State Sen. Jose Peralta (D) has been voting with Republicans, so a high schooler is running to take his seat.
For most politically active, progressive 16-year-olds, participating in the democratic process might involve volunteering for a campaign or joining a high school young Democrats club. Tahseen Chowdhury has a different idea.
Though he isn’t old enough to vote, the junior at Manhattan’s Stuyvesant High School launched his campaign last month for New York state senate. Chowdhury will be challenging Sen. Jose Peralta (D) in Queens’ District 13 in September 2018.
Chowdhury is unconcerned that he’s not a known politician. He said he’s counting on two phenomena emerging in 2017 to bolster his campaign: The growing number of first-time politicians deciding to take a stab at politics and voters’ anger toward President Trump, which is also being directed toward local lawmakers.
“If people don’t trust their representatives on the federal level, they have to make sure they’re represented adequately in the state and local level,” he told ThinkProgress by phone from his high school office. “,And they’re not being represented well.”
Peralta, who joined the state senate in 2010, was elected as a progressive Democrat. But around President Trump’s inauguration in January, he joined New York’s Independent Democratic Conference (IDC)— a group of eight Democratic lawmakers that since 2011 have allied with Republicans, giving the GOP minority an effective majority in the state Senate.
“That was extremely unsettling to me,” Chowdhury told ThinkProgress about Peralta’s decision to join the IDC. “It didn’t make sense. This district is extremely progressive.”
Almost immediately, Democrats in the district started a movement to unseat Peralta in 2018. Nobody emerged as a potential candidate until May, when Chowdhury became the first person to decide he was up to the task.
“I can definitely do a better job than Peralta when it comes to representing the community,” he said. Peralta’s office did not respond to a request to comment about his first primary challenger.
Chowdhury, who lives with his family in the diverse Queens neighborhood of East Elmhurst, claims that the main goal of his campaign isn’t necessarily to win, but to raise awareness in his community about the problems with the IDC, and hopefully unseat Peralta.
“I can definitely do a better job than Peralta when it comes to representing the community.”
“One of the things I’m doing now is using my age and using the political environment right now that’s completely ready for an outside candidate like me to bring that awareness to communities that otherwise might not be thinking about it,” he said. He added that many residents of District 13 do not know that their representative sides with Republicans instead of mainstream Democrats.
In early February, Peralta was confronted at a town hall by angry demonstrators who demanded that he explain his decision to join the IDC and justify why he did not consult with his constituents before making the move.
Peralta defended his decision, saying it would help him influence his Republicans colleagues and push forward progressive legislation on issues like gun control, women’s health, and climate change. But his constituents, including Chowdhury, see it differently.
Chowdhury claims that progressive legislation that the IDC claims to have championed, like a raise to the minimum wage and family leave law, have been watered down by the conference.
When it comes to his age, Chowdhury knows he will face challenges. He’ll have to juggle school work, his roles as both Stuyvesant student union president and Manhattan Borough Student President, and college applications.
But he’s hoping that as voters become more accepting of first-time politicians — Trump being the most prominent example — his inexperience could be a benefit.
“I know for a fact that people tend to underestimate high school students.”
“Every two years in Albany you see someone getting arrested for fraud or corruption,” Chowdhury said. “There’s a ton of big money that plays into New York politics because you have Wall Street and all the banks in these areas.”
Peralta himself is currently under investigation by New York’s attorney general for accepting a questionable stipend, potentially in exchange for joining the IDC. Two other members of the IDC are also under investigation, along with five Republicans.
“His decision to join the IDC was probably fueled by personal financial issues,” Chowdhury continued. “[Voters] are looking for someone who’s different. Someone who’s not a standard politician. I definitely don’t have any special interests because I’ve been around for so little time, I’m not able to develop those interests.”
So far, Chowdhury has tapped roughly 20 other students from top New York high schools to run his campaign. “I have access to a ton of very bright high school students across the city who want to help because they care about these issues, and I don’t have to pay them,” he said.
He coded his own website and had a friend take his official campaign photo.
“I know for a fact that people tend to underestimate high school students, but I’ve done great things with them and I think it’ll continue because they’re willing to learn and they’re very fast learners.”
His family, he said, has also been supportive.
“My parent were definitely surprised but they’re always supportive of everything that I do, as long as it’s not stupid,” he said. “I’ve always been someone that does bold things.”
This 16-year-old is launching a primary challenge to his Democratic state senator was originally published in ThinkProgress on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.