In New York, you can run for state Assembly at age 18. You can run for Congress at 25. So why don't more young people try it?
Patrick Nelson points out that most people try to get their driver's license when they become eligible at age 16.
“You don’t wait 10 years to go do it,” he said.
And he thinks the same thought process should apply to seeking public office.
“The younger you are, the greater stake you have … in your government, because you have to live for a longer period of time with the results of those decisions,” said Nelson, 27, of Stillwater. “We have the greatest stake, so I think we ought to have at least a commensurate say in those decisions.”
Nelson, a Democrat who works as a special projects coordinator for Assemblyman Phil Steck of Colonie, is planning a run for the 21st Congressional District seat. The district is represented by Elise Stefanik, a Republican from Willsboro who in 2014 became the youngest woman elected to Congress, at the age of 30.
“‘We are the ones we have been waiting for’ is something I’ve learned from Bernie Sanders,” said Nelson, who, like Steck, was a Sanders delegate to the Democratic National Convention. He also worked as a field director for Mike Derrick’s campaign when the Democrat ran against Stefanik last year. And he ran for Stillwater Town Board in 2014.
Coincidentally, Stefanik inspired an even younger candidate to enter the race for the 113th Assembly District: 20-year-old Morgan Zegers of Malta.
Zegers was a senior in Dan Hornick’s politics class at Ballston Spa High School when Stefanik, shortly after being elected in 2014, spoke to the class and inspired her to become politically involved. She has since interned twice with Stefanik: once the summer in her Glens Falls district office after graduating in 2015 and again this past summer at her campaign office in D.C. She said seeing Stefanik in action — running from meeting to meeting and making calls to voters from the campaign office — “made it very real for me, and really possible," adding that there’s truth to the expression “you can’t be what you can’t see.”
“Mr. Hornick was like, ‘Morgan, if you want to make it anywhere, you need to intern in her office,’” said Zegers, now a junior at American University in Washington, D.C., who studies government and accounting. “And I said, ‘Actually, I just filled out the application an hour ago.'”
Zegers said she sees being younger than most candidates as an advantage, not a drawback.
“People will say ‘she’s not experienced,’ but we’re actually embracing my age,” she said. “We’re running with the fact that they don’t have much they can go against.”
Assemblywoman Carrie Woerner, D-Round Lake, who represents the 113th, said it’s “an encouraging sign” to see a 20-year-old enter the political arena.
“I worry that there are too many people who are turned off by it, who aren’t coming out to vote, that don’t think their vote matters — that they don’t want to participate in civic life,” she said. “And so, that there’s a young woman who wants to, I think is terrific.”
The seats Nelson and Zegers have their eyes on won’t be up for election until 2018. Election Day is 630 days out.
Zegers said her decision to run now was inspired by what she saw happening during the presidential election. Then she saw Woerner, D-Round Lake, soundly defeat Round Lake Republican Chris Boyark to win her second two-year term. Soon after, Zegers started filling out the paperwork to run in the next election two years out, seeing Boyark’s loss as an opportunity.
“With the election in 2016, it became very clear: whether you’re for Bernie Sanders or for Donald Trump, people wanted something new in politics,” she said, “and as a young conservative woman, I thought I could bring that to them.”
She also credits her grandfather Fritz Kirchner, who died last March, for instilling in her a sense of community service. He was involved in “every club you can think of,” she said, including the VFW, an organization she has been active in since high school.
“At the wake, everybody was lining up, saying, ‘If we had a mayor in this town, he would be our mayor,’” she said. “It just kind of sparked a thought in my head.”
For Nelson, the early jump is about building name recognition, but also about playing a role in defining the political landscape of the 2018 election cycle now, during the first 100 days of Donald Trump’s presidency.
“I don’t want to be reactive to the political conversation,” he said. “I want to be proactive and craft the political conversation myself.”
That conversation, for Nelson, is centered around climate change. He speaks passionately about the topic, and graduated from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy with a bachelor’s in biochemistry and biophysics in 2012.
“Fossil fuels is like smoking, and we need to quit,” he said. “We shouldn’t be in the business of helping companies that are hurting our planet.”
He also talks about the need to invest in people — “it’s our human capital” — by providing universal healthcare and moving profits away from corporations and into the hands of the nation’s workers.
He is outlining his takes on various policies, and specific bills as they come up for a vote, on his YouTube channel, where he announced his campaign on Jan. 19.
“To rise to the challenge of climate change, we need to get our economy running at its best possible performance, and the most valuable resource that we have in the United States of America are the citizens,” he said.
Zegers said she is campaigning on three main issues: ethics — “I’m putting term limits on myself” — education and agriculture.
As a recent product of upstate New York schools, she said she would “always refer to what the teachers and the schoolchildren are saying.”
“I know what it’s like to be over-tested, that’s for sure,” she said.
On farming, she said she wants to make sure there are “no regulations preventing growth in the agri-business sector.”
Zegers said she’s not worried about raising enough money to contend with Woerner, who spent more than $350,000 in her last campaign, according to state campaign filings. She said that because she’s young, she has the tenacity and energy to have an impact on the ground. She's also banking on her social media skills to help her reach voters.
“This campaign can be won on door knocking,” she said.
Zegers has raised about $6,370, which includes a $4,000 donation from Saratoga Springs socialite Michele Riggi.
“A friend of a friend connected us. She said she had conservative values, and she gave me time to meet with her,” she said. “It was great — I’m so thankful.”
Nelson said his campaign mantra is “21 for 21” because he’s asking people to donate $21 to endorse his 21st century policies in the race for the 21st Congressional District. His first campaign filing isn't due until April.
“We need to get 100,000 people to part with the cost of a night out at the movies to make this campaign successful,” he said.
Stefanik spent $2.6 million in the last election, but Nelson doesn’t view her as his opponent just yet.
“I hope there is a primary, because I feel like it will strengthen the eventual nominee,” he said. “Elise Stefanik is an excellent debater, so it would help to have practice going into that.”
He added, “It takes friction to make a fire.”
IN THE MINORITY
As a student with conservative values at American University in Washington, D.C., Zegers said she’s in the minority. Most of her classmates are liberals, she said.
“One time there was a burning of the flags, and that absolutely broke my heart,” she said. “It’s really hard to be here sometimes.”
She was happy to be in D.C. for the inauguration of President Donald Trump last month, however, and signed up to march in the day's parade. She was paired with the U.S. Army’s Mounted Color Guard from Fort Riley, Kansas, and got to help prep the horses and walk alongside them.
“I’m very patriotic, and to be able to participate in this huge event of the transfer of power — it was awesome,” she said.
Zegers said she stayed away from the women’s march the next day, when hundreds of thousands marched on D.C. to protest Trump, knowing traffic would be crazy.
“It wasn’t anything political,” she said. “I was exhausted.”
She did vote for Trump, however, and said that, “When it came down to voting for Hillary or Trump, I will vote for Donald Trump.”
“I constantly hope that his choices are going to have a good effect,” she said. “I know a lot of people believe in him from upstate New York, and I really hope he helps America in any way possible.”
She added, "I struggle to understand why people would want him to fail.”