Meet Chetan Hebbur – the newly graduated NYU alum who is running for New York City Council

‘I didn’t think politics was in my future…and then Trump happened’

If 22 year-old Chetan Hebbur were to win his city council seat in November, he would become the youngest person to be elected to the New York City council. Pretty historical stuff. But when I met Chetan, the potential of receiving that title – and the pressure of achieving it – did not seem to be on his mind. He was focused on the task at hand right now – getting the signatures he needs to get on the ballot for the Democratic nomination and making sure he kept his campaign as grass-roots as possible. In fact, he had just got back from a walking tour around the East Village, in which he had been meeting and shaking the hands of residents who – in his opinion – had largely been neglected by local government.

The newly graduated CAS senior announced his candidacy for District 2 in March, while at the time continuing to be a full-time student. He has now graduated and is devoting all his time to the campaign. The Tab sat down with him to discuss his campaign – both its initial creation and his plans moving forward, looking towards the primaries in September.

So you graduated! How does it feel? 

It is definitely a load off…I mean before graduation, I was doing this and also working a job. I just left the company to focus full time on the campaign. I worked there for two and a half years, they’re amazing people and they gave me the resources to even get started on this. It was hard but I think it’s better off that I can now devote all my time to the campaign.

And you actually couldn’t get outside donations until really recently. So before was it funded by your company or solely by you? 

No, by myself slowly working through my savings account. The campaign definitely started self-funded and was extremely grassroots in that respect. Everything that we did was trying to keep costs as minimal as possible but also – you know – trying to get effective outreach. So the place from which we initially tried to go about was reaching out to friends who have a lot of experience in the political arena in order to do things like develop more innovative polling techniques and stuff like that. And to get some ideas on how to better analyse the district in order to see what policies we needed to push. So that was our first main effort. We started corralling everyone that we knew and getting them involved.

This is how to turn a student apartment into a makeshift PSA recording studio #HebburForNYC #grassroots

A post shared by Chetan Hebbur (@ch8nhebbur) on Apr 18, 2017 at 4:07pm PDT

Yes I noticed that there are a lot of NYU students [involved in the core team].

Yeah totally. I mean that was just where I got my start in the district so that was home-base at first. We used an NYU classroom to throw a town meeting and all that good stuff. But eventually, our district outreach expanded and we figured that one of the best ways to actually engage with the district would be to shake hands with everyone we could possibly get in touch with. I just came back from a walk-around near Tompkins Square Park…it’s a great area but a lot of small businesses are struggling and we were able to figure out a lot more about what people in the area want which is really awesome and we got some many people who were super helpful and informative.

[For example], the manager at Big Gay Ice Cream has been in the non-profit space for ten years, used to be homeless – super inspirational guy and we talked to him for about half an hour and he was super hyped that a candidate actually talked to him because he was like – “I’ve been interviewed about unicorns, Buzzfeed was in here the other day but no political candidates” so we’re really trying to change the dynamics about how local elections work and hopefully that will trickle into the rest of New York City and become the standard way that we operate because that’s how local elections should be right?

But if you’re a resident in New York you can vote – so any NYU student (if you’re a citizen) can vote in the election if you are living in the district? 

So yeah if you are a citizen and you live in District 2 – in any of the residential halls or you have an apartment, as long as you have been there for a month by August – when registration is over – you can vote.

So they’ve got a long time to vote? 

Yeah they have a long time to register. The biggest thing on our plate right now is going to be petitioning season which is basically a five week block where we have to get nine hundred signatures, but really two thousand signatures…


Yeah because candidates can challenge each others’ signatures so that’s going to be what our entire staff is going to be devoted to, starting from around the 5th of 6th (of June).

So petitioning – this means getting 2000 signatures in order to be on the ballot? 

Yeah to be on the ballot. Right now, there are six or seven candidates trying to run in the district.

Ronnie Cho is a big one on the ballot currently (a former Obama campaign and White House advisor) – how are you differentiating yourself from candidates like him? 

There are great candidates on the ballot right now…so [our campaign strategy] is trying to convince people that maybe someone who hasn’t been in the political arena could give a fresh take and serve as – sort of – a way to bridge New York City and to a more grass-roots, hands-on political process so people feel like they’re involved. If you look at voter turnout, Rosie Mendez won three terms but even during a hot mayoral election, her turnout to the primaries was [only] 14,000 people.

So I think they are definitely great options…if you went out to the polls and voted for them, I wouldn’t be offended. But they are very set in the traditional mentality about New York’s local politics have worked in the past and they continue to do that sort of stuff. And the more people I talk to, the more people are willing to vote for me simply because I shook a hand or simply because I asked them what they wanted from legislators and it’s an important question they haven’t been asked before, which is sad.”

So a little bit about how you started doing this, or rather why…what motivated you to run? 

Honestly, politics I did not think was in my future.

Really? Did you major in politics? 

No, I was a Mathematics and Economics major. I worked for a mutual fund for two and a half years as a marketing consultant. And then, Trump happened. And you walk around the next day and it was raining and no one was making eye-contact with anybody. You could feel it. And I was really inspired at first by how my peers reacted to that. You saw everyone at NYU hitting the streets, getting involved in protests – everyone was very emotionally tied. But then you saw that kind of dwindle. I saw protesting and stuff become normalised and while I totally think that is a huge part of democratic process, that gets to a point where it’s not longer effective. And part of the inspiration for the campaign was showing young people that they are capable of engaging in the political process at every level…everyone on my team is pretty young and driven and we are running a successful campaign in New York City.

New Yorkers gathered in Bryant Park at a protest against the first travel ban in January

Then more than that, I was just putting into perspective the first generation immigrant mentality. My grandma and grandpa came here – to Kentucky of all places – at a time where racial diversity was not a thing…they made it so that my dad could come and get a good education here. So when you see as a first generation immigrant that your parents have put in all this effort to get you to a place where you have this privilege – it kind of dawned on me that my parents worked really hard to get to where they are but there was a lot of luck involved…there are a lot of people in New York City who work just as hard as they do and can’t get to where they want to and I would just love to be the middle man to try and figure out better resources and bolster non-profits.

I always think that NYU has quite a controversial positioning in the East Village…obviously you’ve graduated but you’re still a former NYU student..Do you think that works in your favour or that the NYU association is disadvantageous? 

As an institution, I have issues with NYU. I don’t think the fact that they literally spread parasitically through the East Village is a great thing for local communities and maintaining affordable housing and I think that’s the biggest concern – that NYU is going to be able to use its lobbying influence to take over areas.

NYU students are also interesting – I talk to a lot of people who are very active on social media and go to protests but don’t vote, even in midterm elections.

It seems weird right?

Well it seems weird to me because I’ve voted in every election I’ve been able to vote in at home because I think it’s a great thing to be able to do. So, are you doing specific things to reach out to young people to get them registered and actually voting?

I mean we’re trying. I think NYU has this natural push-back as well. I know that members of my staff have gotten questions like – “Hey, is Chetan actually a nice guy?” Or “Is he just doing this for success – what’s his motive?” And they’ve had to ensure so many people who haven’t met me that I am not just this guy trying to advance his career. So that’s a hurdle that we’ve had to overcome and hopefully our turnout – or rather the people who vote for us – we shouldn’t have to rely on NYU if we are running a successful campaign. But we are trying our best to get NYU students registered. Hopefully, if they decide they don’t want to vote in this election and I am able to use this campaign as an example of success – whether we win or lose – that in and of itself will be evidence that they should get more involved in politics. And hopefully that will just be a thing that happens. We would love for young people to turn out…I don’t know if that will happen.

I do hope that young people start taking this seriously…I think that there a lot of people who don’t understand what a post-Trump world would look like, especially post-budget cuts in big cities. And a lot of these NYU kids unfortunately will never experience what that is like because if you are in the top 1% income bracket, these budget cuts don’t do anything to you – if anything, they benefit you…It’s hard coming from a school that has a lot of privilege and a lot of privileged individuals who seemingly care about all of this stuff but not enough. And bridging that gap is something we’ve had a really hard time with.

Now you’ve graduated…reflecting on your experience there, how do you it affected your political involvement?

The four years I spent at NYU were largely contrasting my previous life in Dallas so it was a culture shock and that was hard to deal with at first. But then it gives you a lot of perspective about how the real world actually works. I think the best thing that I learned from NYU is that if you want to talk to someone, you should find similarities with that person through conversation rather than relying on having similarities already. So many campus schools for instance, you can walk up to someone on campus and know that they are at least at your school…you walk around Washington Square Park and if you want to talk to someone random, you have no assurance that that person actually goes to NYU, they could just be someone living in the area. So I think that’s the biggest way that it helped me.

The harsh realities of the world around us…and seeing parts of the cities even in the last few years get worse – like crime rates – those are realities that were just true and I had to face and was not something that I had had experience with before. So I think NYU – the biggest thing it gave me was the opportunity to live in New York City.


To learn more about the campaign’s goals and manifesto, check out their website and Facebook