Teens elect to fulfill friend's political goal

May 28, 2006|By JOSH MITCHELL | JOSH MITCHELL,SUN REPORTER

Two weeks ago, Matthew Beirne held his best friend's head as the teenager was dying in the car seat next to him.

Last week, Matthew wanted to honor Jesse H. Elkins - and so did half a dozen of his other friends. So the group went to Baltimore County elections headquarters and filed to run for office.

"He always wanted to do new things - he didn't even care if it was anything out of the ordinary," said Nicki Cohen, 18, referring to her friend Jesse's decision to run for office before he was even eligible to vote. "I really admired that about him. So in a way we're kind of being different like him by doing this."

Jesse, a 17-year-old senior at Franklin High in Reisterstown, was driving two friends home from an Orioles game May 12 when his car swerved off a road and crashed into a fence. A board struck Jesse's head, and he died the next morning, his mother said. The two friends were unharmed.

Matthew said he did not know what caused the accident because he was facing his friend in the back seat when the car left the road. He said alcohol was not involved. Jesse's mother, Toni Elkins Fowler, said investigators have told her skid marks indicated Jesse might have swerved to avoid hitting something on the road.

Baltimore County police said they are investigating.

Two weeks before he died, Jesse filed to run for the county's Democratic Central Committee. His interest in politics was sparked by his grandfather, Leonard Kerpelman, a retired lawyer who is now a community activist.

Kerpelman gained fame in 1963 when he represented atheist Madalyn Murray O'Hair in the Supreme Court case that outlawed organized prayer in public schools. During the 1999 mayor's race, he became an independent video journalist, using a hand-held camera to tape interviews with candidates and then having the footage aired on public access television.

He also began taping government officials reviewing contracts at Baltimore City Board of Estimates meetings, where he hasn't always been a welcome presence. A City Council member once had police escort him out of the room during proceedings.

About a year and a half ago, he asked Jesse to join him at a meeting. Jesse, always open to new experiences, whether it be yoga or ballroom dancing, accepted the invitation.

The pair spent many Wednesday mornings together, and sometimes Jesse would work a video camera while his grandfather interviewed politicians.

Jesse also spoke to Mayor Martin O'Malley, who once asked him what he wanted to be when he grew up, his grandfather recalled. Jesse said he wanted to be a lawyer, like his grandfather.

In April, Kerpelman told Jesse he should consider running for the House of Delegates. "He thought, `Yeah, that's cool to do. I'll do it,'" Kerpelman recalled.

When the two went to elections headquarters in Catonsville, the woman there told them that Jesse was too young to run for that office. So Jesse and his grandfather leafed through a booklet to find an office that Jesse was old enough to run for.

Because Jesse would have been old enough to vote by the November election, he was eligible to run to represent his district on the central committee, which has no age requirement.

"His real interest in [running for office] came from the fact that he had had conversations with the mayor," Kerpelman said. "He was quite impressed. It's like talking to the president of the United States as far as the kid's concerned."

In the two weeks since Jesse died, his friends have frequently visited his mother. Friends have left dozens of testimonials on his Myspace.com page and have made a slideshow featuring pictures of Jesse.

"He was the funniest person we ever knew, but he was honestly the most selfless person I knew," said Jesse's girlfriend, Lindsey Uhrig.

She said she heard him talk bad about someone only once, and that he sent her a text message on her phone later that day saying he felt bad about making the remark.

After being overweight in his early teens, he took up skateboarding and began going to the gym to get in shape. He didn't get good grades, his mother said, but had been accepted to and planned on attending West Virginia University in the fall.

"He had this happiness that just kept on carrying with him," said Fowler, pointing to a poster board containing pictures of Jesse at various stages of his life: the day he was born, the day he got his braces off, his first shave.

"All of his friends have been holding me up, even though I don't feel like keeping on right now," she said in her living room this week, where Jesse's 13-year-old brother, Josh, and six of Jesse's friends had gathered to remember him.

When Kerpelman suggested to the group of friends that they run for elective office, they agreed, even though none of them knew what the job entailed. (The committee sets local party policy and helps find replacements for party officials who cannot finish their term.)

Jacqueline K. McDaniel, the county's supervisor of elections, did not recall any previous candidates for office being so young.

"I ran around the office saying, `Does anybody have a camera?'" McDaniel said, recalling her reaction to when the teenagers showed up to file the paperwork last week. "It's going to be such a great learning tool for them just to deal with everyday life, and on top of that we're getting them interested in a process" of running for office.

Joseph T. Ferraracci, chairman of Baltimore County's Democratic Central Committee, said in his 24 years on the committee, he doesn't recall any members younger than 21.

"They're going to find that it's a nonpaying job, and it's not easy," Ferraracci said.

Kerpelman said Jesse would have been cut out for it.

"Jesse would have been a great politician, a charmer," Kerpelman said. "Politics is a combination of concept, idealism and charm, and he had all three."

josh.mitchell@baltsun.com

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