I’ve been keeping an eye on the race for Congress in New York's 23rd District, a region that encompasses the southern tier counties of Tompkins, Seneca, Tioga, Ontario, and Chatauqua.
With hydrofracking taking center stage as an issue splitting New Yorkers, seeing an Asian American Democrat wanting to represent the people of this region against corporations is both refreshing and inspiring.
As a hospital administrator and county legislator, Nate is well experienced at the age of 28. After studying sociology at Cornell University, he stayed in the area to get his Master’s in health administration.
I spent the week with him and his campaign team as they toured the district, met with mayors, received numerous endorsements, and made so many calls that I couldn’t even keep up.
Nate's passion for public service started from a tragic killing in the Bay Area back in 1997. Nate's father, Dr. Larry Shinagawa, was a professor at Sonoma State University, and had a student named Kuan Chung Kao. Kao got into a fight at the bar while celebrating a promotion with his friends. To sum it up, several men didn’t like the way Kao looked and harassed him until the police showed up and only arrested Kao. After the police took him home, Kao’s wife wouldn’t let the drunken and angry man inside. When police returned, they saw Kao drunk and waving a broomstick. An officer pulled out his gun and shot Kao in the chest.
Nate’s father got involved with the Asian Law Caucus and the Justice Department and ultimately helped to win a fair settlement for Kao’s family despite government attempts to brush the killing under the rug. Nate was 13 at the time and realized that if elected officials weren't acting in the best interest of the community and were adversely making decisions and actions, why not take the reins of leadership yourself?
As someone who has lived in Ithaca for more than a decade, Nate knows the most important issues of the district in and out. One particularly salient issue, hydraulic fracturing, called "hydrofracking" or "fracking" for short, is a method of extracting natural gas by blasting powerful bursts of water into the ground to break up the harder areas. However, the waste water from the fracking process gets contaminated and easily pollutes the community around the fracking site. Nate vigorously opposes hydrofracking, and calls it "a threat to the quality of life for my district."
As a health care administrator, he is also a strong advocate for health care reform. He supports the Affordable Care Act, and if that is repealed, wants a single-payer healthcare system. This means the government runs insurance for the country, but still allows for people to choose their own private doctors and physicians. Nate believes such a system "would just take the profit out of the healthcare industry without affecting the care, because heath care should not be about profit."
While we stopped at the Open Door Church of God in Christ in Dunkirk, New York, Nate listened as members of the congregation talk about issues that small towns face. For instance, although the population of Dunkirk is more than 25 percent Black and Hispanic, the town has no African American police officers and no African American or Hispanic firefighters. Due to racial demographics of the district, this is a common problem in many towns and cities. As a Tompkins County legislator, Nate is rewriting a plan for diversity and inclusion in employment - particularly careers in public service.
The two biggest cities in the 23rd district are Ithaca and Jamestown. The rest of the district is mostly made up of small towns with populations of fewer than 25,000 people. Many of these towns are stricken with unemployment, a problem that could be potentially fixed by opening up access to these towns. In Dunkirk, for example, an Amtrak train passes through to Buffalo, but doesn't stop.
"The Amtrak train is symbolic. It goes through the community but it doesn't stop. Opportunity is circling around us but it doesn't stop," Nate said.
The primary election on June 26 has three Democratic candidates: Nate Shinagawa, Leslie Danks Burke, and Melissa Dobson. Burke is a former corporate lawyer who has worked in Washington DC as a legislative analyst, while Dobson works as a patent lawyer.
If elected, Nate would be the youngest representative in Congress.
Update (June 27 - 12:00AM): As this story was published, Shinagawa was declared the winner in the Democratic primary. He will face off against Republican Congressman Tom Reed in November's general election.
This post was submitted by Juliet Shen, a student at SUNY Albany studying sociology and political science. She blogs for Fascinasians and serves on the national board for the East Coast Asian American Student Union.
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