I love this city,” Battle said. “I care about where I live.”


Growing up

Battle hasn’t always lived in Mukilteo, but he is a Northwest native. He was born in Port Orchard, but his family moved to Georgia while he was still a toddler.

Battle considers himself a “Clinton baby” since he was born days prior to President George W. Bush’s inauguration. At age 7, in the spring of 2008, he was following the presidential primary debates on television.

“I liked Hillary Clinton back then,” he said. “I didn’t know much about the political process, I just knew that she lost. At the time, I didn’t have a strong idea of what it meant to be a Democrat or a Republican.”

As an only child, Battle said he often sat in on adult political conversations rather than playing with other children.

“I absorbed a lot of that,” he said. “Around sixth-grade, I began to develop my own strong opinions about political issues.”

At school, he said some teachers would shut him down when he spoke up in class, saying he was only regurgitating what he had heard from his parents.

“I wanted to be able to engage in debates with people and not just be shut down,” he said. “I would go home and watch cable news rather than playing video games or sports like a lot of kids.”

As a preteen, Battle began working through his own views, trying to find his political footing.

“I went through a time where I wrestled with how religion and government should operate alongside each other,” said Battle, who had attended a private Catholic school.

Around Halloween, his parents took him to a haunted house at a church, which featured a gruesome scene of an abortion in progress.

“I had no idea what that was at the time,” he said. “When I asked about it, my parents just said this is what an abortion is, explaining that some say it’s child murder and others say it’s a woman’s right. I decided I was pro-life because murder is wrong and violates the Ten Commandments.”

Eventually, after studying the issue further, his perspective shifted.

“As I became more educated in politics, I realized that’s not really what abortion is,” he said. “I realized that just because I have my religious beliefs, I shouldn’t be able to decide what a woman does with her body.”

In the spring of 2014, at age 13, Battle got his grandmother to drive him to a political event in Atlanta that he had seen advertised on MSNBC.

“There were candidates there and advocacy organizations,” he said. “I thought that was really cool. I wanted to get involved rather than just watch it on the news.”

He signed up to volunteer with Georgia’s Democratic Party. That summer, he got a call inviting him to participate in a phone-banking effort with the party. Through that, he got a fellowship and began working on a coordinated campaign to elect a gubernatorial candidate and senatorial candidate.

“When election night came, we got clobbered, as Democrats often do in Georgia,” he said. “For me, that was really hard. I didn’t expect that. My only experience before that had been watching politics on TV. I had watched Obama win re-election in 2012, and I had thought it must be true that if you run a good campaign and connect with voters, you will win.”

That loss broke his heart, he said, but it also inspired him to become more involved.

“That’s where I got the drive to start a career in politics and work on campaigns, and maybe run for office myself one day,” he said.

He began applying to volunteer with various political organizations, and became active in The Young Democrats of Atlanta. In early 2015, he began volunteering with the Ready for Hillary political action committee.

“I was all in for her,” he said. “I wanted to get the first woman president elected.”


Moving to Mukilteo

That June, he moved back to the Northwest to live with his dad in Mukilteo. In the fall, he started his freshman year at Mariner High School, where he started a debate team.

In Washington, Battle continued volunteering in support of Clinton’s presidential bid, attending the state convention in spring 2016. In July, he returned to Georgia to take a paid position as outreach coordinator on a campaign to elect a Democratic state representative.

“That was my first paying job on a campaign,” he said. “It was also my first small campaign where I had more influence.”

Battle worked 16-hour days managing volunteers. He said he discovered the difference that grassroots efforts such as knocking on doors could have in smaller campaigns.

“It never felt like work,” he said. “Some of my peers could spend hours playing video games but, for me, working on a campaign and being around politics felt natural and fulfilling.”

Until then, all the campaigns he had worked on had resulted in losses, but this time his candidate won.

“That was my first real political victory,” he said. “It felt good to be able to say I helped get that person elected. It made me feel I could have a future with this and that I wasn’t just wasting my time.”

Battle returned to Washington in August and began an unpaid internship with the state Democratic Party.

“I had felt I was more effective working for a small campaign,” he said. “A state-level campaign is more structured, and as an unpaid intern you are at the bottom of the chain, so you do what you are told to do.”

Soon, he was offered a paid position working with the Alliance for Gun Responsibility, which was working to pass Initiative 1491, which would allow courts to issue extreme risk protection orders to remove a person’s access to firearms. It passed with nearly 70 percent of the vote.

“I didn’t know what true bipartisanship looked like,” he said. “I hadn’t seen that before. All my work before that had been entirely partisan.”

Battle said he was surprised to find both liberal and conservative voters were receptive to the initiative’s goal.

“The gun issue was hard to talk about at times, but it was something people on both sides had experience with, and this proposal was something people on both sides could come together on,” he said.

“This was the first time that it wasn’t so much about party lines as making connections with people and finding that common ground. That was pretty special for me to be a part of.”


Going local

That newfound appreciation for finding common ground is part of what inspired Battle to get involved in local nonpartisan politics.

“City elections shouldn’t be about what party you stand with, but rather the ideas you bring to the table and why you want to serve the community,” he said, noting that Kneller has endorsements from Democrats and Republicans such as Everett mayoral candidate and former Mukilteo Mayor Brian Sullivan, as well as former Mukilteo Mayor Joe Marine.

Battle doesn’t yet have his driver’s license, so he walks most places or gets rides from his dad, who despite being a Republican has taken him to Democratic party meetings and recently helped him place campaign signs around town.

“He’s a member of the responsible right,” Battle said. “We agree about Trump, and he cautions me against being too partisan.”

Whenever he’s not in class, Battle is sending emails and meeting with people at Starbucks. He said the challenges of balancing campaign work with school and life is worth the effort, even as some adults push back against his involvement in politics.

“I go to certain meetings and people tell me I can’t participate until I’m 18,” he said. “I want to show adults that kids and young people are capable of contributing to political change.”

Battle said he wants to help reverse the idea that young people are apathetic about politics, and inspire more of his peers to become active.

“I look forward to being able to defy expectations of what people my age can do in politics and in city government,” he said. “We can affect who gets elected.”

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