The Youngest Delegate Speaks

Sunday, August 13 -- We made Thomas Santaniello famous.

Not that he wouldn't have, in time, become famous in his own right, but tonight, between bites of caviar and blue cheese on new potatoes and vegetable kabobs dripping with butter, we have brought him the first flurry of media attention in his emerging political career. Because Santaniello -- at age 17 the youngest delegate to attend the Democratic National Convention 2000, the youngest attendee at the Young Democrats of America's Knitting Factory shindig -- is the only delegate who came close enough to be mobbed.

"Is this the first time you've been jumped by the media?" we ask Santaniello as not just three reporters swarm this lone, newbie delegate -- three-on-one being the convention's official journalist-to-delegate ratio -- but seven, two with cameras. Santaniello, fresh out of Spartanburg, South Carolina, wearing a suit and tie and a wide-eyed expression, his short brown hair neatly Brylcreamed to the side, barely knows what to say.

"It is!" he beams. "It is! It's a madhouse! It's crazy! I can't believe it!"

The convoy of cop cars screaming up Highland Avenue, along with the Fort Knox security in force at the newest Hollywood hotspot, might have clued us in that we would not be attending a typical delegate party, the kind at which delegates are the most honored guests. Instead, YDA has the honor of hosting not only Bill Clinton, but Al Gore and his daughters, Kristin and Karenna Gore-Schiff. The press, like guilty plotters in a failed coup attempt, have been hustled by a pert but panicked blonde through back hallways and up stairwells, and herded without much ceremony into a cramped media pit overlooking the club's dance floor. Once behind the tape in our 15-by-6-foot corral, our quarantine became complete: Even our cell phones had been rendered inert by microwave transmitters.

We did, however, manage to score two drink tickets apiece before the lockdown, and a young woman with close-cropped curls and a smart-aleck attitude was happy to cash them in for us. "Drink a lot," she advised. "You're trapped."

The YDA is the training ground for the party's activists and the farm team for tomorrow's Clintons and Gores, an organization in which ideals and ambitions easily coexist. From our crowded confines, we had summoned one of their legion, Evelyn Jerome, president of the L.A. County Young Democrats, and begged her to bring us a delegate, any delegate. Moments later she returned -- "Am I quick or what?" -- with Santaniello in tow. And suddenly Santaniello is verging on celebrity, glowing under the glare of video-camera lights, energetically shouting replies to reporters' questions over the din of music and partiers. Repeatedly, reporters demand to know how a 17-year-old qualifies to be a delegate. And Santaniello consistently obliges to answer. "I'll be 18 on August 28," he announces. "Because I can vote in November, I get to be a delegate."

"And how did you get so interested in politics?"

"It was really just the '96 election and all the media coverage that did it," he says. "You guys did a good job." From another delegate, such a remark might sound shrewd. It is perhaps a sign of Santaniello's youth that he means it.

If Santaniello seems unbelievably young to carry the weight of being a voting delegate at a national political convention, consider that he's been campaigning since the eighth grade, when he first entered the beltway of student government. Later, at James F. Burns High School, he formed a nonpartisan organization devoted to involving teenagers in state government. "I organized a voter-registration drive and registered 150 seniors to vote," he says. "We brought the voter drive to them, and what we found was not apathy, but people being enthusiastic to vote for the first time." Santaniello didn't exactly attempt to sell his schoolmates on the Democratic Party, but encouraged them to "take a serious look at the candidates and get out and vote. But of course," he admits, "I try to steer them in my direction."

Today Santaniello is every bit the partisan player, paying homage as only a true believer can. "The Democratic Party represents the best interests of America and young people," he tells his personal press corps, now hovering about like a medical team preparing for surgery. "That's why the party drew me in." He proceeds to rattle off a chronology of the Clinton administration's legislative wars: education, health care, patients' bill of rights, gun safety, the environment, campaign-finance reform.

"We're putting emphasis on public education," he continues. "We're raising teachers' salaries, putting more teachers in classrooms, making class sizes smaller, rebuilding schools, providing college assistance to students."

Santaniello doesn't venture opinions on subjects that lurk beyond the periphery of the Democratic Party platform. He claims ignorance of such looming hot-button issues as genetic engineering and the copyright battles being fought on the Internet. "I'm not familiar with it," he says of the music-trading protocol Napster. "I still go out to the store and buy my CDs, and I can understand the concerns of the record industry about the music that's copyrighted being on the Internet." But he does dream of a few new planks. "My dream would be to increase medical-research funding to find cures for diseases such as cancer," he says, adding that Al Gore has also expressed concerns in this area.

As for the armada of protest groups that have assembled in Los Angeles around the Democratic Convention, many of whose members are closer to his age than his fellow YDA'ers are, he allows that "They have a right to be here, protesting for their causes. I just hope that they don't block me from getting into the convention."

What does the future hold for Tom Santaniello beyond this momentous week? "I'm going to study political science at Firman University in Greenville, South Carolina," he says. "Then I'd like to possibly work as a political consultant." Having been surrounded by the drama of a national convention, will he want to run for office? "I'm looking to that as a possibility," he concedes, furrowing his young brow. "I'd start out at the bottom, maybe some day work up to congressman."

By the time he makes that decision, it may be easier to be a Democrat in South Carolina, a state that despite the recent election of a Democratic governor, Jim Hodges, still votes predominantly Republican. "It's especially hard in Spartanburg," he says, "where even a lot of my friends are influenced by their parents to become Republicans. But the thing is, we're changing -- we have a Democratically controlled Senate and a good chance of taking back the House."

Things are looking particularly bright for Dems in South Carolina since the state-supported lottery became a significant political issue. "Our governor is supporting a lottery to help fund education, like most other states on the East Coast," Santaniello says, "but the Republicans are against it -- they think gambling is wrong, and that education should not rely on gambling. But the fact is, Georgia has a state lottery and South Carolina puts about $80 million a year into Georgia's lottery, which is helping fund Georgia's students going to college. We need to keep that money in South Carolina," he insists. "We need to help our own students get scholarships." (Voters in Alabama felt much the same in November '98, when Democratic Governor Don Eugene Siegelman was elected largely because of his support for a state-run lottery.)

But even if South Carolina goes the other direction and, post-lottery, finds itself in the hands of conservatives, Santaniello insists he'll never make the ultimate Satanic conversion. "I'll never be a Republican!" he insists. "People say all the time that when you get older you become more conservative. But I see plenty of adults who are Democrats, and I look to them as reasons to stay in the party."

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