This Muslim Teen is Running for New York State Senate
Tahseen Chowdhury is a 17 year old High School student who spends his weekends running for New York state senator, in the September Democratic primary, against incumbent Jose Peralta. “It’s not that difficult,” Chowdhury said one day at the school, referring to his grassroots campaign. “All you need are competent people.” His team consists of about twenty advisers, most of whom have curfews. His treasurer, Tymur Kholodnyak, is seventeen. “He just read a bunch of books and figured out how to track our campaign donations and expenses,” Chowdhury said.
Chowdhury was preparing for a student union meeting at school. He was dressed in chinos, a button-down checked shirt, and leather lace-ups. “I dress like this mostly because of the campaign,” he said. Then, after a pause: “But what I used to wear wasn’t much different.” With his chief of staff and his deputy chief of staff, he employs a debate tactic called “spreading,” in which he speaks at speeds of up to three hundred and fifty words per minute. “It’s supposed to help get the work done,” he said.
His start in politics was accidental. Last year, he ran for student-union president unopposed and ended up in an advisory role on the New York City Department of Education’s panel for educational policy. He assumed that he would actually get to influence the decision-making. “But the students were more like props,” he said. Annoyed, he proposed a bill to beef up students’ role on the panel, which is one of his campaign issues.
Chowdhury announced his candidacy in May, outraged by Peralta’s decision to join the Independent Democratic Conference, a group of Democratic senators whose views align with the Republicans’. “He claims he’s progressive, but I’m not O.K. with that deception,” Chowdhury said. He hopes to convince the working-class neighborhoods in District 13–Corona, East Elmhurst, Elmhurst, Jackson Heights, and Woodside–that Peralta is a Republican masquerading as a Democrat. Chowdhury grew up in East Elmhurst. His father works at a deli in Manhattan, and his mother delivers newspapers. “They don’t make much,” he said.
He called the union meeting to order. In attendance were Alexa Valentino, the union’s vice-president; William Wang, the deputy chief of staff; Carmen Benitez, the chief auditing officer and Chowdhury’s events coordinator; and Matt Polazzo, a government teacher. Laszlo Sandler, the senior-caucus president, was M.I.A. They sat around a table in mismatched office chairs. “People come in and steal the chairs,” Valentino said grimly.
Halfway through a discussion on repealing some union members’ voting rights, Sandler burst into the room, on his phone. Chowdhury looked annoyed.
“I won’t even be here next year!” Sandler, a senior, said, grinning.
Chowdhury was at school last Halloween, the day that a truck driven by a terrorist mowed down civilians on a nearby bike path, and he knows that the attack reinforced Americans’ fears of radical extremism. “As a Muslim candidate, I will continue to stand by the Muslim community, as it is one that stands by progressive American beliefs,” he said.
So far, Chowdhury’s age hasn’t been an obstacle. “Some people think I’m not mentally capable of holding the position because my brain hasn’t developed enough,” he said. But his greenness has an upside. While most politicians are perceived as having an agenda, Chowdhury hasn’t been around long enough to be compromised. “Like, literally, I haven’t been on the planet long enough,” he said.
In the evenings, the campaign moves to a co-working space in midtown, lent to Chowdhury by a family friend. “He gets about three or four hours’ sleep a night,” Polazzo said.
On weekends, when the candidate isn’t busy with his campaign, he is at Khan’s Tutorial, in Queens, where he has a job as an Internet marketing coordinator. He got the gig after eighth grade, having told the owner that he wanted to redesign the firm’s Web site. “I was trying to start my own marketing company then,” he said.
Every so often, Chowdhury will allow himself one indulgence: smashing technology. Polazzo said, “He’s broken cell phones by biting them.” But he prefers bigger quarry. Recently, he and his father attended a police auction, where they scored twenty used laptops for fifty dollars. He stored them in the student-union room and, during long discussions on funding, for instance, would pick up a laptop and throw it against the wall. “It was just a way to, like, blow off steam,” he said. “Sometimes keys would come off, sometimes the wiring would come off, whatever. It’s better than a fidget spinner.”
Polazzo is supportive, if skeptical. “By the numbers, it looks grim,” he said. “The fact that he’s not even eighteen counts against him. On the other hand, our political system thrives on freshness and people who are unconventional. Just look at our President.”