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Student to Senate: Chenette’s Journey Into Politics

Justin Chenette, former student of Thornton Academy, has left a lasting imprint on current students and the community as a whole. Chenette is currently serving as the youngest Senator in the Maine Senate, representing Saco, Old Orchard Beach, Hollis, Limington, and part of Buxton. Recently, Chenette was re-elected back into senate by winning three out of his five towns with 66% of the vote.

Chenette is not afraid to push societal boundaries. Being the youngest Senator in Maine, Chenette has faced difficulty. Being a teen with a strong political voice is a rarity, but Chenette wants the youth to be heard, not ignored.

“I was always told when I was in high school that I was too young to do whatever it was that I was passionate about, ‘you have to wait your turn,’ and I just felt really frustrated by that, by a political system that fundamentally wasn’t listening to young people. Just because I could not vote yet, should not have meant that I should not have had a voice and a seat at the table. When you turn 18 you do not magically know how to vote, so it is important that we engage young people early on, not just in high school. We have interns on the campaign who are in middle school. In the past we have even had students that are in elementary school help out, waving signs which is something you can do at any age,” said Chenette.

Many individuals can only see what party voters are in and if they are conservative or more liberal, but Chenette believes that we cannot let this divisive approach affect young adults from becoming involved in the political scene.

“Whether or not someone actually runs for office later on in life, whether or not they become a democrat or republican, does not matter. It is about engagement, it is about recognizing your role in society, in your community, in your state,  in your country, and in your world. And I have always been a strong believer in that, so I was frustrated. That frustration led to if I don’t step up and make a difference if I don’t step up and run for office, who will? I felt like I could not stand on the sidelines and just complain, I needed to get into the action and actually make a difference,” said Chenette.

Chenette affects many in the community, including current Thornton students. Natalie Benami, senior, was Chenette’s campaign manager for his re-election has positively been impacted by Chenette.

“On a personal level, he is very approachable. He is one of the nicest people I know, very genuine, always accepting of ideas and what I really like about Justin is that is doesn’t matter how old you are. I have been told multiple time that I am too young and that I do not have a voice, but when it comes to helping with Justin, he believes that I have my own beliefs and I can support whoever I want and have my voice be heard. I just think that having a role model who you can look up to, that supports you so much is so amazing. Not only do I get to help and show my political beliefs, but I am doing it with someone who is my idol,” said Natalie.

Chenette has left quite the legacy at TA due to his involvement with the community, young voters have also been influenced.

“Him being involved on campus is really beneficial for all of the young voters. I know that some people weren’t familiar with him until he came and gave some motivational speeches, whether it be at graduation or senior assembly. It definitely has opened doors for both sides, I think Justin has definitely gained more supporters and I think TA students are more informed with knowing when to vote, and who to vote for. Basically, he gets the word out and that’s great for him because he gets a lot of that support,”  said Natalie.

Overcoming any battle is difficult, Chenette continues to do so every day, defying what society claims a senator should be.

“I think for anybody it would be difficult to have your personal life spattered on the news, or in certain circles online. I think every election I’ve ever run, I’ve had to deal with this. Even though I’ve always made it about issues, about trying to do good in the community, other people end up bringing up me and my personal life or me and my husband now and it’s very frustrating. If you are a straight politician no one really talks about it, other than let’s feature your family in an ad. It was really important, as a young person in particular, that I did my homework and that it was about substance. I really needed a concerted effort to play in the big leagues,” said Chenette.

The first time Chenette ran for office, he was 20 years old, still going to college in Vermont and coming home and campaigning on weekends for state representative. On one of those weekends, he found his campaign signs had been spray painted with derogatory words, and he had to take them down and try to find out who had defaced them with help from the police.  He wanted to focus on the issues impacting Maine, but kept being pulled back into a discussion of his sexual preferences. He did his best then, as he does now, to keep coming back to a positive message and to not let close-mindedness impact his run for office.

“Lots of people encouraged me saying, ‘Justin you should make this a big deal, bring it to the news.’ And I just felt you don’t want to give the bullies the power, and they want me to react in a negative way. I think it’s important to call out either unethical actions or folks who are trying to bully other people into silence, and I think that’s what it was, because if I wasn’t a self-confident person, if I was somebody else…you know there’s a reason why there’s a  high suicide rate for LGBTQ, so it just really annoyed me that they felt that that one aspect of my life was a disqualifying trait.” 

Senior Emily Murray,  who does not consider herself politically active but knows about Chenette from seeing him around the community said, “I think Justin Chenette is a great person. He’s always happy and he seems to brighten everyone’s mood when he walks in a room. I really like how involved he is in the community. He goes to a bunch of events around town and I see him helping out everywhere and I think that’s really great.” 

Even those who don’t personally know Chenette have been affected by his passion and drive for success.

“People are always talking positively about him. He’s super friendly and helpful. He takes time out of his day to visit schools and to go to events around Thornton and the Saco community. Seeing someone so involved really shows his dedication and willingness to do the most. I think that really shows what kind of person he is,” said Emily.

In today’s political climate, young people are taking an initiative that has never been seen before. But when everyone around you is telling you to stay stagnant/inactive, Chenette wants you to stand up. 

“I think it is first recognizing that one person, one voice can make a difference, even if you can’t vote yet. So don’t let that be a barrier to you getting involved. I find that if you can get involved with a community based project first it helps you to put things into perspective because that is something you can really control. It can kind of seems so far removed from what is happening in DC, what is happening in the state level where you feel like ‘ugh can I really make a difference?'”

“So what I find being so impactful is when you help your neighbor, a fellow student, or help anyone in the community. Maybe it’s organizing a clean up of a park, that is helping the environment, that is helping making our world a better place. It may be a small ripple, but as we know you put a little pebble in a lake it starts to break, it has a ripple effect. Take something that you really believe in and just start small, maybe there is a topic that just really gets you fired up either angry or excited or a combination, but then start there. You can always volunteer, maybe you can intern with a campaign, maybe there is a candidate that really gets you motivated, if so sign up to volunteer they will take high school students. Most of my campaign staff are high school students. You can start to see your impact and when you begin to see your impact at your school and your community then you can start to build from there. There are so many opportunities for anyone to get involved they just need to start somewhere,” said Chenette.

Carpe Diem reporter, Hannah Niles, interviewing Senator Chenette and Senior Natalie Benami.
Chenette interacting with the community.
Chenette getting the youth involved. 

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