Twelve-year-old Nicholas Fernandes didn’t spend his vacation at camp or playing Xbox all day. Instead, he devoted his summer to work on a political campaign.
Between June and August, Nicholas, along with 75 other student interns (ages 12 to 22), researched policy positions, stuffed envelopes and distributed campaign literature on behalf of Legislator Josh Lafazan of Nassau County. They also knocked on 25,000 doors in Long Island towns like Bayville, Syosset and Locust Valley.
“I was nervous before I knocked on the first door,” said Nicholas, who added that homeowners were often confused to be greeted by children who wanted nothing more than to talk politics. But Nicholas and his brother, Neil, 14, another intern, found that it usually worked to their advantage.
“When we actually started talking about Josh’s policies, people were surprised and happy that we could talk to them at such a young age and that we were doing this for our community,” Neil said. “It was good to get to know people from different backgrounds so we can understand their different positions on things.”
At a time when national politics is profoundly partisan, Mr. Lafazan, a registered Independent and self-described “hyper-local” politician, is staying put in Woodbury, Long Island, where he is running for re-election. “Potholes are not partisan,” he said. “There is no Republican or Democratic way to pave a road.” And he is committed to sharing this knowledge with his army of young interns. After all, he is only a few years older than they are.
As a first-term legislator, Mr. Lafazan passed bills that addressed the concerns of young people in his district, including one on anti-bullying and one that increased resources to address the heroin and opioid epidemic.
He also supported the construction of micro-apartments for millennial professionals in Nassau County. Perhaps his own situation informed him in this case: He still lives in his mother’s basement, which, he considers a badge of honor. “The truth is there is no affordable housing on Long Island,” he said. “I’m 25. If there is anyone who is personally inspired to fix this problem, it’s me.”
Mr. Lafazan has been an elected official since he joined the Syosset School Board when he was 18. After high school, he spent his undergraduate years at Cornell University and then received a masters from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. But when school was finished, he came straight home to begin his career in local politics. He now teaches a class at Long Island University in Brookville called “Running for Office in the 21st Century.”
Part of a recent wave of young people running for political office successfully, including Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Democrat of New York, from the nearby borough of Queens, Mr. Lafazan is choosing to stay local. “Start at an entry-level position and learn a skill set that you can use as you work your way up,” he has told his interns. “Young people have unlimited potential but limited opportunity. In local government, you can really make a difference.”
Jeremy Buchman, associate professor of political science at Long Island University, agrees that this sense of agency can be inspiring for young people. “In local politics, you can have accomplishments that you see in day-to-day life,” he said.
Long Island may be one of the few areas of the country where the political center of gravity is more centrist, Mr. Buchman noted. “It’s encouraging to see students working across party lines, looking to achieve common ends like overcoming the opioid epidemic,” he said. “It helps build a certain reservoir of good will that can make debates over harder issues more productive.”
Chase Serota, 20, a junior at the University of Pennsylvania who was a legislative intern for Mr. Lafazan in 2018, has been politically engaged since he ran for treasurer of his fourth grade class. He now heads Mr. Lafazan’s re-election campaign. As the youngest campaign manager in Nassau County, Mr. Serota dedicated his summer, as well as his weekends through the Nov. 5 election, to leading Mr. Lafazan’s internship programs.
“Young people are told that because they don’t have a vote, their voices don’t matter,” Mr. Serota said. “We are showing that the opposite is true here.”
The unpaid internship combines education, collaboration and fieldwork to give the students a sense of how local politics work. Each student is assigned to one of three teams: research and policy; communication; and social media. Students report on current events and policy positions weekly.
Lily Molesky, 16, of Glen Cove, who is part of the social media team, came to the internship with experience at advocacy summits where she lobbied for accessibility for disabled persons (she has rheumatoid arthritis).
“Here I’m part of a team, and I feel like my stance on issues is really validated,” Lily said. “Parkland was a real wake-up call that young people were the ones that were going to have to do something to make a change,” she continued, referring to the student activism that erupted after the mass shooting in 2018 at the Florida high school. “That’s what sparked me to realize that I was the perfect age to start getting involved.”
Aside from the occasional conversion of rubber bands into sling shots or games of “keep it up” with the campaign balloons, the interns, for the most part, seem most excited by the work they are doing with each other, and what it is teaching them.
Take, for example, Aditya Lodha, 16, from Herricks, who is a first-generation Indian-American and self-described environmentalist who “leans to the right” politically. For him, the internship “reinforced the concept that every coin has two sides and it’s really important to consider multiple perspectives to everything before you make a decision,” he said. “Most people in this country are in the middle and are often forced into party politics. I want to see that bipartisanship.”
In the campaign office, the rules of engagement include a top-down insistence on civility, bipartisanship, diversity and inclusion. Interns come from different socio-economic, religious, cultural and political backgrounds and are expected to debate respectfully with one another.
“Our interns are taken seriously and given real responsibility,” Mr. Lafazan said. “They learn that their voice is powerful and that they are part of something bigger than themselves.”
Brianna Solomon, 19, a junior at Brandeis University, spent her summer meeting with constituents. “People really just want to feel safe in their own community,” she said.
The internship inspired her to think, she said, about the qualities that are important to her in a politician: listening, respect, passion, empathy.
“I think that’s why so many young people are getting politically involved today because this is our future and it is in other people’s hands,” she said. “It’s about time that we take some control over it.”