A 19-year-old Harvard freshman who has already gained national media attention for her nonprofit work, Okamoto has had no trouble garnering media attention: The Huffington Post, The Boston Globe, and US News and World Report have all covered her precocious campaign.
But as someone who has never run for elected office nor lived in Cambridge for more than several months, Okamoto and her staff lack typical political experience as they head into a crowded City Council race, a point some Cantabrigians have been quick to point out.
More than 25 people, including eight incumbent City Councillors, are competing for the nine open seats on the City Council. Okamoto is facing broad competition from politicians with years of experience and residency in Cambridge.
Robert Winters, editor of the Cambridge Civic Journal and local political pundit, said that Okamoto’s campaign may be more than a long-shot.
“I have to admit to being just a bit wary when someone who is brand new to the city —and who likely knows next to nothing about the city, its neighborhoods, or its history—launches into a self-promotional tour before actually getting to know more than a handful of people who actually live here,” Winters wrote in an email.
For her young campaign—every single member of Okamoto’s seven-person campaign staff is an undergraduate—the challenge will be to successfully translate national buzz into local votes and dispel the notion that Okamoto won’t have the time or knowhow to serve on the council.
Okamoto said she is up to the challenge.
“I want to do what I can where I can. And where I am is here,” she said. “If we show that we can do a good job at a young age, I think we can show other young people that they can do this as well.”
Already drawing from her previous experience founding and running a national nonprofit, PERIOD, which distributes feminine hygiene products to low-income women, Okamoto and her staff have started fundraising and formulating policy proposals. She said she’s been in contact with current City Councillor Nadeem A. Mazen during the young campaign.
As of Monday, Okamoto has raised more than $1,200, and her staff is set to live together in Cambridge this summer to work full-time on the race, although Okamoto will occasionally travel back to Portland to keep tabs on her nonprofit work.
While she has not yet released an official platform, which she said will be out soon, Okamoto said she plans increasing funding for pre-kindergarten programs, developing affordable housing, and raising the minimum wage.
“There’s so much we can be doing” she said. “Whether that be pre-K programs or school funding or organizing.”
Okamoto also said she hopes to pressure universities in Cambridge to contribute more to the City in hopes that it can help solve some of the most pressing issues facing the city. Harvard pays millions to Cambridge every year in lieu of property taxes.
“The universities do not do enough to help with community development and even local economic development” she said. “They aren’t doing all they could be to support the living of the students.”
If elected, Okamoto said that although she would like to continue with school, she would take time off if the two conflicted. She says that she would make around $80,000 a year for her time and that residents deserve effort.
When asked if they would be compensated for their work, all of Okamoto’s campaign staffers declined to comment.
Okamoto isn’t the only Harvard undergraduate running for a city position though—William H. MacArthur ’20, a Cambridge native, is looking to secure a spot on the city’s School Committee, which oversees the operation of the local school districts.
The Cambridge general election will be held Tuesday, November 7.
—Staff writer Nicholas W. Sundberg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org Follow him on Twitter @NickWSundberg
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