Robbing the Cradle

Presidential candidates are cashing in on "student" contributions. But who's really giving?

Though child labor was supposedly outlawed 75 years ago, an increasing number of children appear to be laboring in the murky backwaters of politics. At least that's what their parents are telling the Federal Election Commission.

Take 14-year-old Chad Byrd, a high school freshman in Huntsville, Texas, and $1,000 contributor to presidential hopeful Phil Gramm. Byrd doesn't have a job, but says, "Every time I got money I've put it in the bank."

He likes Gramm, he says, because of his tough stance on welfare reform. When asked exactly what in Gramm's reform plan he supports, he pauses, then offers, "I agree on everything he said." Ring up another $1,000 for the Gramm campaign. Perhaps coincidentally, the amount Byrd gave to the candidate is the same sum his grandparents gave--the maximum $1,000 donation.

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Contributors like Byrd are listed as "students" in the Federal Election Commission ledger. So far this year, hundreds of "students" around the country have contributed the maximum $1,000 donation to campaigns, for a total of $230,000. The biggest beneficiaries are two struggling Republican presidential candidates--Phil Gramm ($51,000) and Lamar Alexander ($42,000).

The Clinton/Gore campaign trails behind with $21,000, while Republican front-runner Bob Dole lags even further back, with $12,000 in student donations.

According to FEC regulations, laundering campaign donations through another individual--even if it's your own child-- is illegal and can result in fines up to twice the size of the donation. What do some of the kids who have given $1,000 say about their candidates?

Cate Gogol, 14, and her 12-year-old brother, Nikolas Gogol, have their hearts set on Dick Lugar for president. Their father, David Gogol, also gave the maximum contribution. A consultant for the lobbying firm Sagamore Associates in Washington, D.C., their dad might have had his own reason to do a little at-home lobbying: He used to be Lugar's legislative director.

Leighton Blount, a 19-year-old student at North Carolina State, is a big Gramm fan. He must be, because his father, the North Carolina finance chairman of "Phil Gramm for President," surely knows it would be illegal to make a contribution through his son.

Katherine Caldwell, an 18-year-old freshman biology student at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, says she's not all that interested in politics, though her dad once took her to hear a campaign speech by Lamar Alexander. She says her donation to Alexander was "not so much my choice." When asked where the money came from, she replies: "Well, I didn't work for it." Incidentally, both her dad and her mom gave maximum $1,000 contributions to Alexander.

Mark Boswell, a 25-year-old recent graduate of the Pepperdine University law school, isn't nearly as coy. He says he's a big fan of Phil Gramm, but admits he "got the money from my parents." David, Adam, and Robert Coggin, from Murfreesboro, Tenn., are all college students. They're also big Lamar Alexander boosters whose contributions total $3,000. Adam, 18, claims his cool grand came from saving up. David, 22, says, "I was working since I was 13 and am real involved in the stock market."

Tom Caestecker, 26, seems to be another Wall Street whiz. A recent graduate from DePaul University in Chicago with a master's degree in history, he sprang for a $1,000 donation to Gramm, saying he "invested pretty well in some stocks."

Every one of these financial barons gave the $1,000 maximum to the same presidential candidate as their parents. So much for youthful rebellion.

During the last three years, student money has flowed primarily to the candidates who appear to be struggling the most--and might need their most ardent supporters to give more than legally possible.

While Republican presidential candidates are raking it in now, last year Democrats raised the most, with Ted Kennedy finishing on top with $60,000.

This could, of course, simply reflect a budding political youth movement--kids trading their Reebok allowance for political muscle. But they sure are starting young.

One contributor who was called on the phone proved particularly reticent. According to the woman who took the call: "I don't believe he can talk yet."

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