Gen Z on the Ballot

They’re young and they’re eager to serve. How two political neophytes from Manhattan became candidates for elected office.

18 Dec 2019 | 01:06

From Alexandria Ocasio Cortez to Julia Salazar, New Yorkers have followed the national trend of voting young people into office. But as New York County Democratic Committee Chair, and former New York State Assembly Member, Keith Wright points out, the “energy, excitement, and electricity” that young people bring does not outweigh the fact that politics “is made from the bottom up.” Wright recommends anyone interested in running for office first learn the process by working for an elected official or attending precinct council and community board meetings.

Wright, who emphasized that “there is no educational prerequisite, no vocational prerequisite” for politics, chose to work for then Borough President David Dinkins rather than enter the political fray right after law school. “Politics is a blood sport,” Wright warned, and “the hardest folks to impress are the folks in your community when you’re asking them for their vote.” As Wright sees it, what qualifies someone for public office is simple and unrelated to age: “Passion, intelligence and commitment to their community.”

With that in mind, Straus News spoke to two of New York’s youngest political hopefuls, Ellie Pfeffer, 19 and Cameron Koffman, 22, about their campaigns and their approach to politics.

FRESHMAN CANDIDATE WAS AN ACTUAL FRESHMAN

Sixteen-year-old Swedish activist Greta Thunberg isn’t the only teenager spearheading the climate movement. Cornell University freshman Ellie Pfeffer ran for Ithaca Common Council this fall during her first term in college on a climate policy platform. Pfeffer, an effusive 19-year-old from the Upper West Side, studies the environment and sustainability with a policy concentration.

Pfeffer, who has always been engaged in social justice, said it wasn’t until she started following Thunberg and other “Fridays for Future” activists that she zeroed in on the climate crisis.

Fridays for Future is a movement that draws students around the world out of school every Friday in protest of government inaction during the climate crisis. Pfeffer, who grew up and lives on the Upper West Side, remembers thinking, as she looked around New York City, “we are one of the biggest cities in the world, and people don’t seem to be mobilizing in the same way.” That's when she joined the movement.

Speaking Up

During the last two months of her senior year in high school, Pfeffer skipped class on Fridays to attend climate rallies at the United Nations and City Hall, where she lobbied policymakers to adopt green legislation. She also got involved with the New York City Sunrise Movement, a climate activist organization. Now, she sits on the policy team for the Ithaca Sunrise Movement, which she got in touch with with over the summer. In her words, “this work doesn’t wait for us to acclimate to college.”

Inspired by the proposed federal Green New Deal, the Ithaca Common Council passed a local Green New Deal in June aimed at achieving citywide carbon neutrality by 2030. During the budget season, Pfeffer and her Sunrise team lobbied the Council to expand its efforts. Pfeffer did not think the Council understood the intersectional purpose and urgency of the policy. A green new deal, Pfeffer said, is not just “putting a little bit of money into some energy projects, but really shifting the way we think about sustainability to a climate justice lens.”

Hat in the Ring

Pfeffer said she and fellow Sunrise members were “doing everything we could to get our voices heard,” attending hearings and meeting with individual council members. Frustrated by the lack of action, Pfeffer said, “it really felt like there was no other choice but to run.”

Backed by the Sunrise Movement, Pfeffer ran as write-in candidate for Ithaca’s third ward against incumbent Rob Gearhart. She started her campaign only two weeks before the election. Sunrise members Thea Kozakis and Cheyenne Carter ran as well, in the fourth and fifth wards. Pfeffer’s goal was to institutionalize a “mindset that puts climate justice first.” Her platform included hiring additional staffers to work on implementing the Green New Deal policies, because the Common Council had only budgeted for one.

Inevitably, when a young person runs for office, the question of qualification is raised. Pfeffer responds by interrogating the motives of naysayers. She believes “the people who say that you’re unqualified to participate in politics because you’re too young are the people who want to silence young voices.”

A Loss, and Success

Ultimately, Pfeffer received 18.5 percent of the vote as the only Third Ward candidate who ran a write-in campaign. Despite the loss, Pfeffer views her run as a success. Pfeffer’s campaign team identified 260 active supporters. She said her campaign was an “effective way to mobilize young people around local issues” and illuminate political possibilities for students.

She remembers her peers reacting with surprise when she was knocking on doors during her campaign. “You can run at your age?” they asked. She also believes the noise created by the write-in campaigns is what pushed the Common Council to allocate contingency funding for an additional staffer focused on the Green New Deal.

Pfeffer wasted no time getting back to activism after election day. On December 6, she co-organized a chapter of the International Climate Strike that drew over 500 students. Some, including Pfeffer, occupied the administration building. When asked about balancing schoolwork with activism and campaigning, Pfeffer brushed the concern aside. “I’m willing to do whatever it takes to get the action that we need,” she said.

Pfeffer never planned to run for office, and while she doesn't plan to run again, she's not ruling it out. Social movements need “both power from outside the hold of government, and power from the inside,” she said.

RECENT GRAD SETS SIGHTS ON STATE ASSEMBLY

Being a member of the New York State Assembly is not a typical first job out of college, but that's the position Cameron Koffman has his eye on. Koffman, 22, is challenging incumbent Dan Quart to represent District 73, which includes Murray Hill and much of the Upper East Side. This is the first time Quart has faced competition in the Democratic primary since he was first elected in 2011.

Koffman graduated from Yale University in May. About his Ethics, Politics, and Economics major, Koffman said, “it’s good that there’s a program that tries to combine ethics and politics,” and pointed out that New York has one of the highest conviction rates of state legislators. Interested in reform, Koffman wants to limit outside income for legislators.

Koffman doesn't think his age will affect his electability. Noting presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg’s popularity in District 73, Koffman offered, “there are people, regardless of age, who are buying into the generational change argument.”

A Varied Political Background

While Koffman touts his progressive values and is running as a Democrat, he switched his party affiliation from Independent just this year. He said the shift was not ideological, and that he “always believed in progressive values.” He's excited the possibility of serving in the newly blue State Senate

In college Koffman, was president of Yale’s William F. Buckley Program. Although nonpartisan, the program is supported by the conservative publication The National Review, started by the program’s namesake. Koffman says the program is more “concerned with intellectual diversity and free speech on campus” than partisan politics. He believes it prepared him to face differently aligned politicians in Albany, and that an inability to engage with different viewpoints “would be a weakness in serving your district best.”

Campaign manager Martin Rather, also 22 and fresh out of college, has been friends with Koffman since they attended the School for Ethics and Global Leadership in Washington, DC during high school."To be 22-years-old and running for the New York State Assembly takes a certain amount of political courage,” Rather said.

Issues and Priorities

When asked why run now, Koffman responded “there’s just so much that’s so urgent that's really concerning me.” Curbing retail vacancies and stopping the Northwell Health Lenox Hill Hospital project are at the top of his to-do list. He also wants to work on implementing the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act to help “codify the way to get to net zero by 2050.”

Koffman is focused on mom-and-pop shops, because “beyond raising revenue and creating jobs,” they create “a healthy community.” Unlike other state legislators representing Manhattan, Koffman does not endorse a vacancy tax, because it “assumes the only problem is that landlords are purposefully keeping their spaces vacant.” He believes minimum rent requirements written into mortgages prevent landlords from accepting smaller businesses as tenants. He also hopes to make the process of changing storefront use from retail to services easier, as e-commerce is reducing demand for dry goods stores.

Koffman supports how the Housing Stability and Tenant Protection Act of 2019 “codified tenants rights,” but wants to amend it. “If we are making it very hard for a development to be very profitable, then no one’s going to want to build, and the current housing stock we have will be more expensive,” he said.

Regarding overdevelopment, Koffman favors height limits and opposes Northwell Health's Lenox Hill Hospital expansion, which he said exemplifies “this symptom in our city of projects that are damaging the aesthetic integrity of our neighborhoods, are not helping our affordable housing crisis, and are providing years of construction that will cause bottleneck congestion and health concerns.”

A Real Estate Family

Unlike some of the new young politicians, Koffman, a white male from a prominent New York family, represents a demographic that voters are used to seeing in positions of power. His great-grandfather is developer Samuel LeFrak, known for LeFrak City in Queens. His grandmother and mother worked for Sotheby’s International Realty.

Koffman also parts from some of his peers by accepting donations from developers. “I’m willing to listen to anyone," he said, "I’m willing to say if someone wants to make a donation, 'I appreciate their support, but it does not mean I’m willing to do their bidding in Albany.'”

Koffman’s connection to the real estate industry includes a 2019 summer internship with Related Companies, one of the developers of Hudson Yards. The candidate criticizes the massive project for not bringing affordable housing or retail to the area and says it reminds him “more of Dubai than New York City.” He does however appreciate that it helped extend the 7 subway line to the West Side.