College Democrats: “The Future of Our Democracy” Panel

Sen. Michele Hincey addresses New Paltz students on April 27, 2023. Photo Courtesy of @npcollegedems

On April 27, the New Paltz College Democrats club hosted a panel titled “The Future of Our Democracy” in the Lecture Center. 

The panel consisted of seven speakers, including four local politicians, two political activists and a New Paltz professor. Upon arriving, I spoke with student Orion Cain, who told me he was looking forward to the event and “excited to see Assemblywoman Shrestha.”  

The politicians were State Senator Michele Hinchey (D, District 41), Assemblywoman Sarahana Shrestha (D, District 103), Ulster County Executive Jen Metzger and Ulster County legislator Megan Sperry. The two young activists were Tyler Vanderhaag and Daniel Atonna. Vanderhaag is the lead organizer for a grassroots organization called Citizen Action of New York, and is currently based in Kingston. Atonna is the political coordinator for local progressive non-profit organization, For the Many. SUNY New Paltz political science professor Daniel Lipson, who has taught here since 2008, also spoke. 

The format posed six pre-submitted questions to all seven panelists, and then responses from those who wanted to. Here are some responses to three of the six questions:

“How do you think your position in state/local politics affects your view of the system?” 

Sen. Hinchey said that her first term in office taught her that there is significant underinvestment within the NY state budget, federal government’s tendency towards gridlock leaves great responsibility on the states, and thus there is a growing importance of state politics across the country. 

Sen. Shrestha noted that the state assembly’s current Democrat supermajority has helped her party pass needed legislation, with a current vote share of 68%, or 102-48 Democrat-Republican membership. Additionally, she mentioned how politicians often are operating with a fear of constituent or party backlash and thus not truly voting in good conscience. 

“Looking ahead at the 2024 election cycle, what should we expect, and what can we all do to influence the outcome?” 

Vanderhaag promoted the idea of incremental community-level steps making a major difference in the upcoming election cycle and said, “it only takes a few of you to make some noise.” Atonna, a progressive, hoped that “working class issues get addressed.” For him, these included increased minimum wage, passage of the crime-reform Clean Slate Act, tuition-free SUNY and higher taxes on the rich. 

Professor Lipson told the audience to “use your power wisely,” and expressed his concern about the Republican party’s increased extreme stances. He also complimented the local politicians, saying “New Paltz has the dream team of elected officials.” 

“What advice do you have for young people looking to get involved in politics?”

Assemblywoman Shrestha hoped those watching would “find your people, and learn how to double your power,” advocating for a grassroots approach to political activism. Sen. Hinchey also tried to foster inspiration, saying “we all started in a room like this.”

Atonna stressed that it’s fine to be a piece in the political puzzle, and got laughs when he said “I am a proud cog in the socialist machine.” Vanderhaag told the crowd to “ask a lot of questions, and be curious.” 

Professor Lipson described how progressive politics has changed the political landscape to incorporate younger generations for the first time in decades, even though there has been an inclination to believe it’s centered around the older and wealthier demographics. 

Overall, the lecture was enjoyable and engaging, and produced a fairly sizable turnout. The panelists were very welcoming to talk when it ended, and there will hopefully be a similar event on campus in the near future.