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December 3, 2008

Teen politico plays in the big leagues

http://www.jewishjournal.com/los_angeles/article/teen_politico_plays_in_the_big_leagues_20081203

Milken senior Joey Freeman speaks with Sen. Hillary Clinton
Photo courtesy Joey Freeman

Milken senior Joey Freeman speaks with Sen. Hillary Clinton
Photo courtesy Joey Freeman

After school, Joey Freeman doesn't have much free time. He's got homework to contend with from his classes at Milken Community High School. He's slogging through a heap of college applications. And, oh, yeah -- he's also helping to run an entertainment industry executive's campaign for Los Angeles City Council.

Freeman, 17, of Sherman Oaks has handled the "nuts and bolts" of Robert Schwartz's bid for the 5th District City Council seat since the candidate decided to run in June. The seat is now held by outgoing Councilman Jack Weiss. It's the cherry on top of half a (young) lifetime's devotion to city government, politics and youth advocacy.

"I always used to go online and research the politics and the government of the city. Everything took off from there," said Freeman, who has been president of the Los Angeles Youth Council (LAYC) for the past two years. Sponsored by the city's Commission for Children, Youth and Their Families, LAYC advocates for youth issues and hosts community service projects.

For the past three summers, Freeman has also interned for 2nd District City Councilwoman Wendy Greuel. He started out with phone and filing duties, and later began staffing Greuel in committee meetings and writing articles for her monthly newsletter.

But crafting a City Council campaign? How does a 17-year-old get a gig like this?

"I think I was just in the right place at the right time," said the modest and articulate Freeman on a recent afternoon.

Freeman and Schwartz, a longtime family friend, were part of a group of Stephen S. Wise Temple members who traveled to the AIPAC (American Israel Public Affairs Committee) Policy Conference in Washington, D.C., in June. While there, Schwartz recalled, friends suggested he make a bid for City Council. Freeman offered his support.

"Joey is extremely well-versed in city politics," said Schwartz, a nonpracticing attorney and producer who lives in Encino. "I tell everybody he's kind of a child prodigy. Talking to Joey about city politics is like talking to an encyclopedia."

For his encyclopedic knowledge of Los Angeles and its government, Freeman credits his late grandfather, Jerry Lushing, who was born in the city in 1929. "He lived in a different Los Angeles," Freeman said of Lushing. "He used to ride his horse across the L.A. River when it was flowing with water. He lived in the Valley as it was being developed. He had a passion for the city. Ever since I can remember, he has exposed his whole family to Los Angeles."

Freeman recalled his grandfather taking him and his cousins on field trips to iconic L.A. landmarks such as the Breed Street Shul in Boyle Heights and the Watts Towers. Lushing died this summer, but the seeds of what Freeman hopes will turn into a career were planted long before.

His experience putting together Schwartz's City Council bid has been a lesson in ground-up campaign organization that most political enthusiasts his age only dream of. The high school senior sounds like a seasoned strategist as he recounts his method: the summer was dedicated to "laying the groundwork" and "building infrastructure," bringing on other staff members and writing the candidate's biography and platforms. Freeman, who acted as the sole campaign manager over the summer, also helped Schwartz hammer out his stances on local issues.

Veteran political consultant Larry Levine is now Schwartz's full-time campaign manager, but Freeman is still intricately involved in all aspects of operation -- dealing with policy issues, making sure the staff is up-to-date with what's happening in the city and aiding fundraising efforts. "Now it's just about talking to people and getting the message out," he said.

When he's not fielding phone calls and e-mails related to the campaign, Freeman also makes time to squeeze a more mundane activity into his day: applying to college. The future political science major so far has three of his applications done; he is applying early decision to the University of Pennsylvania and also to George Washington University, Georgetown University, Columbia University and a handful of other Ivy League schools.

The balancing act sometimes takes its toll on Freeman.

"It's tough," he admitted. "But I think that because this opportunity is so important to me and I really love what I'm doing, I'm just finding the time to do it. I find that I'm not sacrificing my homework or my college applications. It's definitely a challenge, but I'm getting everything done."

All of which requires some tight scheduling on Freeman's part, starting the moment he gets home from school at 3:30 p.m. First, he indulges his passion for breaking news, checking L.A. Observed, CNN, and the city, state and White House Web sites with compulsive ardor. Then he responds to campaign e-mails, mostly with other members of Schwartz's staff, which takes up at least an hour each day. Then he tackles his homework. "And there's some time in there for dinner and whatever TV I can get in," Freeman added.

Time constraints aside, he said, his work on the campaign has gone smoothly -- for the most part.

"The obstacle would definitely be the fact that I'm 17," he said. "When you hear that, it doesn't necessarily promote the image that the campaign is legitimate or that the candidate is legitimate. People have asked me, 'With all due respect, I know that you can do this, but why would Robert give this responsibility to you?'"

For Schwartz, the answer is simple.

"He's a remarkable guy," the candidate said. "He brings a fresh perspective in his view of how the city should run. He doesn't have an innocent view of how a municipality should be run because he has such a profound knowledge of politics, but at the same time, he has a youthful exuberance about it."

Still, there are several aspects of campaign management that "youthful exuberance" alone can't carry. The first time Freeman and Schwartz met with their treasurer, for example, she asked Freeman to add his name to their bank account so he could sign their checks. He couldn't -- he wasn't 18. "We were all laughing about that," he said.

If Schwartz wins the City Council seat next March, Freeman knows he wouldn't make it as far as a staff position -- by then, he would be headed off to college. But he and many who know him expect that he'll resume his political career after school.

"I wouldn't be surprised at all if you saw Joey Freeman 15 years from now as a mayoral candidate," Schwartz said. "For a senior in high school, he's in a league of his own."

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