Sixteen months after Hillary Clinton lost the 2016 presidential election, Saul Threadgill still scrawls her campaign logo in the margins of his Spanish homework. The 18-year-old who was too young to vote for Clinton but who still has her photo as his cellphone lock screen knows it’s probably past Hillary’s time.
But maybe now it’s his.
“Campaigning was, to date, the most rewarding experience of my life,” Threadgill, a CAPA senior from Port Richmond, said of his work with Clinton’s campaign in 2016. “I’m hoping to change that today.”
Flanked by fellow students and his civics teacher, Threadgill, a tall and slender teenager with circular glasses and a penchant for politics, marched up Broad Street on Tuesday from the Philadelphia High School for the Creative and Performing Arts to City Hall to file paperwork to run to be a Democratic committee person.
Threadgill was one of a handful of seniors in Grace Palladino’s Advanced Placement government class who decided to take what they’d learned about campaigning and use it to run for a small, local elected position in their home voting division. Threadgill was the only eligible and interested student in the class who managed to get the 10 petition signatures required to run, though another 18-year-old senior, Jamiya Honesty, is planning to wage a write-in campaign in her Rhawnhurst voting division.
Others won’t be 18 in time for the May 15 primary, but still want to be involved. Classmates Surya Bromley and Zami Buggs-King, both 17 and not old enough to run, are serving as Threadgill’s “campaign managers.” They’re planning an Instagram strategy.
Locally, committee person is among just three elected offices available to candidates as young as 18. A committee person, which is an unpaid job with a four-year term, is the bottom of the totem pole of both Philadelphia’s Democratic and Republican City Committees. Each of the city’s voting divisions — there are more than 1,600, each with fewer than 1,000 voters — can elect two committee people per party to represent them.
The 3,300-plus Democratic committee people in Philadelphia are responsible for voting for the ward leader, getting out the vote and registering voters in the neighborhood, handing out campaign pamphlets, and helping to staff polling places. But these positions, which can be the first step in a budding political career, are often left vacant and, if they’re filled, they’re frequently won by a single vote because they are so small.
Enter high school students. Palladino, who has taught at CAPA for 10 years, said this is the first year she actively recruited students to run for committee person after she saw the enthusiasm the class had for a mock presidential primary they worked on in January. She offered help to any student who wanted to serve as a committee person, whether that was instructing them on how to contact their ward leader or coordinating a notary to legitimize Threadgill’s paperwork Wednesday.
Palladino said she wasn’t necessarily surprised it was Threadgill who was able to get the signatures needed to run. He was, in fact, the same student who successfully circulated a petition at school to get her AP government class back on the schedule after it had been taken off for lack of interest. She said his dedication is evident, which is why she’s been surprised at the reaction to teenagers rising up against gun violence after the mass shooting in Parkland, Fla., last month.
“People’s shock is borne out of a really sad, low expectation we have of teenagers,” she said. “But they’re like whirling dervishes of passion, and it’s contagious.”
Saul’s father, Walter Threadgill, was not shocked when his son said he wanted to run for office. His son’s interest in politics “was always kind of lurking there in the background.”
“When he got to high school,” he said, “that only seemed to accelerate.”
Next on Walter Threadgill’s to-do list is registering as a Democrat. As a registered independent, he currently can’t vote for his own son in the primary.
As for Saul, he’s planning to attend college at some point, and is trying to decide whether he wants to attend school in Philly or Washington, D.C. Like any teenager, his plans and aspirations change by the minute. There was a time when he wanted to go to school and then return to Philadelphia to run for mayor. Now he’s not so sure. (He definitely doesn’t want to run for legislative office, he says, because “caucuses are sad.”)
He is sure he can handle the committee person commitment. He may go to college in the city or, if he goes to school outside Philadelphia, he plans to return to his neighborhood where he’s lived since age 3 to register voters and work during elections. Part of that will be related to his neighborhood duties. The other part will be to campaign for Sen. Bob Casey, a Democrat up for reelection this year.
“This is what I want to do,” he said, “for the rest of my life.”