Nineteen-year-old Skyler Johnson is campaigning for the 2020 Democratic nomination to run against District 1 New York State Senator Kenneth P. LaValle (R-Port Jefferson).
In an interview with The Statesman, Johnson said he has always been involved with politics. In middle school, he debated the pros and cons of Obama’s re-election with his classmates. As a high school student, he petitioned his school’s administration for his peers’ right to walk out of class to protest for more gun control following the Parkland shooting. Only two months ago, he was the campaign manager for the 2019 Democratic Brookhaven Town Council District 2 candidate and Stony Brook University Alumna, Sarah Deonarine.
Deonarine lost the race by 61.97%. However, even after the loss, Johnson was determined to challenge one of the longest incumbents in the state senate who’s been in office for more than 40 years.
“It was a gradual desire that built up over many years,” Johnson said, referring to his decision to run. “But something that kind of pushed me over the ledge was when I watched the incumbent vote against LGBT rights. I realized that no one was going to stop him and that a lot of the candidates [the Democratic Party] were putting up were unable to beat him, despite trying for 40 years.”
LaValle, who assumed office in 1976, was one of only four state senators last January who voted against the Gender Expression Non-Discrimination Act that banned the practice of gay conversion therapy in New York, a decision that led students at Stony Brook University to petition to change the name of the stadium that was named after him in 2002.
Johnson said he believes that he holds the best chance over the other Democratic nominees at beating the 80-year-old incumbent in the 2020 election. If elected, he said he would introduce a bill instituting term limits for state senators like LaValle — who Johnson says has spent too much time in office.
Johnson claims that people are ”tired” of a politician who they feel hasn’t “done much for them.”
“Even the people that liked him feel that it’s time for change, and that’s really what’s going to be the key in this election,” he said. “We need someone who can bring in new ideas and do things that we haven’t seen in this district yet.”
Johnson, a 2018 graduate of Mount Sinai High School and a second-year political science major at Suffolk County Community, is campaigning for the Democratic nomination against two Stony Brook University alumni: Southampton Town Councilman, Tommy John Schiavoni, and sexual crime victim attorney and social worker, Laura Ahearn.
“The issue is, Democrats want a truly progressive candidate,” Johnson said. “They want somebody who will usher in a new era of change, and I believe I’m the candidate that can do that.”
For Johnson, Deonarine’s campaign was a valuable experience when it came to launching his own. As campaign manager, he’s collaborated and talked with local businesses, made phone calls and canvassed door-to-door leading up to Election Day. Johnson has already started acquiring the signatures that will get him on the Democratic nominee ballot by registering voters at Stony Brook University and Suffolk County Community College. He has built up an 11-person campaign team, comprised of both experienced campaign staff and college students.
Johnson’s number one priority, if elected, is instituting the New York Health Act (NYHA), a public healthcare bill that proposes eliminating the cost of healthcare for New York residents. The bill is endorsed by 663 organizations, according to the NYHA campaign. On Nov. 24, he attended a meeting with local advocates who support of the bill to further understand the motion.
“I’ve heard so many horror stories after going around and discussing [the New York Health Act] with people,” Johnson said. “I heard of a woman who had a high risk pregnancy and was kicked off her state subsidized insurance because she got a slight raise, and they couldn’t afford to pay the full cost of the insurance. I’ve heard of people who have cut their insulin pills in half because they can’t afford to buy the full prescription.”
Johnson said he believes that if New York State champions the legislation, it would stimulate the economy, benefit the public and the rest of the country would follow suit.
A 2016 qualitative needs assessment from Long Island Health Collaborative indicates that in Suffolk County, “lack of financial security and stability are directly connected with a person’s ability to take accountability for their health needs, making decisions related to health statuses even more challenging.”
A study published in 2019 by The Commonwealth Fund showed that compared to 2010, when the Affordable Care Act became law, “of the 194 million U.S. adults ages 19 to 64 in 2018, an estimated 87 million, or 45 percent, were inadequately insured.”
However, to implement the New York Health Act, Johnson must not only gain the Democratic nomination, but also beat LaValle.
Right-wing active voters outnumber left-wing active voters in Senatorial District 1 by roughly 5,000 members. The 2019 election saw a win for the Republican party in the two major towns in the district, Brookhaven and Riverhead, taking seven of the eight town council seats and both town supervisor seats between the two towns.
Although Johnson would be on the ballot representing a minority party in the district, roughly 60,000 active voters remain without a party affiliation. He hopes to capture these voters, while also winning over Republican voters; he’s already started calling voters in the area to rally his support and talking to them about the NYHA, Johnson said.
“No matter if you’re a Democrat or Republican, you still pay your taxes, you still drink the water, you still pay off student loans and that’s the message that we communicate with people,” Johnson said.
LaValle, who is Chairman of the minority conference in the State Senate, is known for his bipartisan efforts; he was recognized in 2018 by the New York League of Conservation Voters as a bipartisan leader for environmental conservation. As the Chairman of the Senate Committee for Higher Education, he is also a strong supporter of Stony Brook University. He’s helped secure millions of dollars in funding for the university, including $25 million last year for a new engineering building on campus.
Still, Johnson said he believes that LaValle “should have accomplished more than he already has” in his 42 years in office, especially with student debt relief.
When asked about the Excelsior Scholarship, a state scholarship granted to SUNY and CUNY students with annual incomes that gross $125,000 or less, Johnson said the requirement for students to stay a year in New York State for each year they received the scholarship is too steep a price to pay and should be amended.
He believes that the high cost of housing ownership — which is estimated by the U.S census to be a median $2,744 a month in Suffolk County compared to the nationwide $1,515 — coupled with the cost of education, are factors that led New York State to have the third highest outmigration flows in the country, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
“If this is done right, people will stay in New York,” he said. “You won’t have to mandate it because people want to stay where they live. No one here really says when they’re a kid, ‘when I grow up, I want to go and move to South Carolina.’ They know they want to live in New York. They’re being forced out of New York State by the high cost here.”
Young people interested in politics, like Johnson, often donate their time to helping local candidates. Sean Lange, a member of the Stony Brook University College Democrats and senior studying political science, volunteered for a number of candidates’ campaigns, including interning for the re-election campaign of William J. Lindsay III (D-Holbrook).
“I think it’s important for young people to be involved in the political process, whether that means voting, volunteering on campaigns, registering voters, or even running for office,” Lange said in an email.
He said he believes that several of Johnson’s key policies, especially the New York Health Act, debt relief policies and his commitment to securing the rights of LGBTQ people will benefit people living in New York if Johnson gains office. Lange also said that Johnson’s age does not make his candidacy weaker at all.
“Especially given that this is an important seat and may be competitive in 2020, I think it is important for a young person such as Skyler to run, as many of the most important issues, such as a lack of economic opportunity for young people due to rising student debt, affect us directly,” Lange wrote in an email. “With a young voice leading the way on that policy, it provides an important perspective to older members of the public who may otherwise not be directly familiar with the difficulties faced by young people.”
By contrast, Rohit Panda, a member of the Stony Brook University College Republicans and freshman computer science major, said that Johnson lacks experience, has “been indoctrinated with liberalism” and “falsely thinks anyone can just become a politician.”
“Politicians definitely need experience and a demonstrated understanding of economics and the political process in order to succeed,” Panda wrote in an email. “He won’t stand a chance against LaValle honestly. I just don’t think people like voting for college students to run high positions of government, especially when LaValle has such a long running.”
Panda said that the NYHA is “an absolutely preposterous bill” that will increase taxes and cause workers in the medical profession to protest the lower payments. He said that wait times would rise drastically with patient demand, citing health care policies in Vermont and California as examples of what he largely believes are failed health care plans.
“It just seems like he’s parroting what liberal politicians and commentators are always talking about in their rhetoric like ‘free healthcare’ and ‘free college,’” Panda wrote in an email. “Basically, mostly things that he thinks are easy to carry out if he were to be a politician, but in reality they never actually get passed.”
Johnson acknowledges that some may consider his age a detriment to his campaign. Nevertheless, he said he could not wait until his education is complete to run for the seat. The issues, he said, are too pressing for him to wait for the completion of his education.
“What I realized is that this isn’t something that can wait,” Johnson said. “Our climate is not getting better, this stuff isn’t going the opposite direction. And so, I realized that I needed to run now, or I’d be remiss in my duties here. I see what needs to be done, and I see how to get it done. And if I don’t step up, I feel like it would almost be selfish.”
Democratic nominee candidate Tommy John Schiavoni’s campaign said they have no official comment on Johnson’s candidacy.
Democratic nominee Laura Ahearn’s campaign did not respond to a request for comment before this article was published.
Kenneth LaValle’s office has yet to respond to multiple requests for comment before the article was published.