High school senior leads backyard campaign to elect Sen. Bernie Sanders as president

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Organizer of Bernie Sanders event is 17, but will be old enough to vote in the general election.

As chickens clucked and torch flames flickered, Harry Huntley, 17, welcomed a small audience to the backyard of his family's house in Hoes Heights.

They had come to hear a presidential candidate give a campaign speech over the Internet.

"I'm Harry," Huntley told 25 people sitting under a tent, where a projector connected to a laptop computer was about to beam live-streamed remarks by Sen. Bernie Sanders onto a bedsheet hung against the siding of the house as a makeshift screen. "I organized this whole thing," Huntley said. "I'm so glad you're here.

"So, without further ado ..."

Sanders, the Vermont senator who identifies as a Socialist but is running for the Democratic nomination, delivered a brief, standard stump speech July 30, highlighting familiar issues such as getting money out of politics and granting every college student free, government-funded tuition. The speech was viewed simultaneously at similar house parties nationwide, which the Sanders campaign called "grassroots organizing meetings."

But the party here — one of seven in the area, Huntley said — was more than simply a political story about Sanders. It was a sign that presidential politics, with 21 Republicans and Democrats running to lead the nation, is heating up, and that some young people are not only paying attention, but getting actively involved.

"I'm very interested in politics," said Huntley, a high school senior at Baltimore Polytechnic Institute and president of Poly's Student Government Association. He would be too young to vote if the election were held today, but said he will turn 18 by the time of the general election in November 2016.

Huntley said his parents, Edye Sanford and Craig Huntley, let him hold the party at their house.

"I got them involved," he said.

For his parents, the party, 16 months before the general election, was less important for its political purpose than for the organizing brains behind it.

"The schmaltzy story is about the mom crying because her kid made it happen," said Sanford, 50, a clothes designer and former secretary to the Hampden Village Merchants Association. "He wanted to make a difference," she said.

Craig Huntley, 51, an engineer who also helps run the 32nd Street Farmers Market in Waverly, said he is "not 100 percent sold" on Sanders, but on his son's organizing acumen.

"I'm impressed," the senior Huntley said. "He really was excited about it (and) did all the legwork and computers."

Harry Huntley isn't exactly new to politics. As far back as 2008, he helped his mother knock on doors in support of Barack Obama's candidacy. But he was 10 or 11 and barely remembers that.

He said he's a gardener at heart (he showed a 2-foot-long string bean that he grew) and that he fell into the role of political organizer for the Sanders event. He said the Student Government Association doesn't really dabble in politics per se, choosing mostly to help organize school events and to promote the agenda of Poly's Environmental Club.

One of his most notable accomplishments as a student leader, he said, was to make Terrible Towels for students to wave at the annual Poly-City College High School football game.

"I wasn't really looking to get involved" in presidential politics, Huntley said. But last month, he saw an announcement on Reddit, an online entertainment, social networking and news site, about Sanders' plan for an online speech and effort to organize watching parties around the country.

"When I first saw it, there were 300 meetings planned," Huntley said before Sanders' speech. "Now, there's 3,500 planned."

Huntley and his best friend, fellow Poly senior Will Powell, of Mount Washington, posted 75 pro-Sanders posters along 41st Street between Roland Avenue and Falls Road, and on Falls between 36th and 41st streets, with slogans like "Get money out of politics," and "Not for sale."

Huntley wrote a formal "media advisory" to announce "a live message from Bernie Sanders about how a grassroots movement can take this country back from the billionaire class," according to the press release.

And although Poly and City College are sports rivals, "We will have students and graduates of Poly and City uniting behind a common goal," the press release stated. "There will be pet chickens for Bernie Sanders (not Colonel Sanders). We will be giving out heirloom vegetables from our garden."

With the help of his parents, his brother, Russell, and two cousins, Huntley set up the backyard party, with a small sign and arrow on the front of the house saying, "Bernie party this way."

He and his family invited about 40 people, including his student government adviser, Matthew Lummel, who teaches government and social studies at Poly.

For Lummel, 33, of Mount Vernon, seeing one of his students organize such a party was validating.

"It's the best thing you could see as a social studies teacher," Lummel said.

Huntley's support of Sanders, whom he considers "an underdog," stems largely from a likability factor and a desire to see political candidates become less beholden to campaign contributions. He said te other Democrats in the race, including former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, are accepting too much money from rich donors.

He admitted that his passion for politics is not generally shared by others his age, at least this early in the presidential campaign.

"I think a lot of people are apathetic," he said. "A lot of people don't even think about it. I think a lot of the apathy comes from this buying of elections. They don't see how policies are affecting them. Congress is passing fewer bills than ever before."

After Sanders' roughly 10-minute speech, Huntley stood before the audience again and invited people, some from as far away as Baltimore County, to talk about Sanders.

"I believe he's a man of morals that I can get behind," said educator Kelly Martinez, 34, of Towson.

Huntley's neighbor, Terry Heffner, 47, a security supervisor, said he and his partner, Rick Hoy, are uncommitted to a candidate but leaning toward Sanders.

"We came to support Harry," Heffner said.

As evening turned to dusk, the conversation continued, even as the family's four chickens roosted under a tree in the grassy backyard and Huntley's parents retired to a large wooden swing with their female dog, Fred. (Long story.)

Talk about a grassroots campaign.

"Definitely," said Heffner, laughing.

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