While most seniors last semester were busy preparing for interviews to woo prospective employers, Austin Morgan ’19 had a very different audience he hoped to impress: the people of the 57th District of New York.
During the first few months of his senior year at Cornell, Morgan declared his candidacy for the State Senate after the previous occupant, Republican Catharine Young, vacated her seat. Morgan, a Democrat who won the party’s primary unopposed, is set to face George Borrello, a Republican, in a special election to fill the seat on Nov. 5.
Morgan was drawn to the vacated seat of his home district in part because of his experience in Cornell’s Capital Semester Program, where he worked full-time for a state senator, digging deep into the world of briefings, speeches and legislation. A Human Development major, his interest in policy stemmed from taking the Human Ecology course: “PAM 2550: Waiting for Superman? Perspectives on the Crisis in American K-12 Education.”
After sparking a passion for policy, Morgan came to realize that politics influenced almost every sphere of daily life — especially for lower-income families such as his own.
“It was clear to me, especially after my time at Cornell, that politics was what affects our daily lives and why living was so hard for my family,” Morgan said in a phone interview with The Sun. “It was also the answer to make living easier for families like mine.”
If elected, Morgan would be the New York Senate’s youngest member by a wide margin. According to Morgan, concerns over his inexperience have been originating more from reporters than voters.
But like other young alumni who have sought elected office in the State, Morgan has pitched his youthfulness as an asset, not a weakness — giving him a fresh perspective on issues, such as climate change, which he says older politicians in Albany have long ignored.
“I got in [the race] because as a young person, there are too many issues at stake for our generation,” he said. “There are too many things that previous generations have failed to deal with or provide answers to, especially things like climate change.”
In addition, his background as a young college graduate from a low income, rural family uniquely qualifies the senior to represent the 57th district, a wide stretch of mostly rural land located in the State’s westernmost corner, Morgan said.
“I think that Albany would do well to start looking like and working like the hard-working taxpayers that make up New York State,” he said. “When I think about the representatives we need and what their experiences should be, I think we need to have representatives from many walks of life.”
Despite barely finishing school, Morgan said he had already immersed himself in the inner workings of Albany’s notoriously cutthroat, party-driven politics through an internship as a legislative aid, a job that, according to him, made him the only person in the field with state politics experience. His opponent currently serves as the Chautauqua’s County Executive, after spending a lengthy career in hospitality and marketing.
Though Morgan remains optimistic, winning the seat as a Democrat stands to be an uphill climb. The district voted strongly in favor of both Donald Trump and Mitt Romney in previous presidential elections, and routinely elects Republicans to the state legislature.
Even so, Morgan believed his party affiliation could be an important strength to his prospective constituents, given the Democrats’ complete control of New York’s government.
“Especially in my district, we have to have someone in the majority who can actually pass legislation because if we send a Republican, they’re not going to have any power or standing,” Morgan said. “We don’t want to remain voiceless, we need to sit at the decision-making table. We’re only going to get that with sending a Democrat to Albany.”
As for policy goals, Morgan hopes to tackle many areas that are of importance to his district and its agrarian makeup: strengthening jobs in the area, working on climate change on the local level, increasing rural broadband access, keeping young people in rural communities, and legalizing and localizing marijuana.
“We fight for jobs in our area,” Morgan said. “What that looks like especially in rural Western New York is bolstering the trades, increasing apprenticeship programs, strengthening our unions, hooking up our high schools with BOCES and CTE education.”
His list of policy goals does not stop there. Morgan also wants to shed light on issues plaguing the small farmers of his district and protect them from “corporate conglomerates,” who he said have been “nickle and diming” the farmers through royalty taxes on products that enthrall small farmers into difficult conditions.
Morgan specifically notes an important goal is to attract younger people into the agriculture industry. According to the candidate, the average age of a farmer in New York State is 60 years old. By finding ways to help these older farmers retire and incentivizing younger people to farm, Morgan hopes to revitalize small farms that are at the core of his district.
To voters still undecided, Morgan’s message is: “try me.”
“This is a one year term, it’s a special election. Try me. Try a rural western New York values Democrat who can deliver for you.”