When Michelle Nelson was on the precipice of winning the April election that would make her Flossmoor’s mayor, much was made of the fact that she — or her competitor — would be the first woman to hold that office. But Nelson downplayed that story throughout her campaign, insisting it was more important that Flossmoor residents elect their next mayor on her merits.
Even in victory, she said while she recognized the historic moment for the village, she would prefer people focus on her ability to lead. That remains the case, though Nelson has come to realize how much that moment meant to people who celebrated her ascension to Flossmoor’s highest public office. She was particularly struck by youths who said that seeing her become mayor was an inspiration.
“Any time your actions inspire other people, absolutely, it feels incredible,” Nelson said. “I’m pretty humbled. I was so honored that the young girls were excited about that.”
Her goals now?
“Hopefully, inspiring them some more,” Nelson said.
From Kansas City to Flossmoor
Nelson grew up in Kansas City, Mo., but her grandparents, who raised her mother on the South Side, had a home in Chicago that Nelson regularly visited for special occasions such as the Fourth of July. She was always drawn to the city and was brought up a White Sox fan. Her father, a judge in Missouri, even ran in Homewood’s Run for Freedom before she knew much about the southwest suburb.
“Looking back, I didn’t know it as the Homewood-Flossmoor area,” Nelson said, but she was drawn to the area. “This always felt like home.”
As she grew up, Nelson started to discover passions that would lead her to civil engineering. “I loved to build things, and I loved math and science,” she said. “I knew I really enjoyed and excelled at those things.” So, Nelson attended the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where she earned a degree in civil engineering. While she was there, she also met the man who would become her husband, Cameron Nelson, who serves on the Flossmoor School District 161 Board of Education.
“He was a really smart guy, funny and challenged me,” Nelson said. “I like a challenge.”
The two settled in Flossmoor in 2003 and now have four children together. Theater and the arts are major passions for the family, and the Chicago area provides many great opportunities for those interests. Nelson said she is happy they chose Flossmoor to be their home nearly two decades ago.
“1,000%,” she said. “It is still the best place to raise a family.”
The start of something Nelson, who served for 12 years on Flossmoor’s Zoning Board of Appeals before she was elected mayor, said she first took an interest in public office two years ago after some things happened on the board level with which she did not agree. She ran as a write-in candidate for trustee in 2019, in what she said at the time was an effort to “get the ideas flowing, discussion moving and set Flossmoor up for success according to what is important to this community.”
She cited a need for development to capture new revenue in Flossmoor, as well as a desire to market the town — ideas that were echoed in her 2021 run for mayor. And she expressed a desire to see more events that bring the community together more often and celebrate the arts, such as the inaugural Chamber Night. She also launched the Barrels of Hope concept last year that was fully realized in 2021.
“Any time we can bring people together is a win for Flossmoor,” Nelson said.
Connecting with a community
While the write-in campaign was ultimately unsuccessful, Nelson was building momentum. She spent two years going to every meeting she could — not just the Flossmoor Village Board meetings but all of the commissions, too, trying to understand how everything works together. And she set her sights on the office that oversees all of them.
“About a year ago, I decided the best way to make a difference was to run for mayor,” Nelson said.
Her campaign took place in the midst of a pandemic, when folks were not going out as much. But Nelson took that as an opportunity to find different ways to connect with people. One of the ways she did so was through the Spotlight on Flossmoor Small Business series. She said the owners were “extremely receptive,” and it ended up being a win-win situation when the community needed it most.
“They loved telling their stories, and I think residents loved hearing their stories,” Nelson said.
Nelson serves as a board member and helped establish the Homewood Science Center, which opened in 2016, to further “incredibly important” STEM education in the area, work she is “extremely proud of.”
Nelson said she thinks her active role in the community undoubtedly played a role in her election victory.
“Residents know who I am and that they can depend on me,” she said.
The first few months of many
After winning the role of mayor, Nelson said she immediately put a “big emphasis” on relationship-building. She wants to work with trustees to make the Flossmoor government as “open and honest” as possible, inviting all perspectives. So far, so good, she thinks.
“I’ve had great discussions with all of our trustees,” she said.
The first few months on the job were undoubtedly busy, as operations transitioned from one mayor to another and she started to learn more about how the pieces fall into place.
She also pushed for a change to the structure of village board meetings to move comments up front and streamline certain actions. And she did so in the midst of an ongoing pandemic, through the height of warm-weather events and a transition back to school for local families.
“I had a healthy expectation for the amount of work it would be,” she said.
Looking forward, she said the drainage improvements to alleviate flooding, some of which are already in the works, are crucial to Flossmoor. Other focuses for Nelson are diversity, equity and inclusion; services for seniors; and pavement repair.
She is also looking for greater collaboration with Flossmoor’s neighbors. She said Flossmoor already has good mutual aid agreements with neighboring villages such as Homewood, but she wants to continue exploring opportunities to work together in other capacities, too.
“It’s really important that level of support not end with our police and fire departments but carry through,” Nelson said.
Hitting the ground running
Nelson remains close with her father, who administered the oath of office at her first meeting as mayor. He was the first person in his family who went to college and ran a private law practice while Nelson was growing up. Running served as a great stress reliever from a busy schedule, and Nelson saw a bonding opportunity in hitting the pavement alongside him.
“The way to get that time with him was to join him on his runs,” Nelson said. “I loved the quality time with him.”
Over the years, Nelson — who champions Flossmoor’s Hidden Gem Half Marathon any chance she gets — has continued to run both for the love of it and for the opportunity it offers her to think. Some people turn to coffee when they need a boost; Nelson puts on her running shoes.
“It’s been a fixture as I get older, working through challenges,” she said. “It really helps me think through situations with a clearer head. … Running is my coffee.”