In a room packed with journalists and political operatives, there was something unusual about Benjamin Burstein. Sitting in front of the soda table toward the back of the room during last week's Democratic debate in Miami, Burstein lacked something virtually every other male in the room was rocking: the 5 o'clock shadow.
"I'm actually the youngest director of a political action committee in the country," Burstein, a Miami Beach native, told me. "The reason that I'm here is to do a comparison of Senator Sanders and Secretary Clinton's policies on youth issues."
The Federal Elections Commission doesn't collect the relevant data to verify his claim to being the youngest leader of a PAC, but it could very well be true.
Burstein is 16 years old. Back when he started his Teens for Teens PAC less than a year ago, he was 15.
His PAC is nonpartisan and focuses on youth issues—education and student loans, for starters—but his biggest dream is getting nearby cities to lower the voting age for local elections to 16, a change that has been adopted by only a handful of states, Florida included. He is lobbying three local cities to get the issue on the November ballot, and is hopeful that he will succeed.
"Political participation is so horrible among 16- and 17-year-olds that I thought I had to make a way to make a difference in our status quo," he said.
"I can't vote, and I can't give any sort of political contributions to change anything, so of course it's logical to start a political action committee," he reasoned, matter-of-factly.
"He started [the PAC] completely on his own," his mother, Melisse Burstein, told me by phone. "I came home one day and he said, 'I'm forming my own PAC!' and he has taken it from there."
Even though she's a certified public accountant, her son probably knows more about filing for a 501(c)(4)—a tax exemption claimed by some political organizations—than she does, she said.
"Behind his back we laughed about it, but we're very supportive. We have two younger children who are not as supportive. They kind of tease him," she laughed.
The family is not politically involved at all, his mother said, aside from the fact that her accounting firm happens to do Jeb Bush's taxes.
"The funny thing is that before he got into politics during his freshman year, he was into football," she said. "That was when he realized that he was doing better on the debate team than on the football team."
According to latest report by the FEC, Teens for Teens received $560 in contributions over the last cycle, only $25 of which has been spent on backing a politician, a candidate for the Miami Beach city commission who lost last year's election. But that doesn't mean Burstein hasn't figured other ways to get involved.
Burstein says 105 volunteers have worked more than 8,000 hours through his PAC to support candidates, from local elections up to the current national election. Since no money is changing hands, the hours don't have to be submitted to the FEC, even though "when evaluated at FEC standards, it's equal to over $65,000," he estimated. The group has also hosted debates for local city council members and mayoral candidates. Currently, Teens for Teens is working with his high school to organize a debate among candidates for the U.S. Senate seat that is being left open by presidential hopeful Marco Rubio (R-FL).
"We have young people going out actually helping the candidates, and making sure that youth platforms are being heard," said Burstein.
The group is nonpartisan, he said. But in one way—in theory—he might lean more conservative, he said, since he supports the state and municipal right to lower the voting age, rather than having to abide by national standards. Not that conservatives are racking up points when it comes to the "expansion of voter rights," though, he noted. In this day and age, that seems to be the domain of Democrats.
Last week, Sanders sued the head of elections in Ohio, after it refused to allow 17-year-olds that were eligible to vote in the November election from participating in the primaries. In response to that lawsuit, a state judge issued an order, allowing the 17-year-olds to vote in the primary.
The suit made sense for Sanders, Burstein said, because "students and young people are his largest base."
Two cities in Maryland could serve as models for what Burstein is pushing for. The cities of Hyattville and Tacoma Park both lowered their voting ages from 18 to 16 for municipal elections in recent years, the only cities in the country to do so.
In Tacoma Park, the first election after the voting age was lowered only saw an 11% overall turnout, yet about 44% of registered under-18 voters showed up to the polls. Hyattsville, which had its first election with the new rules last year, saw similar voter turnout.
"It's so great that teenagers are getting involved. It's something that I think we need to bring here to South Florida," Burstein said.
Inside the press room during the Democratic debate, Burstein took notes on his laptop, following the candidates as they traded jabs over immigration and perking up when they started talking about student loans.
At one point, Philip Levine, the mayor of Miami Beach, stopped for a second to say hello. Burstein knows him well, especially after Levine attended a mayoral debate that Teens for Teens hosted last year.
"He's getting famous, I swear," his mother told me on the phone. "I mean, he has commissioners on speed dial. We had to get him a car as soon as he turned 16, because he was so involved in everything, from here to there."
The day after the Democratic debate, Burstein had planned to attend a Republican presidential debate, also in Miami, but at the last minute the Republican National Committee declined him credentials. Strike two on the Republicans.
On the phone with his mother Melisse, I said that when I was 16, my head was in a totally different place. Rather than vying for credentials to attend a presidential debate, I would have done anything to get away from the boring talk of politics.
"You and I both!" she exclaimed. "I still am in that mindset!"
Daniel Rivero is a producer/reporter for Fusion who focuses on police and justice issues. He also skateboards, does a bunch of arts related things on his off time, and likes Cuban coffee.