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At 18, he's on Pottstown school board - and just getting started

With all the angst over the 2016 presidential race, perhaps it is not too soon to look to future elections and the prospects of Emanuel Wilkerson.

Emanuel Wilkerson, 18, is the youngest school board member in Pa.
Emanuel Wilkerson, 18, is the youngest school board member in Pa.Read moreED HILLE / Staff Photographer

With all the angst over the 2016 presidential race, perhaps it is not too soon to look to future elections and the prospects of Emanuel Wilkerson.

The Pottstown school board member is sitting in a booth at Ice House Steak & Pizza, where he conducts interviews and important meetings. It's the same joint where he gobbles down cheese fries with his Pottstown High School classmates.

"I love serving the people," says Wilkerson, who won't get his high school diploma until June, but already has a master's in the political sound bite. "I love my school. I love my family and my friends, and I'm ready to get to work to serve my country."

Elected to a four-year term in November at age 18, he is believed to be the youngest school board member presently serving in the state, said Steve Robinson, a Pennsylvania School Boards Association spokesman.

Wilkerson won one of five slots as a write-in candidate after knocking on doors and gaining a spot on both the Republican and Democratic lines in the general election. He was the fourth-highest vote-getter.

Wilkerson, a Republican, was running on a record of accomplishment. As a student representative to the school board in his junior year, he successfully lobbied the nine adult members to experiment with swapping the uniform requirement - blue polo shirt, khaki pants - for a dress code.

"As my family pays taxes, I don't want to use our money for our teachers to be fashion police," he says of his opposition to the uniform.

Wilkerson recently discovered yet another talent: acting. In his first-ever audition, he landed the role of the Cowardly Lion in the student production of The Wiz.

Among adults who have watched Wilkerson's trajectory, the consensus is that he's headed for ever-higher political offices.

"His elocution and his speaking ability are way beyond his years," said Polly Weand, the veteran Pottstown school board member, who helped Wilkerson organize his campaign even though she's a Democrat.

"I said, 'Emanuel, what would you like to do?' " she recalls asking him. "He said, 'I want to be president.' "

She describes him as "a leader among his peers, and now he is a leader among the community."

Though he seems to be a natural, politics doesn't run in his family, most of whom are Democrats or apolitical.

"This is all brand-new for the family," says his mother, Maya, a nursing assistant.

Although "he's always been a very outspoken child, it did take me by surprise. No one thinks their kid wants to run for school board."

The Wilkersons moved to Pottstown from Pittsburgh when Emanuel was a third grader. He once dreamed of becoming a doctor, but then, "I got a feel for the system - things that need to be changed, not just the school, but the system," he says.

By sophomore year, Wilkerson was a student event coordinator, and then class president - all the while playing football and running track. By junior year, he was student body vice president. His work as student rep on the school board inspired him to aim higher. He figured, "I see myself going to law school and into politics, so let me start now."

Because he turned 18 just a few weeks before the primary on May 19, 2015 - too late for the filing deadline - he was a write-in candidate.

"My knuckles were sore" from door-knocking, he says. It didn't hurt that turnout was low and the field of candidates small. He won with just 115 votes.

Identifying as Republican may seem an odd choice, given that he calls Franklin D. Roosevelt his favorite president and Sen. Bernie Sanders - who won a student straw poll at Pottstown High - "a very good candidate."

But Wilkerson already sees himself as a pragmatist, not an ideologue. "I want to be collaborative. I want to challenge," he says. "I wish there was a party about collaboration - that's the party I would choose."

Still, he's getting involved in increasingly contentious issues. He plans to go to Harrisburg soon to protest the budget stalemate that has slowed the flow of state education aid, and he recently spoke at the organizing meeting for POWER Metro, a group that lobbies on issues such as a higher minimum wage and fairer education funding.

"People were moved to see someone so young taking on so much leadership," says Cecily Harwitt, director of organizing for the new group's parent, POWER Interfaith. Wilkerson, she added, bolsters the argument that kids in a lower-income district such as Pottstown are entitled to as many education dollars as those in Lower Merion.

Wilkerson, who also works part time at a nearby Guess Factory Outlet store, is waiting to hear from local colleges where he has applied, including Temple and Widener Universities - close enough to allow him to continue serving on the school board. He hopes that will help him to land a position someday as a lawyer for the Navy.

But Navy JAG, he says, would be just a pit stop - on the road to the White House.

kboccella@phillynews.com

610-313-8232 @Kathy_Boccella

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