By Stephen Neukam
Sitting in his second-floor office that overlooks a small road and sorority houses that line the far side of the sidewalk, Micah Rasmussen pointed to the political cartoons that hang from the wall opposite his desk.
“I have carried these — everywhere I have ever worked they have been on my wall,” said Rasmussen.
The illustrations, which all mocked or poked fun at Rasmussen, were from The Rider News in the late 80s and early 90s when he was an undergraduate at Rider University.
Rasmussen, the director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University, was surrounded in his office by political memorabilia of the past — campaign pins, posters, pictures and letters. The ambiance provided the perfect context of understanding just who he is — a protagonist turned mentor who has accomplished a lot politically and continues to push the envelope with his future plans.
Rasmussen’s political journey, which has found him in a “dream” role at his alma mater, was perhaps foreshadowed by the activism in his family’s past. While he described his family as non-political, a pattern of organizing and involvement is clear. His grandparents helped organize a bus drivers and janitors union in Howell Township, New Jersey, and his mother started a petition drive to change the school board from appointed by the mayor to elected by the people (an endeavor in which she was successful.)
While these early experiences may not have defined a clear political ideology or affiliation, Rasmussen said they led to one of the most critical attributes of his career — the ability to question authority.
“My parents taught me that you do not take something at face value,” said Rasmussen. “Does that become a stubbornness because you don’t just accept? Yeah, there are times when it has been a stubbornness in my life.”
It was this tenacious and unshakable determination that made him one of the most popular and polarizing students while he was at Rider. It was the story behind the cartoons that hang on his office wall. It was the reason why he thinks that upon his graduation, some at Rider “wiped their brow and said, ‘shew, he’s leaving.’”
Part of the Student Government Association (SGA) executive board as a freshman, Rasmussen’s spars with The Rider News and the university’s administration made him notorious.
In one particular dispute with the administration over alcohol policy, Rasmussen challenged the university on students having a say in the social code of conduct.
The student newspaper criticized him when he won homecoming king his sophomore year, with its main sticking point being that the event hosted by SGA should not have any of the organization’s officers participating in it. This is the subject of one of the cartoons in Rasmussen’s office, with him standing on a podium with an SGA pin on, next to a banner that says, “HOMECOMING sponsored by the Student Government Assoc.”
“[The Rider News] thought that I was a populist trying to stir up sentiment on campus,” said Rasmussen.
Despite his starring in campus controversies, Rasmussen found his groove in the political science department.
“I had an absolutely amazing set of teachers,” said Rasmussen.
In particular, he developed a close relationship with former professor David Rebovich, who founded and is the namesake of the institute Rasmussen now leads.
Rebovich helped Rasmussen land his first internship, working on a state Senate campaign in Hamilton Township, New Jersey.
“It was the town where [Rebovich] lived,” said Rasmussen. “I saw that as a vote of confidence. If you’re sending me into the town where you live, you must think I’m halfway decent.”
Rasmussen admired Rebovich for his reputation and prestige in New Jersey politics. In fact, Rasmussen recalls aspiring to be like his former professor.
“I always wanted to be a pundit like he was,” said Rasmussen. “He was someone who was really relied upon for his opinion. He was the only guy talking about New Jersey politics at the time.”
With Rebovich’s nudging, mixed with his own stubbornness and persistence, Rasmussen started a career in helping and running campaigns in the state. In true personal form, he took on campaigns that had little chance of winning — he worked predominantly on Democratic campaigns in more conservative parts of the state. He joked that he only got the job because no one else wanted to manage the races.
“You know you’re going to be outspent, you know you’re outnumbered in terms of registration, you know the odds are against you,” said Rasmussen. “So you work harder and you work smarter than the other guy. That is how I made a reputation for myself — by winning races that we had no business winning.”
The reason for the success was simple to Rasmussen, and it culminates his college experience and professional career thus far:
“We didn’t take no for an answer.”
Rasmussen’s public career saw him move up the ranks of state government, working in the state legislature, holding the job of communications director for the state Department of Transportation and ultimately serving as the press secretary for New Jersey Governor James McGreevey amid the governor’s resignation in 2004.
Following a stint in private industry, where he primarily served in communications, Rasmussen’s professional career found him back on the Lawrenceville, New Jersey, campus where he spent his undergraduate years. In 2018, he was named the new director of the Rebovich Institute.
“I walked into the department during my interviews, and to see half of [my professors] still here was amazing to me after 25 years,” said Rasmussen. “I never expected that to happen.”
Nearly three semesters into his new position, Rasmussen has taken his place in what he described as a “more mature” university. Since taking control of the institute, Rasmussen has managed to bring the likes of New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy, New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Grewal, United States Congressman Jeff Van Drew and other prominent public officials and commentators to Rider.
While Rasmussen is instrumental in these visits and usually partakes in discussion with the guests, he said the most satisfying part of his job is working with students. He also teaches courses as an adjunct professor and helps coordinate internships for interested students.
“The most rewarding part of my job is the chance to help students who are politically minded to really get a foothold in the world of politics in New Jersey and beyond,” said Rasmussen.
Rasmussen’s commitment to fostering student success in his brief time at Rider has had an impact on a number of the university’s students. Senior political science major Charles Palmer said that Rasmussen has gone above and beyond to assist students outside of the classroom.”
“He’s personally taken the time to help me with my resume and offered career advice” said Palmer.
However, with his never-take-no mantra and work-harder-and-smarter attitude, Rasmussen has his eyes set to the future. He wants to grow the institute so that it is relevant to every student at the university — not just in the political science department.
With those goals in mind, he managed to reflect on his position — one, he said, he never wants to leave.
“It is a dream come true,” said Rasmussen. “I will continue to do this for as long as they will let me.”
Published in the 2/5/2020 edition of The Rider News.