Nate Shinagawa ’05 M.A. ’09 steamrolled his opposition in the Democratic primary for New York's 23rd Congressional seat on Tuesday, riding a massive campaign apparatus and a stridently populist liberal message to victory.
If he can win again in November’s general election, Shinagawa will become the youngest member of the U.S. House of Representatives and and the first Asian-American elected to Congress from a Northeastern state. Capturing more than 60 percent of the vote, Shinagawa defeated local attorney Leslie Danks Burke and Melissa Dobson, who drew 37 and approximately two percent of the vote, respectively, according to preliminary vote counts posted by the Tompkins County Board of Elections.
“My last name is Shinagawa — it’s different, but that didnt matter in this district. What mattered was the issues. What mattered is that I have a lot of passion about fighting for the middle class in this country. And that’s why I was able to [win],” Shinagawa, currently a member of the Tompkins County Legislature, said in an interview with The Sun early Wednesday morning.
Shinagawa, 28, is the second Cornellian to have unexpectedly triumphed in a local election just a few years after graduating. His friend and roommate Svante Myrick ’09 was elected the Mayor of Ithaca last fall after transforming similar obstacles — his age and ties to the Ivory Tower — into assets.
“At events from Jamestown to Hornell, all the way to Elmira and Waterloo and Geneva, people 80-plus years old would say: ‘Thank God you’re running, because we need a new generation in Congress,’” Shinagawa said. “They said, ‘We need a new generation of leadership that understands cooperation and getting results’ … The old one has failed.”
Shinagawa will face incumbent Rep. Tom Reed (R-N.Y.), a conservative from Corning, in what is widely expected to be one of the most pivotal Congressional races of the year. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has targeted the seat as one of the 25 essential to their efforts to reclaim the House of Representatives in 2012, according to Danks Burke.
Reed is likely to prove a formidable opponent, particularly in the western, conservative towns of the recently redrawn 23rd Congressional seat. Additionally, on day one of the general election, Reed’s war chest boasts approximately $1.3 million in donations — about 10 times that of Shinagawa's.
Yet Shinagawa was quick to dismiss this potential obstacle, saying, “I’m not concerned about it.” He assailed what he identified as Reed’s extensive ties to money from oil and gas Political Action Committees — one of many distinctions between the candidates Shinagawa says he plans to highlight in the run-up to November’s election.
In terms of appearances, at least, the candidates could hardly seem more different.
Reed, 40, is white and pudgy, and speaks in public with a calm, easy-going temperament. Meanwhile, Shinagawa, who is short, routinely launches headlong into impromptu, discursive excoriations of conservative ideology, his words racing over each other as they fly out of his mouth.
“He’s like this little ball of fire,” Myrick said of Shinagawa Wednesday.
Formative in Shinagawa’s sharply moral worldview, Shinagawa wrote in a recent blog post , was the experience of his grandfather — a Japanese-American who, despite living in an internment camp during World War II, enlisted in the Marines and then the Air Force, according to Shinagawa.
Then, as a child, Shinagawa watched his father fight to help the family of another boy who “was murdered in a case of racially motivated police brutality,” Shinagawa said.
“My own family faced intimidation from local officials and the KKK,” Shinagawa said. “This incident deeply affected me, and compelled me to pursue a career of service.”
At Cornell, Shinagawa became heavily involved in labor and environmental causes, leading a protest of Collegetown Pizza at one point. In 2005, he ran successfully to become the first student or recent alumnus to serve as the county’s 4th District legislator.
He went onto receive a master’s degree from Cornell’s Sloan Program in Health Administration and work for the Robert Packer Hospital while maintaining his post in the legislature.
Unlike his friend Myrick, little in Shinagawa’s platform or statements regard reaching political consensus or compromise. Writing in on Wednesday, his campaign highlighted his commitment to bipartisanship by citing his work passing a budget with Republicans in the Tompkins County Legislature -- a successful effort, communications director Jenn Medeiros said, that proves his ability "to build consensus so that our government works."
Still, he explicitly embraces liberal policies — including Obamacare — and questions the motives of his rivals.
“Many of our leaders seem to be more preoccupied with handing out tax breaks to corporations and millionaires than with actually helping people in this country become more prosperous,” he recently wrote.
His campaign's website states: “[Shinagawa] strongly supports caps on insurance companies, requiring that they spend at least 85 percent of their revenue on direct health care services instead of padding the pockets of their executives.”
Whether this pugnacious brand of liberalism will appeal to the general election voters in counties such as Steuben and Chautauqua remains to be seen. But what was clear from the early election results, members of Shinagawa’s campaign said, was the success of his extensive ground game.
Jason Henry, Shinagawa’s political and field director, said that the campaign made at least 27,000 phone calls, had about 75 volunteers working on Saturday, and reached many more going door-to-door — “the old fashioned way.”
He also pointed to support from New York State United Teachers, which endorsed Shinagawa, as crucial to his victory.
The day ended in disappointment for both Dobson, who was plagued throughout the race by weak fundraising totals, and Danks Burke, who lost despite endorsements from several prominent Ithaca lawmakers.
Still, a few hours before the results were announced, Danks Burke said she was pleased with the “extraordinarily civil” primary and believed that, regardless of the outcome, Democrats stood to benefit.
“This primary has gotten the Democrats on the map in this district,” she said. “I think that because we’ve had this primary, this district is up for grabs.”
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated the number of people the Shinagawa campaign reached by going door-to-door.