Meet the 24-year-old progressive running for mayor

Standing in front of his master plans to combat the school-to-prison pipeline, 24-year-old Joash Ward is vying to be the youngest mayor in Poughkeepsie history. His endorsements include the Justice Democrats. Courtesy of Grace Rousell

A master’s in law from King’s College, London, at age 23. An internship in the Obama White House, along with a gig at the United Nations. A degree from the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse, at age 19. A distinction as the youngest valedictorian in Poughkeepsie High School history, at age 16. If there is anything that now 24-year-old Poughkeepsie mayoral candidate Joash Ward lacks, it’s certainly not confidence.

“I am a very good representation of what life after Poughkeepsie High School could be,” declared Ward, only eight years removed from his senior year. He spoke with an air of determination. Backing his words with vibrant gesticulations, the millenial sat across the coffee table in tight-fitting black pants and a manila-colored turtleneck—a subtle rebuke of the politician’s expected suit-and-tie uniform. Ward continued, “Few people have the experience that I have in my background, professional and academic. Few people have lived their entire lives, gone through the struggles of growing up in this city, and then been asked to represent that city. So, I would say there is no mayoral candidate that has ever brought what I brought to a candidacy.”

Ward’s candidacy has found its headquarters in the middle of Main Street, Poughkeepsie’s struggling business center, which today is a physical reminder of a once-thriving industrial economy. Sprawling across a spacious second-floor apartment, campaign posters, pins and policy proposals written in marker on poster paper fill the living room, dining room and kitchen. The space is more than enough to host Ward’s grassroots campaign, which amounts to about 20 on-and-off volunteers—six of whom are his own family members.

“I had no plan to do this,” Ward admitted about his decision on running to represent Poughkeepsie’s 32,000-plus residents. “It was one of those, oh shit, I think I’m about to throw absolutely everything I was going to do out the window on the slim and radical chance that the City of Poughkeepsie will believe we can do better.”

Ward’s political experience includes no publicly held offices, but he was quick to mention his record as the “highest efficiency analyst” in the White House Office of Presidential Correspondence, as well as his work on Lemi Tilahun’s 2017 Democratic run for mayor of Cedar Rapids, IA. As the Democratic candidate in Poughkeepsie’s mayoral race, Ward is filing an opposition that would have otherwise been left vacant. Republican Mayor Robert G. Rolison is seeking re-election, having held the office since 2015 after previously serving 13 years as Poughkeepsie’s representative in the Dutchess County Legislature. The 61-year-old Republican is relatively popular in an urban area home to four Democrats for every five residents.

With the election roughly a month away, Ward is kicking his campaign into full gear. Yet, the strength of his appeal in the city is still unclear. So far, the young candidate has secured endorsements from the Working Families Party and the Justice Democrats, both progressive political entities that have also endorsed the four Congresswoman dubbed “the Squad”: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), Ilhan Omar (D-MN), Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) and Ayanna Presley (D-MA). Ward’s campaign is primarily backed by Run For Something, a 501(c)(4) organization with the aim of finding millennial candidates to run for otherwise uncontested seats.

Despite his proposals’ alignment with progressive positions, Ward was hesitant to pin himself on the rapidly changing political spectrum. “I would say, we are the largest generation of young people in the history of the world, and we are now aging into the point where we are beginning to represent ourselves and our views, in our own voice,” said Ward, who is choosing to focus on larger future visions for the city over specific political stances. “Our voice will not be the same as the generations before us, because the generations before us are not, and will not, face the challenges we do. And that’s what we’re beginning to see. And there’s tension, because there are different experiences.”

Ward’s campaign is based on policies that, according to him, offer a stark contrast not only to Rolison’s incumbent administration, but also to the city’s broader political history. Under his central slogan “Jobs not Jail,” Ward, who is Afro-Latinx, places racialized disparities that have long plagued people of color in Poughkeepsie (particularly Black residents) at the center of his campaign. The proposals penned in marker on his headquarter walls target Poughkeepsie’s declining job market, lax economic development and the low-performing education system. Yet, Ward first and foremost emphasizes the necessity of individual action to spark urban sustainability: “People need to understand what the stakes are,” he explained, “so that they can define for themselves what their life will be.”

Another central consideration in his plan is the $600 million loss Poughkeepsie’s real estate market suffered following the 2008 crash, as well as the need to revitalize Poughkeepsie’s public schools, which are ranked third-to-last in New York State.

Ward insists that Poughkeepsie is in desperate need of preservation that must stem first from a renewed investment in education. A signature campaign proposal focuses on a work-study program that would grant public school students a pathway to employment after graduation, in an attempt to reduce the school-to-prison pipeline.

Other initiatives include the creation of a council that would address the revitalization of local businesses and promote the diversification of the police force. Although these proposals highlight issues that continuously impact Poughkeepsie, Ward offered only vague paths for their practical implementation. When pressed in person, he provided only one specific example of potential project funding. “New York State is responsible for up to 90 percent of the construction cost [for revitalizing schools],” which he later detailed to be between $3 and 7 million.

After each long day of drawing up plans in his headquarters, Ward walks out of his office and toward the bustling sidewalks and brickstone buildings of Main Street. He turns left, and heads to his old new home in his native town, where his earliest supporters await him—his mother and elder siblings. This deliberate return to his roots embodies Ward’s main impetus for entering the mayoral race: a deep love for family and community. Come November’s election, Poughkeepsie will decide if the young man can give back to the city that made him.

[Additional reporting by Eli Hurwitz]

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