The Fast-Talking, Fast-Walking Local Canvasser
By Sakshi Venkatraman, Editor-in-Chief
Shouting expletives into his phone, Justin Chae speed-walked through the Union Square Subway station on a Tuesday afternoon. He weaved through the crowd of people. A black duffel bag swung by his side. His eyes fixed on his screen, he dodged old ladies and children. The 19-year-old LS sophomore had the energy of a cartoon businessman — animated with theatrical briskness. Everything was chaos, but he was loving it.
“Should I tell him to f-ck off?” he yelled into his phone’s voice-to-text. Paces behind him, I could hear the intonation in his voice. His phone picked it up as well amid the station’s commotion.
Keeping up with Chae proved difficult. I followed his voice since his medium stature kept getting lost in the crowd.
“Some crazy sh-t just happened,” he said, looking back at me. “I’ll tell you about it when we’re settled.”
After zipping across the entire station, we caught our 4 train just as it was rolling in. Chae turned back to check on me.
“I’m so swamped today,” he said.
We spent the subway ride mostly in silence. He gripped his phone, rarely moving his gaze from it as he sent fervent texts to his coworkers. I, too, stared at my phone or at the floor, pretending to be busy.
“Do you want to sit down?” I asked.
“No, I don’t like sitting,” he said.
Without much warning, he grabbed his bags and got off the train at the 59th Street station. I scampered out behind him.
We stood on the platform for a few minutes waiting for his business partner, Fordham University sophomore Evan Sheaffer, to join us on our journey. We made some small talk about how much we each had to drink that weekend. I found we have similarly hectic weekly routines and that he plays the saxophone. And at his house on Long Island, he owns two South American lizards. They’re illegal in New York City.
Then the texts started rolling in again. Periodically, he would look down at his phone and mutter “f-ck” under his breath.
Chae says “f-ck” the way most people say “um.” Like a filler for people who are too self-confident for fillers. Everything is an emergency. Every text he gets is sh-t hitting the fan.
Soon after, Sheaffer joined us in the station. He towered over Chae by almost a head, but his voice was about half as loud. They spoke to each other quickly about the day of canvassing that lay ahead of them and the state of their company.
“Do we need to have you sign an NDA?” Sheaffer asked me, chuckling. I didn’t know how to respond except with nervous laughter.
Chae set his duffel bag down on the floor of the subway station and opened it to reveal stacks of brochures and papers they would later use to get signatures. He pulled some out and handed them off to Sheaffer.
“If you’re wondering — yes, it’s always this chaotic,” Sheaffer said when we boarded the next N train to Astoria.
The few months that have gone by since Chae and Sheaffer started their political consulting firm, Meridian Strategies, have been nothing short of hectic. The firm, which the two opened in January after leaving another political strategy company, works on canvassing and strategy for local campaigns. As self-assured as he seems, Chae said he wasn’t sure about the company. It was Sheaffer’s idea.
“It sounds so cringey,” Chae said. “Two 19-year-olds opening up their own business in an industry dominated by seasoned politicians. I was hesitant. I didn’t really tell people at first. I feel like there’s a stigma against young people who open their own businesses, like ‘who do you think you are?’”
Chae eventually got over his doubts, and after a couple of months of logistics and paperwork, they welcomed their first client. Since then, the firm has taken off. Using connections made from previous jobs, the two have clients lined up months in advance. Chae says the Meridian team makes thousands of dollars in profit from each campaign.
“It’s so easy to get business and it’s so consistent,” he said. “This job could never be taken over by robots.”
A client Chae worked for over the summer referred him to his first client, Melissa Mark-Viverito. The former speaker of the New York City Council hired Meridian to work on the early stages of her campaign for public advocate. At the moment, the team is working on getting signatures for New York City Councilman Rory Lancman, who is trying to get on the ballot for Queens District Attorney.
That’s what brought Chae to Astoria. He approaches each campaign and each community differently.
Upon arrival in Queens, he got right to work. Meridian Strategies doesn’t have a central office, so we first hunkered down in a Starbucks where some of his paid canvassers and interns were waiting for him. (Yes, interns.) Around 10 eventually arrived at the site. They ranged from scrawny teenagers to late 20-somethings, all ready to take to the streets and solicit signatures from Queens residents.
Most of them had never cold-approached people before, so Chae demonstrated, acting out scenarios with a carefully thought out, memorized script. Although running on only a few hours of sleep, he snapped into character and delivered an animated pitch. Any skepticism I had of his success disappeared after I watched his performance. He’s a salesman. He knows what people want to hear.
Chae soon realized that Starbucks didn’t have enough seating, so the group relocated to a Burger King down the street. He directed the interns to polling locations and street blocks around Astoria and sat down for the first time in a while, papers and backpacks surrounding him on the tables of the fast-food chain.
“He’s just relentless,” Sheaffer said in an earlier interview. “He’s like a bulldog, he just drives into it. And he’s really good at what he does. If he says he’s going to do it, he’s going to do it.”
Two things to note about Chae — he doesn’t drink caffeine and he doesn’t actually know anything about politics. During campaign season, he says he works 80 hours a week. No soda, no Red Bull, no coffee.
“It’s pure adrenaline,” he said.
Whether Chae has always been this intense is unclear. Stony Brook University sophomore Gaurav Sharma, currently a project manager at Meridian Strategies, has been friends with him since middle school. Chae was a quiet kid, according to Sharma. He was smart, not super sporty, and he wore basketball shorts every day.
“We were the odd kids out,” Sharma said. “He didn’t really like the people in middle school. He was kind of just like the strange kid that goes to chess club.”
The two became close when they started working together after high school, and Sharma says the years have done Chae a lot of good.
“He really reinvented himself in high school,” Sharma said. “He got himself a look, started working real hard. Now he’s a grown man. He’s running a company.”
Chae knows how to get results, or at least that seems to be the consensus among those that work closely with him. His work zeroes in on local communities — he learns the demographic and adjusts to fit the niche. The script is airtight, he says, and his rhetoric is convincing.
“As long as you have the right talking points for that community, you don’t really need to know anything else,” he said.
He admits he barely knows anything about national politics.
Though Meridian has worked for only Democratic candidates so far, Chae identifies as more of a left-leaning centrist, with a few issues that he cares a lot about: veterans, LGBTQ rights and national security. But until his junior year of high school, he says he didn’t even know the difference between Democrats and Republicans.
He’s still not sure of himself in conversations about national politics. And he’s pretty much fine with that.
“I don’t need to know what our stance is on trickle-down economics and how to regulate the stock market,” Chae said. “I just need to know that the person on this block probably cares about the pothole in their road or the mold in their apartment.”
A long, stressful day in Astoria ended with Chae in the passenger seat of Sharma’s white Lexus sedan.
“We sat in the car for two and a half hours talking,” Sharma said. “We basically restructured the company.”
Chae doesn’t have a lot of free time, but he does participate in Fordham’s Reserve Officers’ Training Corps, which partners with NYU to provide training and scholarships. The program gets him up and uptown for early morning workouts. Before Meridian, he had aspirations to serve in the military and run for office.
“Now that I’ve started this consulting stuff, I might just go reserve,” he said. “But I originally wanted to do active duty.”
He says if the U.S. were to go to war again, though, he would request to go active duty.
He’s still not sure what his life will look like after college, but he’s pretty sure Meridian will be long-term. Until then, it’s all about the grind.
“You need to work your way up the totem pole,” Chae said. “You need to start as an unpaid intern, you need to get f-cked, and you need to work your way up.”
Email Sakshi Venkatraman at [email protected] A version of this article appears in the Thursday, March 14, 2019, print edition on Pages 6 and 7. Read more from Washington Square News’ “Up-and-Comers 2019.”