PHILADELPHIA – It’s been about 15 years since De’Vante Montgomery started telling people he wanted to be president of the United States one day.
But unlike most kids who aspire to take up unlikely professions -- astronauts, say, or NFL quarterbacks -- he never quit telling people about his plan.
Since then Montgomery has grown from the cute kid who told everyone about his presidential pipe dreams to a college student who’s built a serious political network and is already engineering plans to run for public office within the next five years.
“You know how kids always say, ‘I want to be president when I grow up,'" De’Vante Montgomery said in an interview with WCPO. “I was really serious.”
Montgomery hopes to make another big step toward making his dream a reality this week while serving as Ohio’s youngest delegate for Hillary Clinton at the Democratic National Convention.
“I’m excited about being a party of history – the first female nominee for president,” he said. “I’m more excited about meeting people; that are my age, that are not my age, that have been at the convention. I’m excited about making those connections.”
Balancing Campaigns With Homework
Odds are slim most kids who start dreaming up White House hopes in kindergarten will actually make it to the Oval Office – only 43 men have been successful.
But the deck has been particularly stacked against Montgomery, a 19-year-old Miami University student from Forest Park.
When she was 19, his mother gave birth to him and raised him as a single parent.
His father is incarcerated but his paternal grandparents have often stepped in to play the role of mom and dad. He shuffled from apartment to apartment with his mother and siblings but watched in awe as his mom worked days and nights to save up enough money to buy a house, only to have it taken away in a foreclosure.
Montgomery estimates he has moved and switched schools five or six times growing up.
The distractions didn’t faze him. Instead, he focused on getting involved in local and national politics.
His grandfather, Joseph Montgomery, would spend school nights and weekends transporting his grandson, too young at the time to drive, to fundraisers and rallies for senators and local city councilors.
“I was a chauffeur,” Joseph Montgomery said. “I had to take him and be with him, I had to sit in meetings. He showed interest so why deny it? His interest grew and it grew.”
But nothing sparked as much interest as when a campaign field office for President Barack Obama opened in 2012, just down the street from Montgomery’s house.
At the time, he was just 15 years old and Obama was making his second run for president.
During the school year, Montgomery walked from Winton Woods High School to the campaign office across the street. That summer, he spent his time on the phone or out in the sweltering heat knocking on doors and talking to potential voters about Obama.
“I would walk down there, do my homework and make some phone calls at the same time, then go back home,” he said. “I was there 99 percent of the time during the summer.”
His hard work caught the attention of Richard Schwab, who oversaw operations in the office.
Impressed with Montgomery's initiative, Schwab invited him to a fundraiser for Sen. Sherrod Brown. It was there that the 15-year-old rubbed shoulders with Brown, then-Cincinnati Mayor Mark Mallory and movie star Martin Sheen. He even had the audacity to ask those who were attending the fundraiser to write another check – one to help him go to the DNC that summer in Charlotte, N.C.
“At first I was a little hesitant, I said, ‘Oh God, this is Sherrod Brown’s event and you’re working the room,’” Schwab said. “But people were so enthralled with him – that he was so young and, yet, how many high school kids want to go to the national convention?”
Montgomery ended up raising $1,500 to go the convention – but he was still $1,200 short of what he needed to go to Charlotte that summer. Schwab funded the rest of his trip.
Montgomery made himself a promise when he left for Charlotte: The next time he attended a Democratic National Convention, he’d come back as a delegate.
He wrapped up his work on the Obama campaign in 2012 and he turned to developing a network on a local level. He went to a Hamilton County Young Democrats meeting in 2013 and started introducing himself to city council members.
City Councilman Chris Seelbach doesn’t remember the exact time he first met Montgomery but he recalls being surprised to see a teenage Democrat turning up at political affairs.
“I think De’Vante just started to come to my fundraisers and events,” Seelbach said. “It reminds me of me a little bit. You have to show up everywhere, be willing to do anything – you’re not above stuffing envelopes.”
Montgomery continued to nurture his relationships with some of Cincinnati’s most influential politicos.
“I started developing personal relationships with all of these powerful people,” he said. “When I told people my age they said, ‘Oh you’re lying.’”
While studying at Miami University, he knocked on doors and made phone calls for Cincinnati City Councilman P.G. Sittenfeld in his bid for the U.S. Senate.
“Everybody remembers the first time they meet De’Vante – he has a megawatt personality, a megawatt smile,” Sittenfeld said. “He’s clearly and incredibly committed to issues of social justice and making sure that everybody has opportunity. When I see him I actually call him Mr. President.”
The time Montgomery put in and the connections he has made have paid off.
When 2016 rolled around and Ohio’s Democrats gathered to select delegates for the convention, party members rallied around him. In January, they voted for him to be a Hillary Clinton delegate at the DNC in Philadelphia.
But the celebration was brief. After the March 15 Ohio primary, Montgomery found out Democratic presidential contender Bernie Sanders had earned too many votes – and, therefore, delegates – for him to represent Clinton at the convention.
So Montgomery made one last attempt.
He put in an application to the Ohio Democratic Party to be selected as a delegate-at-large for the convention. He submitted it and crossed his fingers.
Democratic Party Chairman David Pepper rang him a few days later to tell him he was in.
Then Montgomery cleared one last hurdle by raising $3,000 in less than three weeks, with the help of a Go Fund Me donation page, to get to the DNC.
One of his most memorable donations came from Jim Obergefell, the lead plaintiff in the Supreme Court that legalized same-sex marriage. That donation was particularly meaningful for Montgomery, who is gay.
On Monday, Montgomery could be found working the room at the Ohio delegation breakfast in Philadelphia. He shook hands with reporters, said hello as fellow Democrats passed by and smiled wide as he talked about all of the people he had met the night before at the DNC welcome party.
“This is a big opportunity,” Montgomery said, dressed in sharp navy suit – the kind an elected official would wear to a press conference or a an important city council meeting. “For me, being here I can show that young people are involved, we’re doing things and we’re ready to take the reins of government.”