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September 29, 2004

UT Student Government Politics Begins

By Karl-Thomas Musselman

(This post is about some inside info on the positioning that is going on for SG elections (which are held all the way away in March) but are being talked about now.)

Student Government elections are held in the first week of March each year. There is a two week campaign period before the elections in which a number of silly rules limit activities and speech of the 'tickets' and individual. (i.e. not being able to mail, e-mail students about positions creating a situations where the bulk of funds is spent on t-shirts and push cards).

Because of the blackout on being able to officially say "vote for" any candidate or ticket anywhere before that two week window, most organizing of tickets must go on under the radar and generally creates Tickets that are heavily Student Government based in recent history or filled with those who know the process.

From what I have learned this past week, the beginnings of two tickets have already been formed out of this year's Student Government body, meaning a Presidential and Vice Presidential candidate. At this point I would like to say that I am writing this as a student and Burnt Orange blogger, not as a personal critique on any of these people, but as a reporter attempting to shed light on a process that is largely unseen and insider. If Student Government wants to talk about breaking widespread stereotypes about it being "Insider", "Elitist", or "Clubby" then it needs to be open to this type of reporting.

One one side so far, there is Omar Ochoa, currently a 2 Year at Large Representative who also sits on the President's Student Advisory Committee. These are two good things to be if you are looking at the SG Presidency as current SG President Brent Cheney was a 2-year at large, as was previous president Brian Haley, previous VP Sly Majid, and last year's losing candidate for president Patrick George (who still sits in the SG Assembly now). Sly was also on the President's Student Advisory Committee back in 2001.

The nice thing about being a two-year at large Rep is that if you lose your bid for President, you still have your seat. In addition, both Brent Cheney and Patrick George were Liberal Arts Reps before they were 2 Year at Larges. Other 2 Years have become part of various Executive Boards nominated by the Prez, but that is an aside.

Omar is the most progressive of the four names I'm about to go through. He's been very much involved with the Multicultural Information Center on campus and is a Co-Director of the Latino Leadership Council, the umbrella for about 25 Latino groups on campus.

Pairing up with him though is the seemingly odd and maybe upsetting choice for progressives, Elizabeth Brummet who not surprisingly is also a 2 Year at Large and former Liberal Arts Rep. Definetly to the right of Omar but possibly not so much in an active political sense (as I don't know all the Reps personally as of yet) Brummet is very much involved with Greek Life, specifically Chi Omega and could be comparably compared as I have been told to current SG VP Rachel McGinity who is also a Chi O and is on that same list.

Now why the big deal about Chi Omega? At UT it is considered by many to be the most active, politically involved sorority that has influence over how the other sororities align, especially the Tri-Delts in the like. And he (or she) who has the political muscle of Chi Omega behind them likely garners the other sororities. And not only that, but the fraternities tend to follow their partnered sororities, so you can see what it makes sense to take advantage of this. This will also be the cause of contention in the next Ticket I present.

Ticket numero dos is apparently headed by Wes Carpenter, making this the ticket headed by a conservative rather than a progressive (though I'm not sure to what degree). From his profile...

My hometown is Sugar Land Texas, where there is no equal. I am currently in my second year here at the University pursuing a degree in Government and Economics. On campus I am involved in Brothers Under Christ Fraternity, the Distinguished Speakers Committee, the Outdoor Pool Committee, the Spirit and Traditions Council and LEAP...

Yes, that's Tom Delay land. But the more curious thing is that Carpenter is and has been a SG Agency director for two different ones, not the most usual path to the Presidency for recent history. And apparently there is already some kvetching over the fact that many of the conservative student groups on campus, their leaders/people in SG are being enticed to fall behind the Ochoa/Brummet ticket and not the Carpenter/Hanks ticket.

Hanks? you might ask. Never herd of Colby Hanks. Good point, because that name isn't in the Student Government roster, it's found on none other than the same Chi Omega roster where Brummet and McGinity are found! For the reasons layed out above, the importance of Chi O. There was supposedly a big flare up at the House the other weekend over this very point because they don't normally split their resources. It's a pure political move on the part of Carpenter, a smart one, but still, it's a ticket headed with an Agency director and an outsider and still somehow trying to be an incumbent ticket. (because at this stage in the game it's all about trying to pull existing representatives to one or the other in advance)

Frats and Sororities still have a lot of influence over SG elections at UT. Put simply, they vote and in lockstep if they have a person on a particular ticket. Members get points if they vote and you can be darned sure someone is at the door making sure you've voted before you've left for class that day.

Student groups have some power, but they aren't organized and not near as large. University Democrats, some of the cultural groups, UT Watch, and a few others are considered the only ones whose endorsements actually matter. The Agency and Committee heads within SG tend to know their constituency’s very well and that can lead to GOTV efforts and word of mouth about what ticket is best to vote for.

Right now SG is mildly conservative and has lost the liberal majority it had last year. The question now is which way will it trend? Will there be a third ticket that gets set up, through a huge ass monkey wrench into the plans being laid? How long will it take and will there be an opportunity for a progressive coalition to join together (UDems, Campus Greens, UT Watch, the Cyclists, Hispanic, Black, Asian cultural groups, the GLBT crowd, the environmental groups, Save Barton Springs, Students Against Cruelty to Animals, and on and on) complemented by a few always needed liberal frat types? Will the Ochoa/Brummet ticket try to do this? Will the progressives swallow that combo?

Remember, turnout is only about 20% these days, even with Internet voting. (pretty graph and one that is zoomed into the more recent elections). Will we sit and grumble or try to outreach and take over a ticket or make our own? Will this be yet another election won in a landslide by the entire ticket like the last two elections (minus one Representative in 2003 from the minority 'party')?

This post is meant to provoke some thought. It's meant to open up the process. I'm in the progressive camp so pardon me if it sounds like I'm being too negative about any conservatives. One of these days I'll probably be running as well but until then, can we as Student Government try to still FOCUS on the issues we/you were elected to deal with this year and not worry about perpetual elections?

Posted by Karl-Thomas Musselman at September 29, 2004 11:33 PM | TrackBack


Excellent post KT, and a very accurate analysis in my opinion.

Another factor in the secrecy of ticket formation is that strategically, the element of surprise is beneficial to tickets. The goal is for the opposing ticket to underestimate the amount of recruitment, organizing, fundraising, training, etc. performed by your ticket, thereby avoiding an arms race in campaign activity. If the opposing ticket doesn't know whether or not it's behind, it can't be sure that additional commitment will be worthwhile.

Don't forget the influence of the Orange Jackets, which I would say has more weight than Chi Omega, although my knowledge of greek politics is minimal. Coincidentally, they've just selected new OJ members this week, who will likely become members of the campus political elite very soon - if they aren't already (unlikely).

Having said that, it's important not to confuse correlation with causation. These organizations do not create leaders out of a vacuum. There's definitely a selection factor involved - student leaders are naturally going to be attracted to organizations with likeminded members and opportunities catered to their interests.

Another thing to be careful about is overemphasizing partisan politics in Student Government. The majority of Student Government action is not (and should not be) oriented on a left-right axis. As such, I caution against labeling candidates either conservative or liberal and using that as the primary method of evaluation. Above all else, candidates should be evaluated on their ideas for change and their ability (in terms of both motivation and skill) to effect this change. Even for the progressive voter, a lazy liberal representative is ultimately a worse choice than an active conservative representative in terms of campus improvement.

Any significant communication with the student body will quickly show that the major concerns of students are minimally related to extra-University politics. Students are concerned with small, non-partisan things like shuttle bus service, tuition, housing, registration, and entertainment. A progressive coalition may perform well with regards to liberal ideologies, but I think they would do so to the neglect of bread and butter campus issues. Democratically, I believe that all students deserve representation in their Student Government, and a homogenously progressive ticket would not satisfy that.

I'm sure that I'm forgetting stuff but this post is long enough. Keep up the fascinating (and unprecedented) SG coverage.

Posted by: chrisken at September 30, 2004 02:47 AM

Those are some very good points! I am by far not the authority on SG politics but then again, the average students is even less so. And it is quite true that certain positions lead to certain leadership, it's almost natural. Government majors tend to make up all the Liberal Arts Reps, and Lib Arts is the largest college so it provides the oppertunity to run for more at large seats or president. Plus government types are going to be drawn to SG.

I have been inspired by the massive amount of power that students can have at UT if they chose to take hold of it. People in SG realize that but the question now is wheter we are interesting in expanding that knowledge to inspire other students and student groups, even if that may invite more potential challengers in SG elections. I know I for one will try to inspire the organizers and leaders of the groups under the GLBT umbrella.

Posted by: Karl-T at September 30, 2004 10:13 AM
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