There’s an aldermen race going on next week in Manchester. And one of the candidates on the ballot would be the city’s youngest elected if he wins.
He turned 20 Thursday, attends UNH Manchester, and is a refugee from Kuwait.
But first he’ll have to clear Tuesday’s primary before he can even make it onto November’s ballot.
Hassan Essa came to Manchester with his parents and two sisters when he was 2 years old. His father was Iraqi. Things got complicated and the Kuwait government told him: you can’t stay.
Since then his father and siblings moved away to Michigan and his mother spends most of the year teaching back in Kuwait. Most of his childhood friends have also left the state. But Essa says he doesn’t plan on leaving.
“New Hampshire is my home. This is where my roots are," Essa said while sitting in his childhood living room.
Essa lives in a low-income housing complex on the West Side of Manchester. It’s the same apartment he grew up in. He’s studying biology as a junior at UNH Manchester. He’s in the New Hampshire Air National Guard and he works at an optometrist office in Portsmouth.
Essa wants to work and raise a family here but the city, he said, needs some new direction.
In July he launched his campaign for alderman and he has been running it with no staff and little funding.
“The city is so stagnant and the sense of complacency is almost toxic," Essa said. "Manchester could really be so much better and if we only had someone with new ideas, charged and ready to go and actually propose them – then within even a couple of years you can start to see a shift in how people view this city and how people who live here feel about it.”
Essa has been interested in politics since he was a kid.
“When he was 8, we have a TV and he would switch it to the news – 8 years old," said Essa's mother Faten Alhassun in a phone interview from Kuwait. "He wouldn’t go out with a friend, he’d rather sit and listen to the news.”
Alhassun said she used to take him to protests when he was little. At 16, Essa organized a demonstration in Manchester promoting peace for Palestine. This past presidential primary, he volunteered for Bernie Sanders.
As a candidate for alderman, his ideas are centered on rejuvenating the city – like adding street lights to the city’s parks and playgrounds, investing in commuter rail, building a river walk along the Merrimack and adding more local events to the calendar. He also thinks the city should do a better job of tapping into federal and private funding and spending more on education.
For the past few months, Essa’s been working to get this message out to the voters of Ward 12. He’s put up yard signs on nearly every street in the neighborhood and has been knocking on doors almost every other day.
Robert Lambert was outside fixing his back deck when Essa approached.
“I’m going to vote for you – I like your positions and I like your age," Lambert said laughing. "Yep, I’ll be there and I’ll drag my wife even though she hates voting," he said with a chuckle.
If Essa does get elected, he’ll be the youngest alderman the city has had since the mid-60's and that person was six years older.
It’s not just his youth that Essa thinks makes him a strong candidate. It’s also his connections to the community – particularly the refugee community. Many refugees don’t trust government, he said. If elected. Essa wants to change that by offering more outreach and organizing city led events celebrating these different cultures.
“That’s really the core of any sort of leadership – being able to empathize with people," he said. "And if you can’t put yourself in the place of others you can’t make them want to believe in you and do things that will help them as effectively.”
But one of the biggest hurdles Essa faces is getting people to care about local elections and more importantly to show up to vote. For the city’s last municipal election, only 17 percent of the ward cast ballots.
“The Board of Mayor and Alderman – those are the people who affect your lives," Essa said. "Like if they wanted to they could make life horrible here or they can make it really, really great and that’s what I’m trying to do - is think of new ways to make things great because when you want a pot hole fixed - you’re not calling Donald Trump. You’re calling your alderman.”
Essa faces some fierce challengers. The two-term incumbent of the ward, Keith Hirschmann, is also in the race, along with current N.H. Rep. Joel Elber and local business owner Jonathan Barrett. But Essa is staying confident.
“It hasn’t been difficult trying to convince people to vote for me – they resonate with the sincerity I have and the love that I have for Manchester," he said. "They see someone who wants the city to be better and that’s enough.”
Tuesday is the primary. If he gets enough votes, he’ll be on the ballot in November.