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Graduate student Giovanni Scaringi, left, and sophomore Conrad Taylor will represent Binghamton's 1st and 4th districts, respectively, on the seven-member City Council.
Photo by Jonathan Cohen
Two students win City Council seats
November 30, 2015Tweet
As a 13-year-old in 2008, Conrad Taylor went door to door in rural Pennsylvania with his father canvassing for presidential hopeful Barack Obama.
“We knocked on hundreds of doors,” Taylor recalled. “When Obama won, my father said to me: ‘Conrad, we (helped) make this happen. We influenced this.’ That spurred me to get into politics.”
Seven years later, the Binghamton University sophomore was again knocking on hundreds of doors. This time, however, the visits were taking place in downtown Binghamton and on the north side of the city as a candidate for the Binghamton City Council’s 4th District.
Elsewhere in the city, a Binghamton University graduate student was also making the rounds. Giovanni Scaringi, a doctoral candidate in political science and an assistant professor of economics at SUNY Broome, was attempting to unseat incumbent Jerry Motsavage ’74 in the city’s 1st District.
“I think a lot of people in Binghamton are overburdened,” the 36-year-old Scaringi said. “The people I spoke to feel that local government was just not working for them. For me, that was one of the reasons I said: ‘I’m going to give this a shot.’”
The months of going door to door in their neighborhoods paid off on Election Night for Taylor and Scaringi. Taylor, a Democrat, defeated John Cordisco, 505-429. Scaringi, a Republican, defeated Motsavage, 507-397. Republicans control the council by a 4-3 majority. Taylor and Scaringi will officially take office on Jan. 1.
Taylor: ‘I want to be a public servant’
Taylor came to Binghamton University from New York City hoping to someday run for elected office “to make a difference as an advocate for a community.” The political science major first worked on Anndrea Starzak’s state Senate campaign in the summer and fall of 2014.
Like Scaringi, Taylor noticed the mindset of local voters.
“I saw how people are disenfranchised with the political system,” Taylor said. “People don’t think that local government cares about them. They’ve lost faith in government. You see it all over the United States and you see it in Binghamton just as much.”
Taylor believed that his City Council candidacy could not only change those thoughts, but engage an apathetic student body, as well. While political insiders questioned his knowledge of the issues and his age, the 19-year-old political science major said he was “lucky to have a lot of people who supported and encouraged” him.
“I knew that I had good intentions,” he said. “I knew that I wanted to represent the people of my district. Downtown Binghamton has so much potential to be a regional destination and a cultural hotspot. The University is part of that. I wanted to be part of this development – to be a leader in the movement for change and to create a brighter city.”
Going door to door and meeting with constituents was Taylor’s favorite part of the campaign.
“It gave me the opportunity to sit down with hundreds of people and have honest conversations with them about the issues,” he said. “At the door was when I was able to come across as a legitimate candidate. Sure I’m young, but at the door I was able to use that as a positive: I have the passion, energy and motivation to make a difference.
“Things started to build after people realized: ‘Oh! He’s not some punk college kid.’”
Taylor even used unorthodox means to reach out to potential voters. “Conrad on Your Corner” featured Taylor setting up a piano on Washington Street during First Friday.
“I played piano and after a few songs, I’d stop and talk to people about the issues of downtown Binghamton,” he said. “It was good to push the non-traditional councilman (image). What council member plays piano on the street?”
On a scale from 1-10, Taylor rates himself a “six or a seven” as a pianist.
“I can sing at a four,” he said jokingly.
Taylor’s district, formerly represented by Lea Webb ’04 of the University’s Division of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, is separated into two sections: downtown Binghamton and the north side of the city.
Issues on the north side (which Taylor calls “the most forgotten neighborhood in the city”) include road repairs, code enforcement, safety and bringing a grocery into the area. Taylor’s priorities for downtown include encouraging development and growth, supporting downtown business owners and safety.
But the biggest priority for the 4th District is “constituency services,” Taylor said.
“It’s about making sure that they have someone in local government who they can rely on when it comes to a phone call, an e-mail or a meeting,” said Taylor, who has vowed to continue to knock on doors and reach out to residents. “They need someone who wants to be a public servant: I want to be a public servant for my district.”
Scaringi: ‘Keep my feet to the fire’
The concept of representation was also at the cornerstone of Scaringi’s campaign.
“Taking the concerns of your residents and neighbors and translating them into tangible results is what people really want,” he said. “I could feel strongly about Policy A. However, if I know through town halls and going door to door that the majority of residents in the district I represent feel the exact opposite, a trustee doesn’t do what he or she (wants). A trustee represents the people. That’s what I went door to door with for six months.”
Scaringi, who received his undergraduate and master’s degrees from the University of Bridgeport, has lived in Binghamton for almost four years. He served as a faculty member at SUNY Rockland before starting at SUNY Broome in January 2014. Scaringi had the opportunity to participate in various state political races as the chair of the New York State Young Republicans from 2011-13.
“I’ve always been interested in politics, but more on the campaign side,” he said.
Scaringi said he started mulling a 1st District run in late March and early April. Despite admitting that taking on an incumbent is “an incredibly daunting experience in American politics at large,” Scaringi announced his candidacy over the summer.
“You need to have a plan: Not a campaign plan, but a plan based on issues,” he said. “It’s not just the message, but the vision. In our campaign, our best asset was the blunt truth. Talking about the issues and talking about how to deal with the issues turned the tide for us.”
The 1st District, located in the northwest part of the city, includes the First Ward and Ely Park. Some of the issues facing both the district and city, Scaringi said, are taxation, jobs and an aging population that needs local college graduates to remain.
“I truly believe that Binghamton’s best asset is its people,” he said. “We are diverse, talented and we want to see this city thrive again.”
Scaringi plans to hold town meetings every other month to receive input on issues from his constituents.
“I need to know that at the end of the night when I look myself in the mirror and put my head on the pillow, I can say: ‘I did the best I could,’” he said. “I’m not perfect. I’m going to mess up. But I’ve told neighbors and residents: ‘Keep my feet to the fire!’”
The Binghamton University effect
Both Taylor and Scaringi said that the University community played a key role in their election triumphs.
Taylor’s staff is comprised of all students – some are people he knew, some are political science students, while others applied through the Career Development Centralized Internship Program. Some even offered to volunteer after walking into his campaign office.
“All students—all amazing people,” Taylor said. “They all worked hard because they believed in our campaign and they believed in our message. And they thought it was cool that one of their own was running for City Council.”
Taylor, who said he helped register more than 1,500 students to vote, saluted Binghamton University’s students, especially those in the Political Science Department.
“All it took was a push,” he said. “Once they got that push, they were on fire. We have a remarkable student body.”
Taylor and Scaringi also praised Jonathan Krasno, an associate professor of political science at Binghamton University, for his support. Taylor (along with his campaign manager and field manager) took a Campaigns and Elections course with Krasno.
“He was supportive from day one,” Taylor said. “He is excited to see young people engaged here and in Broome County.”
Krasno serves as Scaringi’s dissertation chair in political science. Scaringi, who admitted that the last three years have been “a roller coaster” while working full-time and pursuing his doctorate, said Krasno has been a mentor to him.
“I don’t know if I would be here if it wasn’t for him,” Scaringi said. “There are some things we agree on and a boatload of things we don’t, but we respect each other. I consider myself lucky to have him as a friend. He was there for me when the going was tough and I was trying to balance life.”
Krasno said he is impressed with Scaringi and Taylor, who have “established themselves as candidates with bright futures in Broome County politics.”
“While their journeys to the City Council were vastly different, both of them had to overcome a lot of doubts about their ability to win,” Krasno said. “They both overcame them with enormous amounts of hard work.
“The doubts about Giovanni were whether a Republican – any Republican – could win on the northwest side of Binghamton. I remember thinking, and telling him, that it would be pretty steep hill to climb. He assured me that his expectations were minimal and that he had agreed to run because he thought the party should offer a choice everywhere. I should have known – knowing him – that he’d take it seriously and throw himself into the campaign.”
The doubts with Taylor were whether anyone could win a City Council position at age 19, Krasno said.
“I know he had to overcome a lot of resistance by simply going ahead with his campaign,” Krasno said. “He worked incredibly hard, too, and he made the smart decision to turn his age into an asset by recruiting a lot of students to work on his campaign. Everyone I talked to told me that it was an incredibly well-run effort – a real model for how local campaigns can operate.”
Scaringi, who said he is grateful to have had “the honor of being accepted at Binghamton University,” emphasized the importance of being able to work with students and faculty at both SUNY Broome and Binghamton University.
“I get to see both sides,” he said. “I will put the students I teach at Broome up against freshmen and sophomores at any community college any day of the week. The research nature of the undergraduate and graduate programs at Binghamton University is phenomenal. The faculty here will push you to your limit. That’s a good thing. It conditions you to handle the research-oriented academic rigors. I wouldn’t trade this for the world.”
And what happens if a current or incoming Binghamton University student is inspired by Taylor and Scaringi to run for a local political position?
“If you’ve been here for a day, but you want to run – do it!” Taylor advised. “If you turned 18 yesterday, but you want to (run) – do it! If the voters don’t think you’re the right choice, you’ll lose. That’s how elections work. But if you know the issues and you have the right intentions – go for it! And I’ll help you.”