For many things in life, 18 is the age of responsibility. If you want to get a tattoo, buy a lottery ticket, even open a Costco membership, you need to cross the threshold into adulthood.
But California does not prohibit youth from toddlers to teenagers from taking a lead role in a political campaign. Until — maybe — now.
When the state’s political watchdog group got wind that a Milpitas councilman hired his 14-year-old cousin to be his campaign treasurer – handing him $43,000 in a Nike shoebox and asking him to put it in the bank — it persuaded regulators that there ought to be a law.
“We’ve never really run into this before,” said Jay Wierenga, spokesperson for the Fair Political Practices Commission. “Society generally accepts that people should be a certain age to be able to handle the responsibility of certain things.”
In a ruling released in May that included $15,000 in fines for multiple campaign-related violations, the FPPC noted that Anthony Phan had hired his teenage cousin for his 2016 campaign committee. Phan told authorities that he gave his cousin $43,000 in cash, and the money was later misreported on campaign disclosures.
Now, a newly proposed rule from FPPC staff would prohibit minors from serving in key positions like treasurer, communications leader or campaign strategist. It would apply to all political committees, from local councilmember races all the way up to the state and assembly. It would not stop minors from taking on lower level roles like door knocking.
On Aug. 18, members of the five-person FPPC board will discuss the proposal. A vote will likely come in the fall and the FPPC’s Wierenga said he expects regulators to approve the new rule.
“Taking nothing away from some savant 13- or 14-year-old, generally speaking, they aren’t going to be trained and equipped well enough in these things,” he said.
The agency pointed out that it’s difficult to enforce penalties against a minor in the instance of campaign wrongdoing. In the case of Phan’s cousin, Jonathan Le, the FPPC chose not to pursue action against him because of his age.
That legal ambiguity, said Sean McMorris, a member of government transparency nonprofit California Common Cause, is why the FPPC should be tightening the rules.
“Minors should never be put in that position,” said McMorris. “If there is a loophole in the law where a bad actor says, ‘I’m just going to make my 15-year-old niece my treasurer so that she is not held liable because she’s a minor …,’ obviously we don’t want that. The person who is a treasurer is supposed to be held liable.”
In a previous interview, Milpitas Councilmember Phan, 28, blamed his own inexperience with campaign rules, and not his cousin, for the misreporting of some contributions. He said he appointed Le to the unpaid post as treasurer because he wanted to give them “valuable experience” on a campaign. He also said he now sees that decision as a mistake.
But Assembly member Alex Lee, who represents parts of San Jose, Fremont and Milpitas, believes that the FPPC’s rule could have detrimental effects on future campaigns.
“In general, I think it sends a chilling effect to young campaigns,” he said, adding that he regularly hears of candidates placing minors in decision-making roles.
Ann Ravel, former chair of the FPPC, thinks that familiarity with campaign laws should be the critical determining factor for someone to be on a campaign, not age.
“I don’t that that it really makes sense,” she said about the agency’s proposal. “Maybe 14 is too young. But that is the wrong standard. Because you can have adults that are incompetent.”