At 20, he's already a top political aide

Arthur Leopold, who will begin his freshman year at Duke University on Monday, is something of a prodigy in American politics.

Before taking his first political science class, Leopold has already raised nearly $1 million for Democratic candidates, is the youngest member of Barack Obama's finance committee, has managed a congressional campaign and is a partner in a political consulting firm.

In fact, Leopold won't be in Durham this week when classes start. Instead, he is among the youngest delegates attending the Democratic National Convention in Denver as an Obama delegate from New York.

Politics is often called a young person's game, and delegates to this year's Democratic convention are expected to be among the youngest ever. Almost 15 percent of the delegates are 36 or younger, according to the party.

“Age doesn't matter in politics,” said Leopold, 20. “It's just what you can do and how hard you work.”

Even in a youth-dominated enterprise, Leopold stands out.

“I've never come across anybody like him,” said Jim Neal of Chapel Hill, who hired Leopold to help him raise money in his unsuccessful bid to win the Democratic U.S. Senate nomination this year. “He is a wunderkind who was sophisticated not only about raising money but the political process.”

Leopold looks like a college freshman from the 1950s about to attend a fraternity mixer – clean cut, coat and tie, perfect manners and a maturity beyond his years.

Growing up with politics

Leopold caught the political bug during the 2000 campaign, when his father took him to New Hampshire to see the candidates in the primaries. He looked up to presidential candidates the way other kids looked up to pop culture stars.

His father, Stephen Leopold, is a prominent Canadian and New York real estate executive who served on the Watergate Committee staff under Sen. Sam Ervin Jr. of North Carolina and as executive assistant to former Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney.

The younger Leopold learned his politics on the affluent Upper East Side of New York, where his family moved in the early 1990s. Two years ago, Leopold worked on the campaign – rising to become manager – for Democratic U.S. Rep. Carolyn Maloney. She won with 81 percent of the vote against token opposition.

Obama's campaign caught Leopold's imagination. He played Obama's speech to the 2004 Democratic convention over and over. Even though most New York Democrats were backing Sen. Hillary Clinton, Leopold signed on in early 2007 to help Obama.

“I knew Barack Obama was going to be the next president,” Leopold said. “There was just something in my heart that really led me to believe that.”

Leopold, a dual U.S.-Canadian citizen, became involved in fundraising for Obama – mainly among young professionals in New York. He delayed entering college a year so he could devote his time to working for Obama, raising an estimated $250,000. Among other things, Leopold used Facebook and My Space to connect with potential donors.

Jeremy Goldberg, co-founder of Generation Obama, the young professionals arm of the Obama campaign, was impressed when he met Leopold at an Obama event in New York in March 2007.

“Arthur seemed to know everybody in the room,” Goldberg said. “He seemed to be the veteran fundraiser. He had many ideas of how to help the campaign. I just assumed he had been in politics 10 to 15 years. I was just blown away when I found out he had not yet entered college. He was only 18.”

Leopold also set up his own political consulting firm, and began raising money for candidates in the New York area and across the country. He has since merged his firm with a larger firm.

He tells clients that without money, their campaign will go nowhere.

“One of the things I learned in fundraising is that they don't have a voice unless they have money backing them,” Leopold said.

Time ahead at Duke

Leopold has arranged his class schedules at Duke so he can continue to run his consulting business and help Obama:

Classes on Tuesday through Thursday.

Politics on Friday through Monday.

He doesn't expect his political background to raise many eyebrows on a campus with a lot of high achievers.

“A person who lives in my dorm just won the bronze medal in the Olympics,” he said. (Becca Ward, another incoming freshman, won the bronze in a fencing competition.)

Leopold doesn't know if he wants to enter politics himself. Right now he is thinking about law.

He will pursue a double major in public policy and political science and join the Duke ski team.

And one more thing.

He may run for Duke student council.