I first met Pete Nischt and his wife, Ellen, last fall at a Summit County Progressive Democrats meeting. It was just before the 2014 mid-term elections, and Pete, the Executive Director of the Summit County Democratic Party, was a guy who stood out in the crowd. No matter how many people made demands on his attention, he managed to find time for each of them, and with a smile on his face. I thought then that he was someone I wanted to know more about, someone filled with energy and enthusiasm who just might be part of the solution to Akron’s challenges, a fresh voice with new ideas.
After that first meeting, I saw Pete and Ellen, both Akron attorneys, at community functions and meetings, but other than that, our paths only occasionally crossed. It turns out, there was a reason for that: he’s been a busy guy. Besides his responsibilities with the Summit County Democratic party, Pete is also the President of the Downtown Akron Partnership (DAP) Emerging Leaders. He led the effort to fund the DAP Emerging Leaders’ #LovetheWall project. The wall is a 700-foot-long mural installation located on South Broadway Street, just north of the Robert K. Pfaff METRO RTA Transit Center. The $14,000 budget was funded by a successful Kickstarter campaign overseen by Pete.
The next time Pete got my attention was when he ran for Executive Vice President of the Progressive Democrats this spring. I mention Pete’s bid for this office because I think it speaks to the strength of his character. In the speech he gave to the group before the vote, Pete spoke passionately about the things he wanted to do for the organization, things for which he said he was committed to working hard, whether he was elected or not. When the ballots were counted, Pete did not prevail, but true to his word, he still showed up and still worked hard, just as he said he would.
First generation American
Pete and I sat down to talk recently at Highland Square’s new Mustard Seed Market and Café. It was a beautiful, sunny Sunday afternoon, and we were able to sit outside with our fellow diners and enjoy the last hours of sunshine that day.
We began by talking about Pete’s family. The son of immigrants, his father was born in Germany. The family came to America in 1963, and the decision to settle in Akron was intentional. Pete’s grandparents wanted their children to have the opportunity to lead a better life, and they knew that a good education was the key that would unlock that opportunity. Akron’s public school system provided Pete’s father with the educational foundation that would prepare him to go on to earn his MBA and build a successful engineering career. Pete’s mother, a teacher’s aide who met Pete’s father while they attended Firestone High School together, comes from a family with deep roots in the Akron community.
Pete’s parents continued the tradition of emphasizing the importance of education. They settled in the area and sent Pete to Highland Local Schools. Pete’s parents, though not particularly politically involved, were socially liberal and set an example that encouraged him to pay attention to the world around him and to make a contribution.
He fondly remembers daily car rides to school with the radio tuned to NPR, as well as passionate dinner table discussions about social justice. It was during this time that Pete began to notice the culture clash that existed between rural and middle class suburban families in his community, and the important role that public education played in leveling the playing field. It was also during this time that Pete realized a true passion for music, playing trumpet in the marching band. Much to the entertainment of his teachers and classmates, he managed to find a way to combine his interests by incorporating beloved Bob Marley lyrics into his public speaking whenever possible.
Pete’s grandmother, Lois Pflueger, watched her grandson grow up and said of him, “He is naturally curious and has so many interests, things he’s good at. We weren’t sure what he would choose to do in life, but we knew he was destined for greatness.”
After high school, Pete attended The University of Akron for both his undergraduate and graduate studies. Having first considered majoring in Jazz Studies, in 2010 Pete earned a bachelor’s degree in International Business. He received his MBA and Law Degree in 2013. Throughout this time, Pete also explored his musical side, performing as a guitarist and singer/songwriter. He earned some success, touring with national acts such as Blessid Union of Souls and Kate Voegele, but his love of working for social justice and of service to his community influenced his decision to pursue a career in public service.
In 2014, Pete accepted a position with the Summit County Democratic Party, serving as the organization’s Executive Director. His responsibilities are daunting and the challenges are great, but as you may have guessed by now, Pete never turns from a challenge when he believes in the cause…and when it comes to strengthening Summit County Democratic Party’s ability to affect positive social change, Pete is a true believer.
His primary responsibilities include running the day-to-day operations of the organization, strategic planning and providing resources and support for candidates at the federal, state and local levels of government. The project Pete lights up about is his effort to provide an added layer of support, “…to create a more workable system of organization for the Summit County Dems, to make it easier to keep up with everything the party is doing, which means we can do more.” He looked at the great work that was being done already, and figured out how, as a member of the team, he could further the reach of the organization.
At the age of 28, Pete has already earned the respect and admiration of many of Akron’s leaders. Akron Mayor Jeff Fusco says of Pete, “Over the last few years we have had a lot of discussion about brain drain and our younger talent leaving. Then, you run into Pete Nischt and realize we will be all right. We have a lot of young talent staying and moving into Akron and Pete is at the front of the class.”
While he has garnered positive attention and support in the political arena, there is no question about who Pete’s most enthusiastic admirer is. Ellen Lander Nischt, Assistant Director of Law for the City of Akron Law Department, met Pete at University of Akron’s Law School, and they married in 2014. The couple is fiercely devoted to one another. Pete says of his wife, “Ellen is the most selfless, brilliant and generous person I know. She has the grace and sense of humor to handle the political life, and she empowers me to do what I do.”
To really get to know Pete, I knew talking with Ellen would be a necessity. I asked her to tell me about her husband, and she had plenty to say.
Ellen says of meeting Pete, “Law school makes you one-dimensional, competitive and very stressed out. Pete was none of those things. This guy had avoided all the pitfalls and managed to bring that out in others too. He made friends with all kinds of people of every background, and he was never rude, mean, or competitive. He was smart at hell, he wasn’t afraid to take positions on political issues, and he was witty while he did it.”
Ellen, talking about Pete today says, “He cares very deeply about getting things right. Pete never waivers in his beliefs and convictions. He cares about fairness, equality and creating pathways for people to achieve their own hopes and dreams, whatever those look like. Pete doesn’t shy away from the messy stuff, or the tiring stuff, or the difficult people. He is a do-er who isn’t afraid to communicate. He’s not a grandstander and he doesn’t relish talking about himself, but he has no problem talking about the issues, the work and the facts. He knows that someone has to speak for the “little guys” and speak to the little guys, and not switch the message in between. He will be able to get things done because he knows how to utilize positive relationships with existing decision-makers while maintaining his individuality and originality. Pete is young and very well-versed in our generation’s way of relating to the world, but he knows how to reach people where they are and talk in terms they understand, no matter what generation.”
Finally, I asked Ellen about Pete’s music and whether she thought she and I could twist his arm to step up to the microphone with his guitar sometime soon. “I would LOVE for that to happen. I have tried to get him to come out and play some. It’s a wonderful part of him, so I’ll see what I can do to get him to come out for low-key open mic night, just for fun.”
What does the future hold for Pete Nischt? At the time of the interview, Pete was considering a run for school board. He has since announced his candidacy for the unexpired school board seat vacated by Municipal Judge David Lombardi.
Whatever the future may hold for Akron, I am confident that Pete Nischt will be in the center of it with his sleeves rolled up, working hard with that smile on his face. He will do it whether he holds elected office or not, because it is the right thing to do, and that is who he is.