Guest Post By Nate Shinagawa (D-NY)
Tomorrow is primary day in New York and there's a YEO running. A YEO? Sure, a member of People For the American Way's Young Elected Officials program. Check this out if this is the first you're hearing about it. One of the best congressional candidates running anywhere, Nate Shinagawa, is who I'm talking about and I asked him how he was drawn to public service. His guest post follows but I just wanted to tell you a little about him first.
At 28, Nate is younger than most people who run for Congress-- right there with Blue America-backed Trevor Thomas in Grand Rapids. And don’t think for a second that his youth means inexperience-- Nate is no stranger to elected office, having served for the last six years on the Tompkins County Legislature; he's now Vice Chair. In fact, Nate has spent more time in elected office than all of his primary and general election opponents in New York’s 23rd District… combined.
Elected to the Tompkins County Legislature shortly after graduating from Cornell University, Nate quickly established himself as a leading progressive voice in the community, having fought for better access to healthcare, environmental protection, and investment in sustainable jobs. And he's done more than just fight for progressive ideals-- he's also worked tirelessly to raise up young progressives and help them get into elected office. Like I said, he's been a member of the Young Elected Officials network for over 6 years, brainstorming with other YEOs around the country on mutual concerns and on how to apply effective progressive solutions to the problems that plague working families and American communities. He's served on the YEO steering committee and has worked for two years as a faculty member of the Frontline Leadership Academy, a program offered through YEO which trains young candidates on how to run a successful campaign. In this way, Nate is more than just a progressive candidate-- he represents the next generation of progressive leaders.
Nate's district is New York's newly formed 23rd (much of the old Eric Massa district) where he will face freshman Tea Party Republican Tom Reed. Defeating an incumbent is never easy, but Reed is vulnerable: He’s running in a new district, which now includes the more liberal Tompkins County, and counts more independents and fewer Republicans than his previous district. Polls show Nate, an independent-minded progressive Democrat who is also the endorsed candidate of New York's Working Families Party, beating his two Democratic opponents handily tomorrow. And then we take on Reed.
Today's Youth Can Be Today's Leaders
by Nate Shinagawa
During my senior year of college, there was a labor dispute at a local pizza parlor. The workers there complained that they hadn’t received all of their paychecks, and that they hadn’t been properly paid for overtime. The shop had taken particular advantage of undocumented workers, paying them even less than minimum wage. At the time, I had been involved with a group of student labor activists that frequently worked for workers’ rights in the community. So when I heard of the dispute, my friends and I decided to do everything we could to help.
We quickly became heavily involved in their protest. Hearing about the management’s abusive labor practices only bolstered my resolve to fix the situation. We argued and demonstrated until finally, the pizza place granted the workers all of their back pay, and compensated them for the overtime they should have received. Fighting for their rights was more fulfilling than anything I had done before-- I could see the results of our hard work, and I was glad to have made a real difference in my community. I knew then that I wanted to commit myself to service.
In a way, my desire to enter public service actually began long before this incident. My grandfather, a Japanese American in California, had been put in an internment camp with his family during World War II. After the war, despite the injustice he suffered, he decided to enlist in the Marines and later in the Air Force. He did so because he still believed strongly in the ideals of America, and because he wanted to prove his loyalty to the country he loved. My grandfather instilled the value of service in my father, who in turn instilled it in me.
When I was thirteen, a former student of my father named Kuanchung Kao was murdered in a case of racially motivated police brutality. Local officials covered everything up, and only a tiny settlement was given to the dead man’s wife and three children. My father refused to allow government, which is supposed to protect us, to fail at such a basic level. He decided to get involved in the case, and helped win a fair settlement for the family-- even as my own family faced intimidation from local officials and the KKK. This incident deeply affected me, and compelled me to pursue a career of service.
Still, as a college student, I figured my aspirations for public service were a long ways off. But after the ordeal with the pizza shop had concluded, a man with whom I had worked suggested something I hadn’t previously considered: that I run for a seat on the county legislature.
Running for office at the age of 21 seemed almost absurd to me-- I hadn’t even graduated from college yet; how was I going to convince people to support me in a bid to lead an entire county? I was hesitant, but at the same time, I felt strongly that running for office might give me a great opportunity to continue a difference in my community. So I stuck to my convictions, and decided to make the leap.
That decision proved to be one of the best I ever made. Six years ago, I was elected to be a county legislator, and I have felt so fortunate to serve my community in that role. When the Ithaca Breast Cancer Alliance faced huge funding cuts, I was able to work with the organization to find alternative sources of funding. In 2006, when Governor Pataki attempted to close a local nursing home, I successfully stood up to the Governor to save it. And for the last four years, I’ve been outspoken critic of hydraulic fracturing, voting consistently for bans, moratoria, home rule, and further study of the practice.
I’ve worked hard to fight for progressive values in my community, but I’ve also had another mission: to get more young people involved in the political process. Young adults have the potential to make such a significant impact in politics: we’re energetic, passionate, and thanks to social media, more connected than ever. Yet voter turnout among young people remains dismally low, and many feel as though they don’t have a stake in what goes on in the halls of government.
That line of thinking couldn’t be more misguided, which is why I’ve spent a lot of time and effort both working with other young politicians and encouraging more young adults to run for office. After all, young people have every reason to be invested in government-- we’re the ones that have to inherit the problems that get left behind. So for the last six years, I’ve been a part of the Young Elected Officials network, and have also served on their steering committee. Through this organization I’ve had the opportunity to meet with other young elected officials from all around the country. At our conferences I’m able to discuss the common and issues we face, and think of new, innovative solutions to tackling them.
Perhaps the most important test of my work with other young politicians came when my friend, Svante Myrick, decided to run for mayor of Ithaca, NY. Svante was young-- only 24-- and faced a number of older, more experienced candidates. But Svante stuck to his principles and launched an inspiring grassroots campaign, ultimately earning him significant majorities in both the primary and general elections. Svante now proudly serves as mayor, and as I see the wonderful things he’s been able to do for the city, I know that he was absolutely the best candidate for the job.
Our country faces so many problems that appear at times to be utterly intractable. There’s a lot of cynicism and discontentment-- now, more than ever, people feel as though government isn’t listening and isn’t leading. That feeling, in a way, is quite justified. Many of our leaders seem to be more preoccupied with handing out tax breaks to corporations and millionaires than with actually helping people in this country become more prosperous. They’ve forgotten the importance of building up communities and investing in people, and our country has suffered as a consequence.
But these problems are not intractable. We can fix them. That’s why I’m running for Congress-- to bring principled leaders who’ll stand up for all members of our community. That’s why I’ve worked so hard to get other young progressives into politics, so they too can be outspoken defenders of our shared values.
Government is supposed to empower people and invest in communities so that all can realize their highest potential. When we return government to that purpose, I’m confident we’ll get this country to thrive again.