Greg Pierson shares a lot of the hobbies and interests common to college students: watching and playing sports with friends, listening to music and spending time with his girlfriend.
Oh, and at age 19, he’s also running for the First Ward seat on the Columbia City Council. He’s one of three people competing to replace incumbent Clyde Ruffin, who decided against seeking a third three-year term.
Pierson is a rising sophomore at MU who came to Columbia from Clayton, and his candidacy is no joke. Members of his campaign team say that when Pierson pursues a goal, “it’s legit.”
Pierson spends time before candidate forums making sure he is “studied up.” He said the fact that journalism students make up most of his campaign team helps a lot.
Pierson dresses the part for candidate forums — sport coat, tie and analog watch — even for the Zoom forum hosted by the Columbia-Boone County League of Women Voters. He takes notes in his binder as the questions come and his fellow candidates field them. He speaks with eloquence and a level of knowledge about Columbia affairs that’s surprising for someone who’s lived here less than a year. One of his primary campaign messages is the significance of getting the vast number of college students who live in the First Ward more engaged in the community and in elections.
Jack McGrath, Pierson’s campaign manager and Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity brother, said “the kid doesn’t turn down a leadership role.” On top of his studies and his council campaign, he is vice president for recruitment at his fraternity, a Missouri Students Association senator and a member of the Cornell Leadership institute.
“Yeah, … he likes to be in charge,” his mother, Laura Pierson, quipped. She said her son’s respect for hard work and his overall likability make him a natural leader.
Perhaps his interpersonal skills are a product of his upbringing, Amanda Woodworth, Pierson’s girlfriend of three years, said. His family watched little television and few movies, instead playing games and listening to records. Woodworth said she was surprised when they watched “Free Willy” together that Pierson was seeing it for the first time.
“If I’m watching TV, it’s really either the news or ESPN,” Pierson said.
Pierson and his father, Gary Pierson, can continue a Monopoly game for days, long after his sisters and mother have thrown in the towel. The games last so long because Pierson and his dad “refuse to concede a single dollar,” he said.
Pierson and his father are huge fans of vinyl records. They’ve talked about identifying the top 100 records of all time and making it a goal to find them all. “Record store day is a high holiday in this household,” he said.
Thick skin with a soft side
It’s unusual for a person so young and so new to town to pursue a City Council seat. Pierson said he’s used to people questioning his motives.
Pierson is a Chicago Cubs fan who grew up in St. Louis, home of the Cubs’ arch rival, the Cardinals baseball team.
“That gave me some pretty thick skin,” Pierson said. He moved from the Chicago area to Clayton when he was about 5 and continued to root for the Cubs despite his friends’ complaints.
“I think it says a good bit about me: not being willing to do something just because someone says to.”
Those who’ve played sports with Pierson say it’s no surprise that he’s working hard on the council campaign.
“You know those kids that treat dodgeball like the Olympics in gym class? That’s him,” Lukas Parrish, Pierson’s campaign treasurer, said.
Despite his competitive spirit, Pierson has a softer side, Woodworth said. When he brings her flowers, he makes sure to bring them to her mother, too — and to her grandmother, if she’s in town.
Pierson is a nut about organization. He creates weekly, monthly and yearly spreadsheets to track the music he listens to. Spotify indicated he spent about 30% of 2019 listening to music. That’s 7.2 hours of songs per day.
Before he moved out of his residence hall, his side of his room was immaculate, his ironing board tucked neatly away and his seven ties slipped over a single hanger. A record of accomplishments and mementos were pinned to a cork board under his bed. His name tag for the Trulaske College of Business’s Making Me Marketable conference hung next to Post-it notes listing the six tenets of the Cornell Leadership Program — leadership, integrity, community, humility, gratitude, motivation — and another note from his girlfriend saying “I miss you, Lovey.”
Pierson moved back to his family home in Clayton when COVID-19 forced classes to go online. Running his campaign has been more challenging since he has to use Zoom to meet with his campaign team. Pierson sent emails to about 1,500 students about voting absentee and has sent mailers to other Columbia residents.
“I’ve been able to do more than I expected I would be able to do,” Pierson said about campaigning remotely, but he worries that most students will be out of town on election day.
“It’s more of an uphill battle that we’re fighting, but we might be in a better position now,” Pierson said about a potential uptick in absentee voting.
Growing up around politics
Pierson was a high school freshman when his father first ran for the Clayton school board. Laura Pierson said that sparked her son’s interest in politics. Pierson would ride his bike through neighborhoods to pass out signs and canvas for his dad.
Gary Pierson lost the 2016 election but was appointed to school board in 2016 when another member resigned. He was elected in 2017 and now is seeking reelection. Both Piersons will learn the outcome of their campaigns on Tuesday.
Laura Pierson said Greg’s desire for a council seat stems in part from the news that was happening during his formative years. Pierson was an eighth-grader when news broke of the shooting of Michael Brown in nearby Ferguson. When he was a high school junior, he saw the aftermath of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, Florida. Laura Pierson said those events changed the way she and Gary Pierson parented, teaching their children about privilege and how to stick up for friends.
Pierson saw students rising up to make their voices heard after the Parkland shooting, and his mother said that proved to him that his generation can make a difference.
Laura Pierson said she has discussed Greg’s privilege with him. She doesn’t take away from his hard work but wants him to recognize that “he started out on third base.”
Woodworth said Pierson has always had a political mindset. He canvassed for Democratic candidates in 2018 and, while he was a high school senior, he pushed for the Clayton school board to establish a student seat, which it did.
Pierson said, while his campaign has been forced to change, his message has not.
“I wanted to engage students more and show that their voices are necessary and valuable in the community. ... That goal has stayed the same.”