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A Race Without Candidates

A Race Without Candidates

Why Student Government Pulled the Plug Mid-Election.

Less than 48 hours into Election Week, DePaul’s Student Government Association (SGA) presidential race wasn’t just wide open — it was empty.  

It was Tuesday, April 24, 2018. Jack Evans, SGA parliamentarian and presidential candidate, had been formally disqualified from the race for slander, violating election bylaws.

Evans wasn’t the only candidate who had entered the presidential race for 2018. Josh Kaufman, SGA senator for community and government relations, had also been in the running — that is, until he dropped out the day before on Monday, April 23.

At the same time, DePaul junior Ryan Witry was scrolling through “DePaul Setonposting” — a Facebook page dedicated to DePaul memes launched last autumn with just under 600 likes. On Tuesday night, Witry posted a screenshot of a DePaulia tweet breaking the news of Evans’ disqualification and the newly-cleared field.

“Can’t promise anything,” Witry wrote to the group, “but there will be memes.”

It was a crisis without precedent. Never, in DePaul’s history, had both candidates running for student body president resigned in the midst of election week. There was no plan. There was no backup or second string. But there would most certainly be memes.

The question of why and how the system failed DePaul’s student body has no single answer. But from the accounts of the characters of this eleventh-hour political drama — senators, presidents, chairs, candidates, students and trolls — we can begin to arrive at some semblance of what actually transpired.

As of this writing, a special election for DePaul’s student government president and vice president has been scheduled for May 3 and 5, and, by late Thursday night, Kaufman told 14 East that he had re-entered the race. What follows is the story of how we got to this moment.

I. A Meeting

After a routine SGA meeting on Thursday, April 19, current president Michael Lynch approached candidate Josh Kaufman with a request to meet alongside SGA treasurer Ben Bui. The meeting was scheduled for the afternoon of Sunday, April 22.

Before the meeting was over, Kaufman had resigned from the race.

Kaufman, head of the “DePaul for All” campaign — commonly known as the Toilet Paper Party  — built his run on the promise to supply campuses with better quality toilet paper, a symbol of what Kaufman said is a larger issue at DePaul.

I feel like if we can’t deliver on Charmin Ultra Soft, what can we deliver on, you know?” said Kaufman.

Evans, the other presidential candidate, was also invited to attend the meeting by Lynch. (Lynch originally denied this claim in an email to 14 East, but several sources, including Evans, his running mate Katy Bozich, and Kaufman, confirmed that Evans had been invited. The DePaulia also reported that Lynch had invited Evans to the meeting on April 23. Since the publication of this article, Lynch has clarified, saying he invited both Evans and Kaufman to the meeting and had been mistakenly referring to the vice presidential candidates in the original email).

Evans first accepted the invitation, but retracted after learning the premise of the meeting: Lynch wanted to discuss Kaufman’s recent warning from the Election Operations Board (EOB) for lying about paying his canvassers, according to Evans.

“I felt uncomfortable being in that situation as I was opposing [Kaufman]; it wasn’t my place to be part of that discussion,” said Evans.

According to Lynch, who openly endorsed Kaufman’s opponent Evans, the meeting was organized to “get [Kaufman] to understand the overall magnitude of what he was stepping into.” According to Kaufman, the meeting did not discuss presidential roles, but he did not elaborate. Bui did not respond for comment.

The official status of the meeting was unclear  — according to SGA bylaws, prospective presidential candidates are expected to meet with the current president and faculty adviser before election materials are due. In special cases, the candidate can reach out to the EOB and propose a new meeting time if scheduling conflicts arise. This meeting must be facilitated by members of the EOB, a committee of students who monitor SGA elections. The meeting between Kaufman, Lynch and Bui was not.

Article IV, Qualifications for Election, from SGA’s Election Operations Board Bylaws. Source: Election Operations Board Bylaws

Lynch said he urged Kaufman not to resign without speaking to his campaign first, but the candidate “chose not to.”   

I’m a little uncomfortable getting into the details,” said Kaufman, recalling the Sunday meeting. “It was unprofessional, what they did.”

Lynch commented that in retrospect, he understood “how people can feel that the conversation that I had was inappropriate.”

“I understand while my intent was good, my impact was not, and if I could go back, I would not have had this conversation — I’ll own that,” Lynch said.

 

 

Lynch was elected President of SGA in 2017 with 1,499 votes, running unopposed. Last September, he told The DePaulia that he ran “to empower and train students,” and because he was concerned that “morale has been very low for students and unfortunately engagement with SGA as well.”

But in interviews, several SGA representatives said that the organization’s culture had taken a turn for the worse in recent months, with descriptions ranging from “toxic” to “dirty.”

“Our leadership this year has been a little shaky in terms of our president,” Katy Bozich said, who ran on the Lynch-endorsed Evans ticket as vice president. “It’s been pretty toxic.”

Brooke Beatty, who resigned from SGA this week but remained on the EOB as a student, said that Lynch was “telling candidates that EOB wasn’t being impartial” and that the organization “wanted one candidate to win over the other.”

Kaufman, discussing his resignation from the campaign Sunday, told 14 East: “There wasn’t really one specific reason, but my frustration with the SGA leadership and the dirty politics that were being played in a student government election — I was really shocked.”

Lynch appeared unfazed by the drama, saying the conflict was a normal part of student government. “I think that with any student organization, it is going to be highly opinionated people, highly smart people, you know, who have conflict,” he said. “I don’t always think that conflict is a bad thing, however, the issues we’re speaking on — it does not start with me, and hopefully it ends with me.”

Lynch’s support for the Evans ticket was not a secret — he published a letter to the editor in The DePaulia on Monday, saying that Evans and Bozich were “brave, fearless advocates who are not afraid to challenge the status quo.” He dismissed the Kaufman campaign, arguing there was “too much at stake right now for us to be focusing on toilet paper.“

 

II. A Disqualification

The Evans campaign, as of Monday, April 23, was running uncontested, a situation not uncommon in SGA elections  — Lynch also ran uncontested in the 2016-2017 race. Yet the Evans campaign was not faultless. An allegation had been brought to the EOB by Josh Kaufman, who claimed he had been slandered by Evans.

“I relayed information that was meant to be kept among members of SGA, and I relayed it to friends,” said Evans. “It was meant to stay among those few friends, and it didn’t. That information got out to Josh.”

While students are required to serve at least one year on the SGA board to be considered eligible to run in presidential elections, the EOB positions are open to all students. Members of the EOB cannot run for elections and are meant to act as impartial monitors, or “referees,” according to Beatty.

According to EOB chair Gracie Covarrubias, who is also the current SGA vice president to Lynch, all deliberations are confidential unless disclosed by candidates on their own accord. Candidates are issued a written warning for their first campaign violation, unless the violation is one of slander or libel, in which candidates can be disqualified by a majority vote.

Article VIII, Enforcement of Penalties, from SGA’s Election Operations Board Bylaws. Source: Election Operations Board Bylaws.

On Sunday, according to Evans’s running mate Bozich, the two submitted separate statements concerning the allegation. The EOB voted on Tuesday, in a 3-0 vote mid-election, that the Evans would be disqualified on the charge of slander.

Responding to the verdict and referring to Kaufman’s campaign, Bozich said: “We were challenging their policy, but I never thought that we were challenging their character.”

Outside the allegations brought by both candidates to the EOB, the result of the presidential election — or lack thereof — was “unusual,” according to Covarrubias.

“To my knowledge, this has never happened before,” said Covarrubias. “Our board really is doing our best to honor the bylaws and to create guidelines that will really add some integrity to this election.”

Evans later resigned from his position as SGA parliamentarian. Bozich said that she will not run on her own campaign for the upcoming special election and is unsure of her position in SGA for the 2018-2019 year.

“I made the decision that, since I had made a pretty big mistake during the election, it wasn’t appropriate for me to continue serving inside of the organization,” said Evans.

 

III. A Bednar, a Meme and a Dream

Two down, none to vote.

As news of the presidential exits spread across Twitter and Facebook, some students smelled something unmistakable: opportunity. The result was a frenzied burst of messages to EOB chair Covarrubias, with newcomers requesting to jump into the election as write-in candidates for a last-minute swipe at the presidency.

Meme shared in the DePaul Setonposting Facebook page.

DePaul junior Alex Bednar was one of those students. After talking to Ryan Witry Wednesday afternoon, he emailed Covarrubias, asking if he’d be able to submit a “letter of intent” and enter the race. Within four minutes — 1:43 p.m. to 1:47 p.m — the EOB chair responded, saying they were ineligible to run for president and vice president because they had not served one year in SGA prior to the election.

The rationale behind the rule is relatively straightforward, even if it has the effect preventing most students at DePaul from running for the presidency. “We have that rule for a reason, because there are so many pieces to the puzzle,” Covarrubias said. “To be tossed into that and not have any context of the organization and where we fit in… that’s why that rule exists.”

Nonetheless, the Bednar-Witry 2018 campaign was undeterred.

Thirteen minutes after receiving their rejection from Covarrubias, Bednar posted a video to the “DePaul Setonposting” Facebook group announcing his candidacy for SGA president. Sipping a mug of coffee and overlooking a Chicago street from a balcony, Bednar informed his electorate in no uncertain terms that he and his running mate would not be eligible, but: “all the other candidates dropped out, so we might as well go for it!”  

“The whole thing about ‘Setonposting,’” Witry said in an interview, “is that it’s a group of people that are frustrated by the things that are happening at DePaul, and moreover things that haven’t happened at DePaul.”

Bednar echoed that, adding: “The group more than anything else is meant to put DePaul under a spotlight, and kind of say — OK, here’s a place we can comedicaly share legitimate issues that we’re having. A lot of the times, comedy can be a really powerful tool in terms of getting people socially aware and active.”

In a phone interview, Bednar told 14 East that “when we posted the video, initially, it was with the full understanding that it was a joke, this can’t happen, we were told that we were not qualified to do so.”

Within a few hours, however, the campaign noticed something strange — the fake campaign seemed to be making an impact.

Bednar said that, after posting the video, he was approached by several people in person and online who said the fake campaign was the first they heard about the drama unfolding in the Office of Student Involvement.

“We realized there’s a lot of people who are upset about the way things are, a lot of people wanted to have that outside opinion on SGA,” Witry said.

Doug Klain, the Bednar-Witry campaign manager, said that even though the movement started as a joke in response to the “dumpster fire” that was student elections this year, “SGA, like it or not, does affect student life. They don’t have the power level that would make most students care about and understand that,” he said. “Students don’t have regular mechanisms that are used for them to interact with SGA.”

Lynch pointed to SGA’s successes this past year, including maintaining late-night library hours and publishing the organization’s budget earlier this year.

SGA is “doing outstanding things and has spent so much time and effort trying to help students,” Lynch said, adding: “I hope whoever becomes SGA president after me understands that, at the end of the day, we are all students.”

Bednar, Witry and Klain didn’t jump into the student elections at DePaul to make anything besides a joke and maybe a point. But they found themselves at a juncture — a disconnect between student and student government.

“We realized we needed an open voice and open platform, so students don’t have to go to a meme page to be heard,” Bednar said. “To be able say, ‘hey I’m having an issue with this, is there anyway that student government can help me?’ There doesn’t seem to be that kind of dialogue there.”

 

IV. A Special Election

Late Wednesday night, April 25, the day after Evans’s disqualification and hours after the Bednar-Witry fake campaign launched, EOB announced it would hold a special election for the presidential and vice presidential positions from Thursday, May 3 to Saturday, May 5. Eligible students had a day-long window to submit their letter of intent to run in the election between Thursday, April 26 at 8 a.m. and Friday, April 27 at noon.

Unlike normal elections, the ballot will not include a write-in candidate option. Covarrubias said the EOB discussed eliminating the write-in option on Tuesday, April 24 and officially made the decision public on Wednesday, April 25.

“It’s done because we didn’t want to confuse people,” Covarrubias said. “We wanted to be as straightforward as possible, and it’s a decision that was made in the interest of time and minimizing that confusion. ”

Bednar, Witry and Klain believed they were responsible for the shift away from write-in votes, even though their campaign would be ineligible regardless. When asked if the Bednar-Witry campaign was behind the “confusion” Covarrubias referred to, she responded: “No, not particularly.”

“I think that the enthusiasm behind the Bednar/Witry campaign, I think it’s good to see,” said Covarrubias. “I think that if students are, if it’s activating and mobilizing students to pay more attention I think that’s a good thing.”

The same day EOB announced the special election, SGA members Nahal Hashemian and Emily Hoey announced their candidacy for president and vice president, respectively. Hashemian spent this year as SGA chief of staff, Hoey as the senator for the College of Education.

“Some of the things in SGA and some of the other clubs that I’ve been apart of at DePaul, they need, you know, reform,” Hashemian said. “They need a unifier. They need somebody that will be able to acknowledge that we all have flaws, this school has flaws, organizations have flaws.”

On Thursday, April 26, Kaufman confirmed with 14 East that he will be re-entering the race, running with Darlington in the special election. (However, after the publication of this article, The DePaulia reported that Kaufman would not be re-entering the race — he had reportedly not filed his paperwork in time, leaving the presidential race with Hashemian as the only name on the ballot.)

I’ve been on SGA for a while and I know that we can do more,” Kaufman told 14 East Thursday night.

After submitting his letter of resignation from the election, Kaufman said students and friends contacted him in support, wishing he had not dropped out of the race.

“I just decided we’ve come this far,” Kaufman said. “Let’s continue the fight and that’s what we plan to do.”

 

V. What’s Next?

Klain, the Bednar-Witry campaign manager, argued that in some ways, DePaul’s SGA suffers from a lack of responsibility. While the student governments of some universities have budgets in the millions they can use to fund student initiatives, organizations and programs, DePaul’s smaller budget makes the stake the student body has in the organization comparatively lower.

“That’s a big responsibility, and it creates a lot of power for a SGA. It also makes the student body care a lot more about SGA,” Klain said. “People have a vested interest in the student government because it directs things that affect schools. I think that’s something DePaul should do.”

According to Lynch, DePaul’s SGA ultimately serves as an “advisory board” to DePaul faculty, staff and administration.

“Often times, SGA members are the only student voices these individuals come into contact with because many of the leaders do not have student-facing roles,” said Lynch.

SGA is a voting member of both the Strategic Resource Allocation Committee and the Tuition Pricing Committee at DePaul, but their budget remains largely their own. The 2017-2018 budget totals roughly $16,500, according to documents released in January by Treasurer Bui. The budget can decrease as enrollment drops.

Instead of giving broad authority to SGA, DePaul’s Student Activity Fee Board (SAF-B) is responsible for student organization funding. While one member from SGA has a vote on SAF-B, the other nine are appointments from departments around DePaul, such as Residence Hall Council or the DePaul Activities Board. In comparison, University of Chicago’s budget allocates over $2 million to its student government that it can then give to student-run organizations.

If SGA’s authority is minimal, why should students care? The general apathy from DePaul students is apparent in SGA elections  — for the 2016-2017 race, Lynch won by 1,499 votes, or 9.7 percent of the undergraduate enrollment. In the same election cycle, the University of Chicago reported 1,719 total votes — a 28.9 percent turnout of its 6,000 undergraduates.

Even after a week of chaotic SGA politics, Covarrubias is optimistic.

“It’s really easy to look at this election and say it’s a mess,” said Covarrubias. “I think in part it kind of is but it’s a good opportunity to hold people accountable, and there will be new candidates, and it will be a clear, fresh start.”

 

Additional reporting by Cody Corrall, Meredith Melland. 

(Editor’s note: Prior to the publication of this article, Ryan Witry and Doug Klain contributed writing to 14 East on matters unrelated to student government. 14 East editor-in-chief Brendan Pedersen also played a game of Star Wars-themed Dungeons-and-Dragons on Radio DePaul with Alex Bednar and Doug Klain in pursuit of another unrelated story.)

Header image by Cody Corrall, 14 East.