Cambridge boy is (growing) up-and-coming operative
CAMBRIDGE — If he were a foot taller, shaved, and cursed a bit, 11-year-old Zev Dickstein just might pass for the typical political campaign manager.
Every day after school, using a database he developed, Zev identifies people he thinks he can persuade to vote for School Committee candidate Joyce Gerber. Bounding from house to house, he knocks on doors, shakes hands, pets dogs, makes his pitch, and reminds voters that election day is Nov. 5 . Sometimes he even high-fives supporters.
Then Zev confers with his chaperone (usually his mother).
"I can't go by myself," said the sixth-grader from Cambridge Street Upper School, who has to persuade one of his parents or sometimes his grandmother to tag along. "That is the hardest thing I have to do in my history of campaigning — finding someone to go with me."
Since the summer, Zev has been serving as the campaign manager for Gerber as she challenges eight other candidates for six Cambridge School Committee seats in this fall's municipal election.
Gerber had posted a job listing for a campaign manager at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government looking for someone to fill the job. But then the 48-year-old attorney said she had a conversation with Zev, and she was impressed by his knowledge about databases and finding likely voters, so she offered him the job.
"I thought she was kidding," Zev said.
Gerber said she had seen Zev before working for Democrat Elizabeth Warren's US Senate campaign and then earlier this year she met Zev while he was canvassing for votes on behalf of then Democratic senatorial candidate Edward J. Markey.
When she offered Zev the job managing her campaign, Gerber said they had a disagreement over the Cambridge "Innovation Agenda" she supported that put youngsters in the middle grades into separate upper schools. But Gerber said Zev took some time to think about the offer, and then he wrote he a nice note saying he wanted to do it.
"I think I made a good choice," Gerber said. "I think my husband was a little bit skeptical when I first told him, but after he met him, everybody was on board."
First, however, Zev needed permission from his parents. His mother, Nancy Shapiro, said she didn't know Gerber well and had to meet with her to go over what Zev would be doing as campaign manager. After going over the list of duties with Gerber, Shapiro said she thought it would be a good learning experience for her son, and she believed Zev could do almost everything the job entailed except using social media, because he isn't old enough.
He is a volunteer, but Gerber said she plans to pay him a stipend to help with college costs. Gerber said her campaign is small and consists mostly of volunteers from her family.
Even when Zev was very young, Shapiro said she thought he might have a future in politics.
"It was kind of an instinct I had about him," Shapiro said.
While Shapiro said she and her husband, Stuart Dickstein, are a bit shy, Zev somehow developed a gregarious personality that began emerging at his second birthday party when he greeted some guests at the door by name.
Soon she said her son developed a keen interest in listening to the news on National Public Radio, and when he was at the King Open School in Cambridge, he went to the School Committee to petition for a salad bar so all students would have equal access to healthy food.
When Elizabeth Warren launched her Senate campaign, Shapiro said Zev, who was then 9 years old, became interested and went to work for her campaign.
Zev said he made phone calls, knocked on doors, and helped train fellow volunteers for Warren, and his enjoyment of the experience sparked his interest in working on more campaigns.
But Zev insists that he is just a normal boy who likes to do average things, such as playing tennis, seeing friends, and playing the violin and piano.
In slow moments at school, when other pupils may be daydreaming of recess, Zev is busy trying to get his homework done so he can hit the campaign trail as soon as his last class is over.
Gerber said she has her own 12- and 14-year-old children and she knows what typical youngers their age want to do — which isn't helping with her campaign.
But Gerber said Zev has no fear and he loves canvassing voters. She said he pushes her and challenges her to make sure she's doing everything she needs to do to get elected.
"He is not afraid to tell me what he thinks and we get into arguments a lot, and my 14-year-old son thinks that is hysterical — that I am fighting with an 11-year-old," Gerber said. "But he does exactly what a campaign manager is supposed to do. He makes me do things I don't necessarily want to do at the time."
On a recent afternoon in North Cambridge, when Zev spent almost two hours after school going door to door looking for votes, Zev ran into Harvey Street resident Susan Teshu as she was coming home from the market.
Zev made his pitch, telling Teshu of Gerber's focus on academics, arts, and creating more family engagement with Cambridge schools. Then he walked around the corner with Teshu, who wanted to show Zev her garden.
Teshu, 58, said she thinks it's great to see an 11-year-old taking an early interest in democracy.
"It gives me a lot of hope," she said.
While he's still very young, Zev said he can see himself embarking on a career one day in which he can help people, either by running for office or possibly being a teacher.
"I can't say now," he said. "It will be a while away."