Shinagawa, 28, said his young age allows him to better relate to many of Cornell’s students. He vowed that if elected, he would work in Congress to develop solutions to students’ problems.
He also encouraged students to get involved with local politics themselves.
“Students spend nine months living in Ithaca. They develop a vested interest in the community, and they are affected by local politics,” Shinagawa said. “You should not only go register and vote here, but run for office here too. You can really have an influence.”
Shinagawa — who is running against Rep. Tom Reed (R-N.Y.) in New York State’s 23rd district, which includes Tompkins County — responded to students’ queries while attempting to energize his youth supporters at the event, organized by the Cornell Democrats.
“When I attended Cornell, it was a dark time to be a Democrat. We lost who we were and what our voice was,” said Shinagawa, who would become the nation’s youngest Congressman if elected. “Democrats need to stand up for the middle class, and for fairness and opportunity in the 21st century.”
The candidate reminisced at his time as a student at Cornell. Shinagawa said his favorite course was Environmental Conservation with Prof. Timothy Fayhey.
In 2005, Shinagawa 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.
During an energetic discussion Thursday, he emphasized the need for education and student loan reform, both in New York State and across the U.S.
Evoking an issue crucially important to Cornell students, the candidate recalled a waitress he met in Jamestown, N.Y., who had a bachelor’s and a master’s degree, but was forced to work as a waitress because she was so burdened by debt.
“This is the plight that college students face,” Shinagawa said. “How many of you are going to have to graduate with tens of thousands of dollars in debt?”
Shinagawa said he supports President Obama’s current jobs plan, which allocates billions of dollars to infrastructure spending in schools, including technology improvements such as new computers and projectors.
Shinagawa said he hopes to focus on improving education starting at the public school level.
“Most candidates will tell us that the most important issue is jobs, jobs, jobs. But in my district, there are many job openings, especially in manufacturing,” Shinagawa said. “But the real issue is that we don’t have quality people to fill those positions. We need to invest in job training and community colleges to help workers go into many fields that require additional preparation.”
Shinagawa also tackled issues such as hydrofracking and carbon taxes that have been heavily debated in New York over the last few years.
He said he vigorously opposes hydrofracking — a controversial practice in which chemicals are injected into the ground at high pressures to extract natural gas — because he said that even industry leaders acknowledge that the process is not safe and can lead to contamination of water supplies.
Shinagawa said after the event that he welcomed the opportunity to take a wide range of tough questions.
“Wow, this was one of the deepest discussions on the issues that I’ve had on the campaign trail. That is definitely a testament to the high-quality caliber of Cornell students,” Shinagawa told The Sun. “Several people mentioned that they liked how honest I was, and even if they didn’t agree with my viewpoints, they appreciated that I was willing to say it.”
Misha Checkovich ’13, a student who attended Thursday’s forum and identified herself as a Republican, said that while Shinagawa was “speaking to the Cornell Democrats, he was respectful of everyone’s concerns.”
“He knew what our perspectives were and what kind of philosophies we came from, which was very thoughtful of him,” she said.