Tahseen Chowdhury, 16, is a junior at Stuyvesant High School, where he is president of the Student Union. He was also president of his middle school Student Council at PS 122 in Astoria.
Chowdhury said he’s running for the State Senate because he believes he would best represent the district, which includes neighborhoods like Jackson Heights, East Elmhurst and Corona.
“The job requires that you represent the people accurately, and I think I can do that and do it better than anyone who’s running,” he said. “Anyone who is more experienced doesn’t have the same perspective and ability to represent people that I do.”
The teenager turns 18 in July 2018. According to the New York State Board of Elections, candidates are required to be 18 years old before the election. The Democratic primary for the State Senate seat will take place in September 2018, while the general election will be in November.
Chowdhury said he also jumped into the race to raise awareness about and oppose the Independent Democratic Conference (IDC), a breakaway group of eight Democrats who have a power-sharing agreement with Republicans in the State Senate.
Peralta was the most recent Democrat to join the IDC.
Chowdhury said he found out about the IDC while advocating for legislation to give student representatives two votes on the Panel for Education Policy. He said he was working with State Senator Jesse Hamilton, an IDC member from Brooklyn, on the issue last year.
But one day, he said, the communication suddenly stopped. Chowdhury started digging into what happened and began following the activities of the IDC.
In November, Hillary Clinton, whom Chowdhury supported in the 2016 presidential race, lost to Donald Trump. Chowdhury was at the Jacob Javits Center on the night of the crushing defeat.
“I understood the importance of Democratic unity in the nation at that moment,” he said. “I felt like my parents and my community weren’t represented in the federal government, so I wanted to make sure at the state and local level at minimum, we were being accurately represented.”
Just five days after Trump’s inauguration, Peralta joined the IDC, which drew the ire of many liberal-leaning constituents. Chowdhury was among those hurt by the decision.
“I felt like there was a massive lack of awareness about the IDC and what was going on,” he said. “I felt like I had to do something to bring that awareness to a greater level.”
Chowdhury believes by giving Republicans control of the State Senate, the IDC is preventing Democrats from leading and passing progressive policies.
Though he acknowledged that the IDC “can pass progressive legislation at certain points,” he believes efforts to raise the age of minors incarcerated at Rikers Island were watered down.
“You’re handing the keys over to the other side, effectively,” Chowdhury said. “You’re letting them create what they want to create as they give you the crumbs left over.
“At the end of the day, they’re the ones empowering Republicans who prevent those policies and those pieces of legislation from getting to the floor,” he added.
Chowdhury’s campaign website lists an array of positions on local issues. If elected, he said he wants to see the State Senate pass the DREAM Act and another bill that would make New York a sanctuary state.
“My goal is to keep families together,” he said. “That’s extremely important.”
For education, the East Elmhurst native wants to provide more support staff in schools. He said students often face issues outside of the classroom, which need to be addressed and supported as well.
Another issue he’s passionate about is increasing awareness about the SHSAT, the admissions test middle students can take to place into one of the city’s specialized high schools. Stuyvesant High School, where Chowdhury goes now, is the school with the highest cutoff score.
Although some advocates want to scrap the test in favor of a more holistic admissions process, Chowdhury doesn’t support getting rid of it. Instead, he wants to work with organizations and the Department of Education to conduct more outreach to black and Latino students, many of whom don’t even take the test, he said.
“They don’t know this is a test people prep for, they’re never told that,” he said. “If anything, they’re offered a prep program that is subpar and doesn’t work. We should be providing the money to get them access to these networks.”
Affordable housing and gentrification are two other major issues residents in the district face. Chowdhury said he supports State Senator Michael Gianaris’s bill to change how the area median income (AMI) is calculated, which currently includes wealthier areas of Westchester and Long Island.
The bill would change the AMI calculations to the zip code level, which Chowdhury said would more accurately measure the median income of the neighborhood.
“That would be the first step to make sure the program we have now is actually working and affordable,” he said.
Though Chowdhury said he supports development, he wants to ensure developers are incentivized to build more affordable housing.
“At the end of the day gentrification is something that we cannot stop, it’s happening in most of the urban centers in the world right now,” he said. “Facing that reality is sometimes hard for people, but it is the reality that exists. It’s not going to make everyone happy and it’s not the greatest thing to say, but it is the truth.”
While it’s still early in his campaign, Chowdhury has already set fundraising goals. He hopes to raise $500,000 by January. He said he heard the IDC was raising close to $2 million for Peralta’s re-election effort.
In 2016, Peralta ran unopposed in the Democratic primary. In the general election, he collected 79 percent of the vote.
“It’s going to be a very hard-fought race,” Chowdhury said. “There’s going to be more candidates probably, so we want to make sure we are well-funded for that stretch.”
His campaign team is made up of high school volunteers, none of whom is getting paid. Chowdhury said that’s an asset because it shows they care about the election and the campaign.
He touted his access to a network of high school students who can help get out the youth vote. In last year’s State Senate race, only 18 percent of voters ages 18 to 29 cast a ballot, which he called “terrifying.” Chowdhury said his “rare candidacy” can change that.
“They care about what’s happening in the state and local level, they care about the community,” he said. “That’s why they’re getting involved, and that’s something standard politicians can’t motivate.”
Chowdhury is also counting on the support of the district’s large south Asian community. He said he believes they’ll listen because they “understand what I’m growing up in.”
“It’s not going to be an easy win,” he said. “We’re running against an incumbent, but it’s definitely possible to motivate those young voters and get them out to vote.”
He’ll likely face skepticism from voters who will question his age and lack of experience. Chowdhury said he doesn’t view that as an obstacle, but rather as a positive.
“My age does seem very surprising, but at the end of the day, when they understand what I’m running for, why I’m doing it and how I’m going about it, they’ll definitely listen and turn their minds around,” he said.
Then there’s the question of his schedule. If elected, Chowdhury would start his term in the middle of his freshman year in college. But the 16-year-old candidate said he’s putting the election and his community before his own education.
He plans to push off his fall semester in college, instead opting to go all in on the campaign. He would start in the spring, and is considering going part-time to accommodate the State Senate’s schedule.
He’s also looking at going to school in Albany, so he would be close to the State Legislature. Chowdhury said he would come down to his district when he has free time.
“Of course, if I win, I’ll work with the college to work classes around my State Senate position,” he said. “Without a doubt, college comes second.”
Though there are still many questions about his campaign, Chowdhury believes he would better represent the district than Peralta. He wants his candidacy to empower residents to look at how they’re being represented and ask if the current elected officials can do better.
“If they’re not representing you, I think it’s about time you don’t vote them in again,” he said. “Find someone who is accurately representing you and vote for them.”