As Election Day draws near, students and recent alumni of Binghamton University may recognize a couple of the names on the Broome County ballot.
29-year-old Republican candidate Karl Bernhardsen, ‘14, is running for Broome County executive. 20-year-old Democratic candidate Jackson White, a junior majoring in philosophy, politics and law, is running for the 1st district of the Broome County Legislature. Both candidates find themselves running against older, more established incumbents.
From 2015 to 2016, Bernhardsen served as a Broome County legislator in District 13, which represents Binghamton’s West Side and First Ward. Bernhardsen is now seeking to unseat Democratic Broome County Executive Jason Garnar. Garnar was elected as Broome County Executive in 2016 at age 39, then the youngest county executive in Broome County’s history. If Bernhardsen wins the election, he will claim that title for himself.
“Being the youngest Broome County executive would not mean much to me,” Bernhardsen wrote in an email. “I’m far more interested in how I can use the office to set Broome County on a better path for the future.”
Though his youth is not at the height of Bernhardsen’s concerns, he recognizes its impact.
“As far as challenges related to being a younger person in politics go, the big one has been having a smaller network of people to call on for support,” Bernhardsen wrote. “Acquaintances and colleagues accumulate with time. But youth has its benefits too, chief among them being the ability to take greater risks. There is time to start over after a loss and time to learn after a win.”
Jackson White is running against Republican incumbent Stephen Flagg for the 1st district of the Broome County Legislature, which encompasses the towns of Colesville, Fenton, portions of the town of Kirkwood and the city of Binghamton. White describes his election campaign as a personal endeavor.
“I’ve been here since I was [4 years old],” White said. “It is my hometown, and it also happens to be my college town, but, first and foremost, it is my hometown. I grew up here [and went to] high school here. I am under the impression that we are in need of bolder solutions in this area. There are people that have been elected positions for over a decade, and they haven’t shown the results that they should have.”
According to White, he would be the youngest Broome County legislator to hold the position if elected. White describes his prospective election and life as a student as a challenge he anticipates.
“I often say to people who I work with, ‘School comes first for me,’” White said. “That may or may not be the truth if I were to win this seat because my community always comes first for me. So, that’s going to be a bit of a challenge but a challenge I will happily embrace given the chance to represent this district.”
White provided his advice for other BU students interested in running for local political positions.
“To anybody who is even remotely considering it, I highly recommend them doing it,” White said. “It’s the best way that we can get involved in our democracy, to really get up and run for something. I couldn’t recommend it enough. In terms of advice, just ask people. Ask people who have knowledge in it. They want to help you. They want to see young people running.”
Bernhardsen echoed White’s words, encouraging BU students to take advantage of available opportunities.
“No amount of time spent working other people’s campaigns will prepare you for the stresses and pressures of an election,” Bernhardsen wrote. “You just have to do it and see how it goes. Only people who run for office become elected officials. And, if you want to run for office, pay attention to the election calendar and which offices are coming up for election in the next year. Candidates go unopposed all [of] the time, and there are far more openings than you might think.”
Alison Twang, associate director of the Center for Civic Engagement at BU, which serves to increase civic engagement among BU students, described the young candidates as a welcome sight in the Binghamton community.
“Our democracy is at its strongest when every voice is at the table, including the voices of young people,” Twang wrote in an email. “Our students and other young people are involved in social issues in many ways, from volunteering to activism, but may not always realize the important role of local politics in their lives. Seeing other young people run for office or participate in the political process can go a long way in motivating others to get involved.”
Evan Clement, a sophomore majoring in political science and president of Generation Vote, a progressive advocacy group that seeks to encourage civic engagement among youth, discussed the changes that he feels BU students could bring.
“With around 15,000 eligible voters, [BU] students have the ability to make waves in Broome County politics,” Clement wrote. “Whether it be placing the deciding votes in a contentious election or actually running for office ourselves, [BU] students and alumni are capable of doing a lot to shape and direct policy in Broome County.”