Amplifying Voices

Young candidates hope to make a difference in local school board races

By November 6, 2018 No Comments
(Photo by Jason Leung on Unsplash)

He starts most of his campaign events with the same bright red jacket, a big, curly head of hair and his signature wide smile.

The audience doesn’t hear the typical and painful jokes that other politicians use to be more relatable. Nor do they match the usual older-voter demographic. Instead, the room is filled with young, energized and diverse students who are supporting a candidate they believe represents them more than any other candidate.

This is because the candidate, Basil Saleh, is also young, passionate and the son of an Egyptian immigrant.

“We had to find a unique way to build this campaign, obviously one that acknowledges the fact that I’m a very young candidate,” says Saleh who is one of the youngest candidates in the state and is running for a school board position for the school district he and his brother both attended – Campbell Union High School District. “Instead of trying to escape the fact that I am young, we are just honest to ourselves and believe that [my age] is not only valid but it also necessary and a good thing.”

Saleh is part of a new wave of young candidates who are making a splash in the 2018 midterm elections.

He represents a thread common among upcoming young candidates like Senate and House candidates Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ammar Campa-Najjar, who are also both 29 years old. To them civic engagement among young voters is essential and younger representation in local, state and national politics, that has historically not been there, is required.

“The fact that my brother was a student during my entire time at USF, meant that I was able to follow what was happening there in real time. His experience was similar to mine in that the same underlying problems still exist,” said Saleh referring to the Campbell school district.

Saleh, 22, and Diego Martinez, 29, are both Santa Clara County candidates running for positions for their respective school districts.

The races are significant and personal for both candidates.

Martinez, a soon-to-be political science graduate from San Jose State University, is running for the Oak Grove School District Board. The father of a 9-year-old boy said he understands the needs of elementary school boards to sufficiently represent student and parent concerns.

Saleh said it was his high school friend, who was sentenced to eight years in the Santa Clara County Main Jail for 32 break-in, that forced him to re-examine the educational system and propelled him into civil service.

“He had good character, but he couldn’t catch a break in his personal life. He wasn’t getting the support and services in high school that would’ve helped then,” Saleh said. “I think what [students] really need is guidance and some sort of stability.”

However, Saleh believes adequate student services can only be provided with better communication between the school board, students and parents.

“As a public official, along with your opinions and practical skills, you are also a representative. You have to be a census gatherer to be effective,” Saleh said.

If Saleh is elected into office, he said he would immediately work on holding a community forum to talk about issues like harassment or the lack of acknowledgement he says many of students face, and look for more funding avenues to give raises for teachers.

“My long-term goals would be to make schools more of a community resource in that we increase the services provided for young people and the community,” Saleh said. “ Also, shifting mindsets from being a school district that’s just coasting to one that actually tries to be the best in the state or country.”

The young candidate, who is endorsed by the Santa Clara County Democratic Party, Campbell Mayor Paul Resnikoff, the Campbell High School Teachers Association and many others, said that in a diverse district like his, more culturally-specific communication is essential in bringing more people to the table.

The issues of communication and culture raised by Saleh are similar to those shared by Martinez, who believes his language skills and Hispanic heritage allow him to better communicate with his community.

“Where I am running, all the schools are at least 80 percent Hispanic and large Asian and minority communities,” Martinez said. “As a child of immigrants, I understand the struggle of many of the students I want to represent. My parents never got involved because they did not know how to. This was in part because of the language and cultural barriers.”

Martinez is endorsed by many including the Santa Clara County Democratic Party, current Oak Grove School District Board Trustee Jacquelyn Adams, and Santa Clara County Supervisors Cindy Chavez, Dave Cortese and Ken Yeager.

“Studying politics at SJSU helped me understand the ways our laws work and the importance of people voting,” Martinez said.

San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo agreed that younger representation is important in the polls and on the ballot. However, without young voter turnout, he said it is difficult for younger candidates to get elected.

“Young people won’t be successful in local politics and running for office until young people vote,” Liccardo said. “It’s critical for college students to understand that if they are not voting, someone else is going to make decisions for them.”

In the 2016 presidential election, the Pew Research Center reported voter turnout for people age 18-29 was the lowest for any group at 49 percent.

Turnout for people in a similar age bracket of 18 to 34 during the 2014 midterm election was also at an all-time low of 19.9 percent, according to the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement.

But that is not to say that there is no hope for younger candidates.

The 2018 midterm elections have more young candidates running for governor nationwide than any other election, according to data collected by Governing magazine.

Locally, Saleh and Martinez have encouraged college students to join their team and are using their unique insight and relatability as young candidates to encourage a younger voter turnout on Nov. 6.