Q&A: Daniel Vernick, Town Meeting’s 18-Year-Old Top Vote Getter

Photo: Daniel Vernick, Town Meeting Member, Precinct 1.

When the annual Belmont Town Meeting convenes on Monday, May 2, sitting with his Precinct 1 colleagues will be an 18-year-old who won his seat in the town’s legislative branch by topping all the candidates in the eight precincts by running on bringing “new energy and a fresh perspective” to Town Meeting.

Daniel Vernick of Fairmont Street and New Haven, Conn (he is a member of Yale’s Class of 2019) ran a campaign – with door-to-door appeals, social media, professional brochures and organizing a group of friend from high school to cover Precinct 1 with material and stand with his signs on election day – that one longtime resident and Town Meeting member called “better than most seasoned candidates, and this from a teenager.” 

But for anyone who knows Vernick would not be surprised by his enthusiasm for the political process; he has been active in town Democrat politics since he was 12 years old, taking an active role in passing progressive measures – supporting the Prop. 2 1/2 overrides of 2010 and 2015 – and being an active member of groups such as the Belmont Human Rights Commission and the Belmont Democratic Town Committee. 

In his run, Vernick decried the lack of representation of college and high school students on Town Meeting.

“That’s unacceptable. Leading the high school override effort made me realize that many in town just don’t understand where we’re coming from. There are so many issues that young people are uniquely impacted by and have an important perspective on, from social justice to a new high school to the latest technology and its integration into education,” said Vernick in a letter to the Belmontonian.

The Belmontonian asked Vernick a few questions on how he became one of the youngest Town Meeting Members in town (and state) history. (Some of Vernick’s answers were edited for length.)

Belmontonian: What was your feeling hearing that you won on Election night? What were you doing when you learned of the results?

Vernick: I was in my dorm room and had just finished talking to two friends that had been holding signs for me outside the library. One of them texted a picture of the results from Precinct 1, and I felt overwhelmed with an intense combination of excitement, humility, empowerment, and gratitude.

I felt deeply humbled by everyone that put their faith and their trust in an 18-year-old as their representative. It was a surreal moment, and I vowed to do my utmost to live up to the incredible support.

This victory happened because of the people who put time and effort into supporting my campaign; holding signs, sending emails, posting on Facebook, talking to friends, and spreading the word on social media. For instance, friends designed graphics and spread hashtags such as #FeeltheVern to engage BHS students and grads. Class of 2015 President Sophie Kurz-Cosgrove has been particularly integral to the campaign. I truly couldn’t have done this without such incredible friends and supporters, and I’ll be forever grateful.

Belmont, you’ve inspired me to stand up and fight harder, and I’ll do everything I can to return your incredible support. I can assure you that the student perspective will be heard and that town leaders will know our priorities. Feel free to contact me anytime at 781-697-9732 or danieliwvernick@gmail.com if you ever have any questions, ideas, or concerns about town government. You got me here, and I plan to work for you. I want to be your advocate, and the fight has only just begun.

Belmontonian: How difficult was it to run in Belmont when you’re down in New Haven studying?

Vernick: When I decided to run, I wanted to do it right. Since I’m a college student, I wanted to make sure that Belmontians understood my commitment and dedication to Belmont and that I am serious about devoting effort to Town Meeting. I spent my spring break knocking on hundreds of doors. From Myrtle Street to Baker Street to Adams Street to Mannix Circle to Chenery Terrace, it was an honor to talk to residents in every corner of Precinct 1. I made sure that I didn’t leave any part of the Precinct behind, and I was inspired by so many people who took the time to talk to me about their concerns and ideas for our community.

I organized the bulk of my campaign during spring break, though I still ended up spending a fair amount of time on it in New Haven. Election Day and the couple days leading up to it were the most intense, and it was certainly chaotic and at times stressful to run the campaign from afar. I was on the phone calling, texting, and emailing during class throughout Election Day and it was probably my first time waking up before 7 a.m. on a weekday since high school. Campaigning from New Haven was obviously not easy but certainly worth the effort.

Belmontonian: How old were you the first time you thought about running for office?

Vernick: The 2008 Obama presidential campaign inspired me to get involved in politics while in 5th grade. I’ve cared deeply about politics and government ever since (for instance, I realized that you wrote an article in 2012 about my involvement in politics–seems so long ago! patch.com/massachusetts/belmont/from-mitt-s-hometown-a-young-democrats-heads-to-washington). Since at least 6th grade, I’ve thought about running for office with varying degrees of knowledge and certainty.

My first run was for Chenery’s Lower School Student Council in 6th grade. I stayed involved in Chenery and then Belmont High School, working to take action through various elected offices such as Student Senate, Student Representative to the School Committee, and Class Vice President.

This campaign was unique because it was run and operated by students; thank you to all the high school and college students that volunteered, spread the word, and voted! Like with the override and Save Sully efforts, we again showed Belmont that students have power and that we are not the politically apathetic generation that many in the media claim us to be. I believe that it is extremely important to expand student representation and hope to encourage more young people to become involved in town government and to run for office.

Belmontonian: What are some important issues you’d like to bring up/promote at this coming Town Meeting?

Vernick: I envision a Belmont with per-pupil spending above the state average, strengthened solar net metering, responsible Airbnb policies that embrace innovation, justice for Mr. Sullivan, and an equal rights bylaw that includes transgender equal accommodations. I refuse to be constrained by political boundaries, and I will stand up to the status quo.

There are so many areas that Belmont can improve and really become a leader on, and I am more energized than ever to fight for them. The fight has only just begun. For instance, the Zoning Board’s recent decision to deny a permit to the Pleasant Street hotel project reinforces Belmont’s image as an anti-business community. To maintain the quality of our schools, it is essential to expand the corporate tax base by eliminating the complex bureaucratic regulations that are discouraging businesses from establishing themselves in Belmont. I’ll work to support an amendment to the bylaw that the Zoning Board used to prevent viable and important Pleasant Street developments.

I was inspired to run by beloved 15-year Belmont teacher Mr. John Sullivan, who was unjustly fired last June. Mr. Sullivan was a mentor, a leader, and the definition of a 21st-century educator. His philosophy for learning is exactly what Belmont needs more of. Students led the effort to #SaveSully and although we ended up making a difference, few in town government or the school administration would even acknowledge us. The way to change that is to run for office and force them to listen. I ran to bring attention to the issues that people ignore and try to forget, to give voice to those who aren’t able to speak out. I’ll never forget Sullivan, and I’ll never stop fighting for the respect and dignity that my teachers deserve.

I envision a bold Belmont at the forefront of progressive change. A few priorities:

  • Schools. Build on the progress of the override. Our schools remain underfunded and often improperly managed. Belmont schools have done an enormous amount for me, and I’ll do everything in my power to preserve and improve them for future generations.
  • Environment. Belmont should be a leader in sustainability and clean energy. I’ll work to preserve conservation land, advocate for solar net metering, improve public transportation, and support the Community Path and other new recreation areas. I’ll also push for Belmont to follow the lead of cities from Cambridge to Framingham in divesting from fossil fuel corporations.
  • Teachers. I’ll voice the concerns of teachers and elevate their influence in the school administration. Mr. John Sullivan should not have been victimized by the BHS administration.
  • Innovation. Make Belmont business-friendly, and attract businesses to build the tax base. Improve town infrastructure and technological capabilities; Belmont’s restrictions on social media make its web presence lacking and archaic. Resist town regulation of Airbnb and other new technologies.
  • Equality. Belmont doesn’t have an equal rights bylaw that officially states racial and LGBT equality. I’ll advocate for a comprehensive bylaw that includes transgender equal accommodations. We must do more to combat prejudice and create an inclusive community.
  • Responsive government. Stand up for greater transparency and hold town leaders accountable.

Belmontonian: What’s next for you? Run for Elizabeth Warren’s seat in a few years?

Vernick: I’ll be focused on working hard to return the incredible support I received, fighting to empower young people and to make Belmont a leader.

Politics should not be about perpetually aiming for a higher office; it should be about creating meaningful change and making sure that the truth – even if it’s unpopular – is heard. Political office should be about fighting for those without a voice and creating meaningful change, not obtaining a title, padding a resume, or ascending the political ladder. I ran because I care deeply about Belmont and want to give voice to my generation, and that’s what I plan to do.

In terms of Belmont elections, I have already heard from a few students that are now interested in running for Town Meeting. My goal is to make sure that they succeed. To any students reading this: let me know if you’re interested in running and I can help you get started!