At 16, Montville 'political junkie' learns the ropes, waits for chance to vote

Manny Espinoza, a campaign worker for petitioning state Representative candidate Andrew Lockwood, passes out flyers prior to a debate Oct. 12 at the New London Senior Center. (Tim Martin/The Day)
Manny Espinoza, a campaign worker for petitioning state Representative candidate Andrew Lockwood, passes out flyers prior to a debate Oct. 12 at the New London Senior Center. (Tim Martin/The Day)

Manny Espinosa, slurping a McFlurry in the Route 32 McDonald’s in Uncasville, has some ideas about how the town’s Republicans can start getting ready for the 2017 municipal elections.

It’s October, and the 16-year-old has been spending nearly all of his free time volunteering for GOP candidates for the U.S. Congress and state House of Representatives, but the Town Council races already are on his mind.

“I’ve been busting their chops,” he said, wistfully. “They’re getting there.”

"They" are the members of the Republican Town Committee in Montville, which includes some people who have been involved in town politics for longer than Espinosa has been alive. Espinosa is the committee’s secretary.

“We’re doing what the RTC should be doing, what people expect us to be doing,” he said. “Getting these candidates ready, and hopefully getting them in office.”

Espinosa was born in New London and lives in Montville with his mother, who he said works in retail and raised him and his sister “paycheck to paycheck.” He attends a private religious school run by Lakes Pond Baptist Church in Waterford along with only about two dozen other students. He wears a suit to school, and pretty much everywhere else, including a lunchtime meeting at McDonald's. He calls himself a “political junkie.”

He also may be one of the most active local political operatives in the greater New London area.

“He’s 16 years old, and he probably knows more about the political landscape than most adults,” said Dan McSparran, campaign manager for 39th House District candidate Andrew Lockwood.

Since early September, Espinosa has been a key player in Lockwood’s small campaign. Before that, he was volunteering for Republican U.S. congressional candidate Daria Novak, and before that he was a curious 15-year-old learning about the state’s fiscal management by reading articles in the Wall Street Journal and The Day.

Most people he meets think he’s older than he is, especially when he wears the suit. And the goatee. And the thick black glasses.

“I’ve really matured earlier than most people would,” he said.

Espinosa rattles off years and state House district demographics like a lot of 16-year-olds rattle off NBA players’ statistics. He expresses a fairly simple, conservative-leaning world view that occasionally starts to sound a little bit like GOP talking heads on Fox News.

Asked if he would vote for Republicans across the ballot if he could, Espinosa pauses for several seconds and sneaks a mischievous smile.

“What Hillary has done offends me more than what Trump has said,” he says. “She has all these scandals. The emails. What was it — Whitewater? The scandals that Bill Clinton had when he was president.”

“Her husband,” he clarifies.

The son of a Cuban mother and a Puerto Rican father born in the Virgin Islands, Espinosa said he appreciates Trump’s views on illegal immigration and thinks his background in business qualifies him to run the country.

“Trump doesn’t offend us,” he said.

But topics like the state of Connecticut’s economy and the political balance of the General Assembly come more easily to him, and he admits that local politics are more his focus than the presidential race.

He won’t be able to vote or run for office for two years — “not until 2018,” he says, like he’s counting down the minutes. His sister, who is 21 and a college student in Florida, doesn’t vote.

“She will,” he said, “when I run for office.”

He said there’s a “serious chance” he’ll run once he turns 18, but won’t specify what office he plans to run for.

“I think 2018 will be a good year,” is his only comment on the matter.

Dana McFee, the Republican registrar of voters in Montville, said Espinosa has volunteered at the polls in past elections.

“As soon as you meet the kid, you gotta' say, ‘wow,'” McFee said. “He really knows his politics and he really gets into it.”

High school, McFee said, is as good a time as any for someone to start working in politics.

“This is some wholesome stuff this kid's getting into,” he said. In other words, there are worse hobbies.

“He’s one of those kids that can change the world,” McFee said.

McSparran doesn’t go that far — he knows that Espinosa has a long way to go and a lot of fawning adults to dodge before he can become a successful politician in his own right.

But he took a real chance on Espinosa.

“He’s a unique young man,” McSparran said. “He’s got his head on differently than most people.”

After Espinosa started working on the Lockwood campaign in September, he approached McSparran with a proposal. He wanted to be in charge of collecting signatures to qualify Lockwood for Citizens' Election Program funding. Because Lockwood didn’t have a party endorsement and is running as a petitioning candidate, the campaign would need hundreds of valid signatures to get even the lowest level of public funding from the state.

Espinosa had no car, no smart phone and no experience.

“I said ‘Manny — do you have any idea how huge a hurdle this is?'” McSparran said. “People are telling me, ‘you’re out of your mind. How is this kid going to do this?'”

“He said, 'I can do this.'”

This week, the Lockwood campaign got word that it had qualified for the lowest level of CEP funding — about $9,000 — with 500 signatures.

Later, McSparran had Espinosa as a guest on his Metrocast Public Access show, “Why Can't We Do That?” After he let Espinosa talk for most of the hourlong show, an elderly African American man called in.

“He told Manny, ‘you have given me hope for generations,’” McSparran said. “'There is promise out there for generations coming, with young men like you that are out there doing this.’”

m.shanahan@theday.com

Editor's Note: This version corrects where Manny Espinosa and his father were born.

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