Friday, June 22, 2018
Human Interest

Tampa Prep high school students may be youngest ever to create a super PAC


On the day after high school graduation, while their classmates were at the beach, the movies or the mall, three teenagers met at Starbucks to finalize the bylaws for their new super PAC.

"Okay, have you looked through all this?" chairman Alex Iannacio asked his friends and fellow officers, pulling a packet of legal documents from his leather briefcase.

Vice chair Alex Hitchcock nodded and flipped open his laptop.

Wesley Merritt, who had just been named assistant treasurer, shook his head. "Not yet."

Until a couple of weeks ago, Merritt thought the whole thing was a joke. Sure, let's form a super PAC. Why not? Of course, he had told his buddies at Tampa Prep, you start that political action committee and I'll be on the board. "I never thought they were serious," Merritt said.

Then, on a Sunday in mid May, Iannacio asked the guys to meet him at their favorite spot, the Starbucks on Bay to Bay Boulevard. He ordered an iced coffee, sat down and said, "Guess what?"

He showed them emails from the Federal Election Commission, a letter from the IRS, a listing on the Huffington Post's chart of new super PACs. There they were: Young Americans for Rational Politics.

"It's official. We did it," Iannacio said. His buddies blinked at him.

"Remember that last time you wanted me to come play Monopoly and I couldn't?" he asked Merritt. "It's because I was on the phone with the FEC!"

They believe they are the youngest people ever to form a super PAC. Iannacio filed the papers the day he became eligible — his 18th birthday.

Now, just days after cleaning out their high school lockers, the three teenagers are political power brokers, free to raise money and use it to bend the American electoral process to their will.

Filling out the paperwork was easy. The hard part will be figuring out what they want.

The most serious, studious member of the PAC is its dark-haired chairman, Iannacio. "I am also the federal treasurer," he said. "I wear many hats."

He speaks with a politician's gravitas, shakes your hand heartily and makes sure he looks you in the eye. He pulls out chairs for women, quotes federal statutes the way other kids reel off baseball stats. He hasn't had time, he said, to get his driver's license.

Iannacio lives in Tampa with his mom, an interior designer; his dad, a lawyer; "and my younger brother, the varsity soccer player."

His childhood was spent soaking up the History Channel. "Especially British imperial history. All my pets are named for deposed monarchs." The dog is Maximilian III. The cat, Wilhelm III. "I was holding him when the PAC's name came to me," Iannacio said. "I jumped up, displaced the cat, and called Hitchcock."

"The name is inspirational. It shows solidarity. It sounds official, but it's not too ostentatious," Hitchcock said.

"I thought it was ironic," said Merritt. "Young Americans for Rational Politics? I mean, there's no such thing as rational politics."

Iannacio frowned. "It was not meant to be ironic."

Hitchcock, 18, an earnest only child with thick blond bangs, met Iannacio in their junior English class. Together, they competed on the Model United Nations, went to Boys State, did mock trials for Teen Court. Hitchcock also plays tennis, which is how he knew Merritt.

"I never really understood Iannacio until I got to know him through Alex," said Merritt. "He's just so ... not like any other kid I've ever known."

Merritt, also 18, is the jock of the group, a tall, wavy-haired joker, the only super PAC member who has had a girlfriend. He is on the school bowling team. He makes sandwiches at a Cuban restaurant called the Floridian. His twin brother was on the Young Americans' board for a minute, but dropped off.

"I used to really want to be an ESPN broadcaster, but now I'm not sure. I'm thinking of finance," Merritt said. "I want to make a lot of money, travel the world, retire young and focus on philanthropy. I also enjoy comedy."

When you ask the boys what they want out of their super PAC, you expect them to say they want to promote certain political ideas, to turn the country in a particular direction.

But they don't say that.

Iannacio hopes the experience will help in his quest to become a foreign diplomat.

Hitchcock knows his involvement will benefit him since he wants to work for political campaigns.

And Merritt? "Wouldn't it be ridiculous if we got on the Colbert Report?"

• • •

Iannacio remembers the moment he first learned about super PACs, during the summer of 2010, after his sophomore year in high school. "I was with my parents at a Palm Beach country club when I heard about one of the biggest decisions the Supreme Court ever made."

In the Citizens United case, the court ruled that corporations and unions have the same political speech rights as individuals. For the first time, businesses could spend unlimited money expressing political views.

Iannacio knew about political action committees, which allowed individuals to donate up to $5,000 a year to a political candidate or cause. He had never dreamed of an organization that could raise endless money from anonymous donors, that could take contributions from unions and organizations and businesses, that had to act on its own, without consulting the candidate.

"No one thought corporations would have the right to be people," Iannacio said. "All of a sudden, corporations had a political voice."

The potential for power was palpable. Iannacio became obsessed. All that summer, while his classmates were babysitting and flipping burgers and learning to drive, he followed the evolution of super PACs, read everything he could find online, dissected court cases and tax documents. "I investigated the FEC database, contacted chairs of other super PACs, studied everything that had been filed," he said.

He discovered that there are about 500 super PACs, about half of them active. The only other young super PAC founders he could find were sophomores at Duke University. He downloaded a template for a cover letter, a five-page form to fill out, found a lawyer: his dad.

"My father is a pessimist," said Iannacio. "He worries something might go wrong, we might be liable. But I researched it and told him the FEC has never prosecuted a super PAC."

When he told his friends about his plan, they laughed. "Is it legal?" Hitchcock asked.

Iannacio gave one of his rare, wry smiles. "Well, it's not illegal once we're 18."

This past Christmas, while he was applying for colleges, he also filled out the paperwork to form a federal, independent, expenditure-only PAC. As a 527 political nonprofit, the organization can buy ads, commission studies or polls, fund research. The application was free. The background check didn't worry him.

On April 14, the day Iannacio turned 18, he set the alarm for 10 a.m. He walked to the mailbox, still in his pajamas, and put in the envelope, raised the little flag. And went back to bed.

• • •

The Young Americans for Rational Politics are all registered Republicans, but they say they don't plan to advance an ideology or support or attack any specific candidate. Instead, they talk broadly about getting people involved in the political process. The only specific issue they all mention is Internet freedom.

"So far, we've mostly been joking about our message," Merritt said. "Like, let's make an ad satirizing Herman Cain, turn his tax plan into a pizza deal."

The high school students formed the super PAC, mostly, for the experience of forming a super PAC. For three 18-year-old kids, merely creating the organization was a giant step into the adult world. They figure they have plenty of time to come up with a worldview.

"When they told me they had created this super PAC, I wasn't at all surprised," said Bob Bradshaw, who has taught U.S. history at Tampa Prep for 20 years. He didn't help them at all, he said. By the time they told him about their plan, the paperwork had been filed.

"I told them I think they're very wise not to commit to one issue right now," he said. "Politics is a moving target. They understand that. They want to get everything in place, all the structure and paperwork, then they can pick an issue and run with it. They have grandiose ideas. But I have no doubt that they will pull this off."

"We'll decide what we want to stand for once we get to D.C.," Hitchcock said.

Merritt added: "For most teenagers, Black Ops and Jersey Shore are more important than politics. We just want to make them care, to get young people involved."

The boys plan to buy ads on television, radio and TV. They have already started researching costs. They just aren't sure what to say, or how to pay for it.

Obviously, Iannacio said, the super PAC needs money. They have a goal of raising $1,000 by the time the board members leave for college, $10,000 by the end of the year. Iannacio ordered "squares" for each of their smartphones so they can accept credit card contributions any time, any place.

Iannacio already kicked in $25 for the website. Merritt pledged 10 percent of his $2,000 in graduation money. Hitchcock agreed to match that. By the time they met Monday, they were almost halfway to their goal.

• • •

After 90 minutes of debating legal language, after agreeing that their mission statement could be generic and super PAC officers should serve only one-year terms, the three teenagers finished their iced coffees and turned to fundraising.

"I think we need to really focus on our college campuses, then expand to get other students to open chapters at other schools," the chairman said, sliding the edited bylaws into his leather briefcase.

The vice chair nodded and closed his laptop.

"We won't get five people donating $1 million each," said the assistant treasurer. "So we need a million people each donating $5."

The super PAC already has a Tampa bank account. Merritt said soon he will open another in Washington, D.C., so board members can deposit contributions closer to their colleges.

Iannacio, who is working at a law firm this summer, will be going to American University in August, along with Hitchcock. Hitchcock, who is interning at the state Attorney General's Office, also will attend American University's campaign management institute in Rome. Merritt is hoping to work at an environmental lab before he leaves for George Washington University. If that falls through, there's always the sandwich shop.

At 6:45 p.m., the assistant treasurer pushed back his chair, stood up and said, "I gotta go. My mom's waiting dinner."

The chairman promised to send an email of the revised bylaws. The vice chairman said they should get together later in the week, to finish the website.

"Oh, and I talked to some of my friends about what we're doing. I know, like, 10 who want to donate," Merritt said. "But they don't want to be members or go to meetings or even get emails. They don't want to get involved."

Lane DeGregory can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8825. Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this story.

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