Political candidates often are assumed to be of a certain age, race, orientation, and social standing, but more and more in New York City that tide has been turning. Diverse candidates of color also seem to be getting younger and more impassioned every year.
According to the New York City Campaign Finance Board (NYCCFB) Voter Analysis Report for 2021-2022, the most underrepresented voters “who lack power in politics” are often voters under 30 years old, immigrant voters, voters with disabilities, and voters with a felony conviction.
The Amsterdam News reached out to a few candidates of color who are up-and-comers as well as electeds who made it into office at a fairly young age, to hear about their experiences.
U.S. Rep. Ritchie Torres was once the youngest, openly gay person in the city’s history at 25 years old to become an elected official when he ran for city council back in 2015 in the South Bronx. Torres said as a housing organizer in his 20s, he took a “leap of faith” to run for office when he was 24. Torres thinks campaigning can be draining but he felt fired up by interacting with voters.
“For a whole year, I did nothing but knock on doors. I went into people’s homes. Heard their stories and I won my first campaign on the strength of door to door, face to face campaigning,” said Torres. “The best piece of advice I could give is knock on doors.”
Political insiders at the time, said Torres, told him he was too young and he “had no business running.” He assumed his age was a liability going in, but his experience was that voters saw in him an impetus for change in the future of leadership. He said young people no longer need permission to serve their community. They don’t need to wait.
There are plenty of young candidates of color who are still trying to break into political office, doing just that.
Native Brooklynite Tim Hunter, 23, was the youngest candidate in the special election for the 43rd State Assembly district race to replace former Assemblymember Diana Richardson in Brooklyn. He is a former spokesperson for Sen. Julia Salazar, a housing advocate, was a high school teacher, and worked for Richardson. He owes most of his inspiration to his mother who was also a teacher, he said.
The most important reason for young Black and Brown men to run for office, said Hunter, is because they are the demographic that is often impacted by societal or political issues. He said that he has lost friends in the community who should’ve lived to see his age and has family that have gone to prison. “It’s all about changing the narrative,” said Hunter.
Hunter said one of his biggest challenges is raising campaign money, made even harder when he’s staying away from big special interest donors. He considers his voting base to be college students and colleagues. His first motivation is not politics but community organizing. He doesn’t get discouraged when certain endorsements might not happen because he’s younger. Bottomline, he said that the length of his experience has nothing to do with his qualifications, and some established ‘political machine’ politicians are “out of touch” with what the community wants.
“I think that’s the difference between me and a lot of the other candidates in the race is that I’m not here to push political agenda, I’m not here because I’m an aspiring politician. I’m here because I believe our communities deserve better,” said Hunter. “Me being in the race is also holding other people in the race accountable.
He and others are still running in the June primary against new Assemblymember Brian Cunningham, who won the special election back in March.
Similar to Hunter, assembly candidate Hercules Reid, 29, is running in the special election and June primary for Assembly District 58 in East Flatbush, Brooklyn to replace former Assemblymember Nick Perry. Reid is a former aide to his mentor Mayor Eric Adams and is running as an independent Democrat on the “Education is Key” party line against Democratic nominee Monique Chandler-Waterman. The special election will be held on May 24. Early voting begins soon and goes from May 14 through May 22.
Reid believes in fostering youth and education in politics. He said generally younger people are valued for engagement purposes but have been left out of the conversation when it comes to making real decisions. He thinks that having the ability and passion to represent people doesn’t have an age and people who get hung up on that are preoccupied with “ego” which can be discouraging. He said to a degree politics is “war” but he strives to stay centered and thankful in his journey to get on the ballot, even without the blessing of the county committee or the Brooklyn Democratic Party.
“Everyone has to start somewhere. Everyone in office now for 30 plus years, they started somewhere,” said Reid, “The question really is not ‘how much have you done’ but ‘what have you done with the time that you had.’”
Reid began his foray into politics when he ran for student government as a CUNY student studying architecture in 2015. He went on to run in the special election for the 45th City Council District race when he was 26 years old in 2019. After the loss in that race, Reid became an aide to then-Brooklyn Borough President and now-Mayor Adams.
In a Wednesday morning presser, on May 11, Adams chose to endorse his mentee in the state assembly race. “We’re going to win this fight because we know the importance of helping our children,” said Adams, “We’re fighting for education equality from k-12 and college. We know this is the right candidate for the right time to move us in the right direction.”
Reid said he is often received with warmth from residents whenever he knocks on people’s doors. He considers his base to be any voter he’s met, from seniors to CUNY students and Caribbean constituents. One advantage Reid and others spoke about is being able to utilize their own social media platforms to connect with voters more easily than other generations.
Luckily, there are electeds already in office in the city council and congress who broke barriers as diverse young candidates, such as Ritchie and U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who are leading the way for incomers like Hunter and Reid.
Councilmember Shahana Hanif, 31, serves City Council District 39 in Park Slope, Brooklyn. She is Bangladeshi and Muslim, and has an encouraging “radical hope” for representation in the city’s government since she’s not the only younger person on the city council, she said. For example her colleague, freshman Councilmember Chi Osse was 23 years old and a queer Back Lives Matter activist when he ran last year and won.
Hanif was diagnosed with Lupus, an autoimmune disease, when she was 17 years old. “That was the first time in my life I had to navigate the healthcare system as a very young person and woman of color,” said Hanif about the catalyst that eventually led her to politics. “My parents are limited English proficient, so this diagnosis, the onus was on me to interpret and learn what was happening to my body.”
Hanif launched a blog to discuss with the larger Bangladeshi community what it was like navigating life as an immigrant with Lupus, the health care she received, and the impact it had on even simple things like traveling. That drive to connect with people led to her becoming a disability justice and housing advocate, she said. Under former Councilmember Brad Lander she was dubbed a community liaison, organizing immigrant communities and leading participatory budgeting.
Eventually, she was approached to run in the election to replace Lander as he left for the city comptroller office. Hanif said that because she was younger she worked a lot harder to connect with constituents. “This is a seat that has consistently had among the highest voter turnout. This is a seat that has never elected a woman. This is a seat that has usually elected white men from Park Slope,” said Hanif. “So early on it was a tough terrain to begin with.”
She is a proud leftist, socialist but does not consider herself a “political insider.” Hanif was sworn into city council back in January and has been in office for about five months. Ideologically, she said she doesn’t feel she has had to compromise, but she understands that differences and navigating complex issues the community cares about can be tough.
She’s learned from established council members that government bureaucracy still persists today, and no matter what your age, the “governing structure” was not meant for a more representative democracy.
Torres, who has moved past city council and is now in congress, said that he remains a public housing advocate at heart and that is the central cause of his life in government. Overtime, he said people mature as elected officials to strike the best possible balance between ideals and political realities. To him, every bill is a “compromise” short of perfection but he still firmly believes in democracy and the peaceful transfer of power.
“We deserve a government that is every bit as diverse as America itself. We need a government that fully reflects America as a multiracial, multi-ethnic democracy,” said Torres, “You know a wise person once said if you do not have a seat at the table then you’re probably on the menu. And we need to make sure communities of color have a seat at the table. Especially young people.”
Ariama C. Long is a Report for America corps member and writes about culture and politics in New York City for The Amsterdam News. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep her writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by visiting: https://tinyurl.com/fcszwj8w