“Serving in public office has been the most gratifying thing I have done in my life because I can take actions that can make a difference in the life of another,” said Josh Lafazan ’16 who is running for Congress as a representative for New York State’s 3rd Congressional District.
I had the opportunity to sit down with Lafazan on Tuesday, March 9, to discuss his congressional run and was left inspired by Lafazan’s ceaseless dedication and desire to serve the public good. Lafazan, 28, has spent the last 10 years working in local government. At 18 years old, he was elected to a position on the Syosset School Board of Education, becoming one of the youngest ever elected officials in the history of New York State. At 23, he became the youngest member ever elected to the Nassau County Legislature. Though skeptics have considered Lafazan’s age to be a weakness since he ran for the school board, he has consistently emphasized the importance of having young people involved in all levels of government. Through the internship program he currently runs for highschool and college students, Lafazan shows the American people that young people have the ability to influence government and the potential to make impactful change.
I had the pleasure of interning with Lafazan summer 2021 and saw firsthand the camaraderie that forms between young people on a campaign. I would argue that one of the missions of universities is preparing students to partake in a democracy. Through my experience, I’ve found that participating in a campaign is a great way to learn how part of our governmental system operates. As Lafazan told me on Tuesday, “Young people have a unique and important perspective. It’s our future when we talk about climate change, when we talk about the national debt, when we talk about world stability.” Lafazan surrounds himself with a large group of mentors to ensure that he is informed and often reaches back to Cornell faculty for advice.
Describing Cornell as one of the “most special” experiences of his life, Lafazan credits his education from the School of Industrial and Labor Relations with granting him the skills essential to political life. These include public and persuasive speaking, collective bargaining and negotiation, diversity and inclusion and knowledge of history. He said, “What’s unique about Cornell, specifically ILR is that I don’t think that there is another school in America that prepares you better to be a public servant.” He credits Prof Adam Litwin, industrial and labor relations, with teaching him the art of effective communication and Prof. Thomas Golden, industrial and labor relations, with changing his life by instilling within him the belief that the government has a role in fighting for people with disabilities. Since his time at Cornell, Lafazan has gone on to pass a record number of bills both on the school board and within the Nassau County Legislature.
As a legislator, Lafazan was elected to office as an Independent. He reasoned, “I ran for office as an independent because I believed, as I still believe, that local government should fundamentally be nonpartisan.” I agree with his sentiment that addressing issues such as potholes, veteran homelessness, the opioid epidemic and the affordability of Long Island for young people should not be biased red or blue. Considering these issues, Lafazan passed “Timothy’s Law” in 2018, which established a 24 hour hotline staffed by substance abuse counselors and developed the Nassau C.A.R.E.S app to simplify the process of finding adequate resources. In 2019, Lafazan passed the “Dignity for Our Heroes” Package aimed at eliminating veteran homelessness. Lafazan fought for those with disabilities by creating Nassau County’s first information visor card to aid deaf drivers in communicating with law enforcement and passing a law requiring the presence of a sign language interpreter at every emergency press conference in Nassau County.
Lafazan is running for the bigger stage of Congress as a Democrat rather than as an Independent because “There are intractable issues between Republicans and Democrats. When it comes to those issues my morals and values have always aligned with the Democratic party.” Some of Lafazan’s main priorities are working to get sky-high property taxes under control to make Long Island and Westchester more affordable, lowering healthcare costs, making community colleges widely available and/or vocational hubs and obtaining funding for infrastructure. He discussed the importance of continuing to monitor the COVID-19 pandemic, paying particular attention to the extended issues that arise such as increases in mental health disorders and increases in gun violence incidents.
I asked Lafazan for some advice in navigating our present day’s polarized political landscape. He responded, “It’s important for people to listen to understand and not just to listen to reply.” As a student I have watched much of our dialogue take place online through social media which has caused people to fail to understand the priorities and fears of others. As Lafazan concisely put, “Compromise should be at the forefront of our civil life.”
In our interview, he also advised young people to ask questions and to ask for help when necessary. He states “So many young people think asking for help is an enormous weakness; for me asking for help is an enormous strength and practice of intellectual humility.” Lafazan cited his “ability to listen and make people feel heard” as an important strength, and his office’s open door policy attests to this principle. I witnessed this as an intern, when I, along with my fellow interns, canvassed and conversed with constituents about issues they faced in their community. We recorded these conversations so that Lafazan’s staff could prioritize addressing them.
Lafazan also suggested that students interested in political office should “start local.” There will always be problems in the local community that affect people’s lives. On the importance of grassroots organizing, he explained, “You learn how to pass a bill, how to negotiate, how to allocate money in a budget, how to do constituent service and then you grow.” His team is seeking interns this summer, and Lafazan made sure to emphasize that his own path to politics started on a political campaign, quite similarly. Working on Lafazan’s campaign has increased my own political engagement, especially after spending the year before watching a pandemic become politicized; the experience of knocking on doors and speaking to constituents elucidated a more humanistic approach to the political process.
Lafazan is electable in fall 2022. He told me that he is a “person who believes that lawmakers should be indefatigable in pursuit of getting things done.” He believes he can do it in Congress because he’s done it before. He believes that he can work across the aisle, work through the gridlock and deliver to his constituents.
Lafazan finished off the interview by saying, “My Cornell family continues to root for me. Just because my time at Cornell has ended doesn’t mean that my Cornell family isn’t still in my corner.”
Rebecca Sparacio ‘24 (she/her) is a sophomore in the Dyson School. She can be reached at [email protected]. The Space Between runs every other Wednesday this semester.