After a canny Facebook-fueled campaign helped him trounce an incumbent, Chase Harrison will take his seat on the Millburn, N.J. Board of Education in January. He’s aiming to loosen rules around Advanced Placement courses by serving on the Board’s program committee. And he’s vowing to “shake things up” at the staid, tight-knit elected body.
Oh, and he just turned 18.
Harrison, a senior at Millburn High School, became the youngest elected official in New Jersey history – and one of the youngest in the nation – when he defeated vice president Rona Wenik this month. Local network NJTV News called it “a stunning upset.”
An award-winning debate champ, Harrison credits his success on the stump to his verbal skills. But using social media to connect with voters also helped elevate his candidacy, he told the Forward. “The level of responsiveness was amazing,” he says. “I got immediate feedback on how citizens felt about issues.”
Harrison lives in Millburn with his parents, Beth and David, two brothers, and a pet guinea pig. The Forward caught up with him after a busy school day.
MICHAEL KAMINER: First of all, why run for an elected office in the first place? It sounds like there’s enough going on with college applications and homework.
CHASE HARRISON : It was two-pronged. First, I have a strong interest in politics, and that’s where I want a career. I figured that just being able to campaign would be great experience. And I knew that if I actually ran, getting elected as a public official at this young age would be unprecedented. Second, Millburn’s known to be one of the best public schools in New Jersey. But it’s also one of most stressful high schools in New Jersey. There’s a lot of pressure on students, a lot of pressure to achieve. Some of the policies in place to get students to the top are destructive. I want to make sure the health and well-being of students are taken care of.
**Which policies do you consider “destructive”? **
There’s something Millburn has that no other school has at the level we do: AP [Advanced Placement] qualifiers. If you want to take an AP class, you have to sit for a 90-minute standardized test on a topic you don’t know, or a reading you get on the spot. AP classes become competitive, and students find they can’t access classes they love in a subject they feel they’re ready to work at. And certain students hog the AP classes just because they can get in.
How do you think your fellow board members will treat you once you take office in January?
When I’ve spoken at meetings of the current board, some members have been receptive. But the Millburn Board of Education has a big problem with cronyism. Most votes are 9-0. The board members will even say they don’t disagree publicly. They haven’t been receptive to input from citizens. Sometimes, I didn’t even receive something as basic as eye contact when I spoke.
Some board members are trepidatious about my becoming a board member. I want to shake this up, bring transparency, change the conversation. They fear they won’t be able to continue with the agenda they’ve been pushing.
Do you feel more pressure to perform because of your age?
I do. I have a lot to prove to the general populace, and I have a responsibility I have to fulfill for the citizens of Millburn, who took a chance on me. It’s pretty unprecedented to have an active student on the board of schools. It could also set a precedent for towns in New Jersey and across the country. Having a student voice on the Board is so important. It can add to the dialogue, and prove that students can act maturely in that capacity.
Reports on your victory singled out your use of social media. How did that figure into the campaign?
I used my Facebook page as an opportunity to express my platform and respond to concerns in the community. For example, I brought up the issue of implementing a block schedule, which is used by many public schools in the tri-state area. The post went viral. It was a good gauge of what students themselves wanted.
Do you think your Jewish background has played a role in your development as a political animal?
My family put a high value on political discussion at the dinner table, which is something I think a lot of Jewish families put a high value on. It made me interested in politics, and got me comfortable engaging in dialogue. It also got me into speech and debate. I travel the country as part of my school’s debate team, and I’ve been a two-time national finalize in Extemporaneous Speaking competitions. For a campaign, it made it a natural transition.
After the school board, what next? President?
Everyone asks if I want to be president. But I was born in Australia. I’d love to participate in the legislative body at some point. Maybe starting small, like the state legislature. Last year, I worked for a New Jersey assemblywoman Mila Jasey. I got to go to Trenton several times, and even pressed the voting button, which was cool. I did some outreach to religious groups and not-for-profits in our district. It was a great experience to learn how to socialize with people in that capacity. A lot of skills I learned there transferred well into the campaign.
After your election, a NJ.com headline asked, “Can an election official be too young?” What’s your answer?
Obviously, I think there’s a point where someone’s too young. There’s a two-year-old mayor somewhere in Minnesota – I’m not sure what a great idea that is. But getting young people familiar with policy is a good way to get them familiar with politics. An insider’s perspective allows them to contribute productively. If there’s anywhere to start, it’s the school board.