The Machine: Inside the CSG race
I remember the outcome of each Central Student Government election during my time on the University of Michigan campus clearly. My freshman year, the election between Make Michigan’s Cooper Charlton and Stephen Halperin, and The Team’s Will Royster and Matt Fidel ended in a victory for Make Michigan by a four-vote margin. Junior year, I saw LSA senior Anushka Sarkar and Public Policy senior Nadine Jawad’s campaign and achievements dismissed by the opposing party’s candidates.
Seeing candidates of color lose and their platforms dismissed in campus elections is not a frequent event, but their occurrences, however sparse and minute, were frustrating to me nonetheless.
As part of my last semester on campus, during yet another CSG election, I found myself writing this article with the simple motivation to learn more about what CSG campaigns are actually like, but instead I found that frustrations I had as a voter were just as apparent among those who were in the assembly.
In the interviews I conducted throughout the month, many raised concerns about the tokenization of individuals and the shadow of Greek life that loomed over platforms from various parties.
“CSG is treacherous,” Public Policy junior Allie Brown, senior policy adviser for eMpower, said.
To Brown, the perception of CSG as an organization that “does nothing,” is fair.
“For a lot of people, it’s more about how it’ll look on their resume than what they’re doing on campus,” she said.
During the fall semester of 2017, CSG proposed a resolution to pay themselves in a move that many panned as self-serving. Earlier this semester, CSG published an affordability guide which students criticized heavily as out of touch for recommending students cut back on laundry and housekeeping services in order to save money. Following the controversy, CSG took the guide down, but many students hadn’t forgotten about it by the time the election for the 2018-2019 school year came around.
Unlike Brown, several of the candidates in the CSG race were previously a part of the assembly and were part of the incumbent president and vice presidents’ campaign during winter 2017.
“I welcome the criticism when it comes to CSG,” LSA junior Arathi Sabada, True Blue’s presidential candidate, said, prior to the election. “For me, it’s a lot less about the position and the title, and more about my impact. Being a good leader is the ability to empathize with other students.”
Sabada’s ties to CSG began in her freshman year when she applied to the organization on a whim, eventually holding a position as chief operating officer during University alum David Schafer’s term in the 2016-2017 school year.
“CSG can be a taxing organization,” she said. “While there was change that was happening when I was in it, I was not satisfied.”
One of her initiatives was the annual demographics report, Sabada said. She spearheaded the report after being dissatisfied by the representation in the organization.
“Anushka and Nadine are the first women of color to ever hold the office together and nothing can take that away from them,” Public Policy junior Daniel Greene, now president-elect from MVision, said about the candidates that he formerly worked for during their campaign.
When I met Greene at Espresso Royale’s State Street location, he sat hunched over his laptop typing away at another email or text or Facebook message from someone in his campaign. After I brought up how busy he must be, his eyes went wide, and he nodded slowly.
“Let me show you my calendar,” he said, twisting his laptop toward me. All that was visible was a large purple square on a bright, white background. “This is my schedule for the week.”
When asked if he’s eaten, he gestured towards a small plate in front of him, which was clean, save two small pastry crumbs.
When asked what his impression of CSG this past year was, Greene hesitated and offered an implicit rebuke of his predecessors: “I’m sick and tired of large promises.”
“Campus is really hurting,” Greene said, referencing racist flyers found during the winter and fall 2017 semesters. “What I want to do is follow up on those promises. That’s why I’m running a campaign that’s based on direct experience and that’s why I’m willing to get less sleep.”
There is virtually no difference in the basic stances of each party’s platforms, Greene said. What makes his party stand out is first-hand, personal knowledge of hot-button campaign issues and the unique experiences they bring to each aspect of their platform.
“No one on our campaign is here to check off any boxes,” he said. “We’ve picked the people that are the best for the job.”
MVision was the only viable party with an all-white executive ticket with both being a part of Greek life. Their inclusion of Black students in high-level positions seemed to stand in contrast with their ticket and Greek life roots. Some within CSG, as well as voters, said this seemed like a case of racial tokenization.
Public Policy junior Gabby McFarland was part of MVision in its first few days, but resigned two weeks before election day for what she said were a variety of different reasons, including some of the party’s promotional material.
“There's just a lot of dynamics within the campaign that frustrated me,” McFarland said.
This pressure would have been fine had she only felt it from individuals outside campaign, McFarland said. However, that was not the case, as she did not feel supported within MVision as well.
“There's a lot of pressure on me, being behind two white candidates, which would have been fine,” she said. “When I was receiving a lot of negativity on the outside of the campaign, and then internally, I began to lose faith in what we were campaigning on. It started to feel very disingenuous.”
McFarland, who is part of the Sexual Assault Prevention and Awareness Center, said she was interested in crafting MVision’s sexual assault platform and gravitated toward writing those policies, but lost faith in the team after facing disagreements with others from the party. In particular, the Next Step Program that MVision crafted in order to address sexual assaults puts immense pressure on survivors when it should be doing the opposite, she said.
According to MVision’s website, the Next Step Program aims to address the needs of sexual assault survivors to be heard, supported and protected at the student organization, SAPAC and administrative level. This program was heavily criticised by an op-ed in The Daily, in particular for its failure to hold Greek life on campus accountable for its role in sexual assault and the culture surrounding it.
McFarland tried to combat the policy, she said, but MVision went forward and incorporated it into their larger platform.
“I've been lectured on, ‘Oh, you can’t run away from politics,’ but I think when politics compromises your core values, I think it's definitely OK to take a step back,” she said. “The Next Step Program, when they were designing that, I really don't agree with a lot of the policy in there … Like I said, it just began to feel very disingenuous.”
Another thing that contributed to that feeling was MVision’s use of Black celebrities in their social media promotions. In off-the-record conversations, multiple members of opposing campaigns expressed the same discomfort.
One photo in particular that made her uncomfortable was an image of former President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama with a caption that stated, “Only 3 more days until election day … Vote MVision.” The image was posted on Snapchat by LSA junior Michael Heyward, MVision’s co-campaign manager and a Black man.
“I think it’s hard because Michael and Caitlin ... I’m completely rooting for them, but I think it’s hard for them to put it in perspective,” McFarland said, referring to Heyward and LSA senior Caitlin Christian, a Black woman and MVision’s co-campaign manager. “We’re not the candidates. The candidates that are associated with these pictures of Black people are two white people. I think it’s hard to make that connection as a campaign manager.”
Christian said that accusations of tokenizing against their party were hurtful.
“People say Michael and I are tokens, but that’s really disrespectful because that’s kind of like saying, ‘You don’t deserve the position you’re in’ and that we’re just here because of our identities," she said. "I don’t think that’s fair.”
As for the use of Black celebrities in their promotional material, Christian said they were simply using figures in pop culture as a fun way to engage with students on campus by using individuals from media they are interested in.
“(They’re) people that we look up to and I’m sure a lot of other people do,” she said. “I don’t think it’s fair to say that it’s tokenizing celebrities ... Saying that it’s because they are Black, again just like tokenizing people on our team, it takes away from the fact that it’s just an (individual) that we look up to.”
Using Black celebrities like Nicki Minaj and Kanye West on posters is one last attempt to grab voters that MVision does not have, according to McFarland, from demographics they were unable to reach through their messaging.
“I think Izzy and Daniel are very aware that they don’t have this empathetic, genuine connection with (voters of color),” McFarland said. “Putting out that propaganda with Black people’s faces on them is a last attempt at getting those votes.”
EMpower and MomentUM, McFarland said, garnered more support from students of color and were doing more outreach toward those students. She said Public Health junior Lloyd Lyons, eMpower’s candidate for president, had face-to-face meetings with students in Good Time Charley’s to speak with them about a campus incident where a student published a racially charged image on Snapchat.
“MomentUM and eMpower are making genuine attempts to connect with their voters,” McFarland said.
AJ Ashman, an engineering junior and MomentUM’s presidential candidate, said both his and his running mate’s identities as Black men contribute to their campaign naturally being viewed as more diverse.
“Most politicians don’t look like Charlie and I,” he said. “Most student government leaders, I should say, I don’t look like Charlie and I.”
The night before the Michigan Daily CSG debate, Lyons of eMpower shuffled through a PowerPoint detailing his party’s mission and campaign. As the meeting wrapped up and Lyons opened the room for questions, one of his representative candidates — who was in Greek life — informed the room that his fraternity’s president had told his fraternity brothers to “vote for MVision since it’s the Greek life party.”
“What are we supposed to say to that?” he asked.
“Tell them we’re not just a party for Greek life, we’re a party for everyone on campus,” Lyons said.
Though members of opposing campaigns casually referred to MVision as a “Greek life party," and the fact that its presidential and vice-presidential candidates were both involved in Greek life, MVision denied this label.
“I think that we want to be more than a Greek life party,” Public Policy senior Josh Martin, MVision’s senior policy advisor, said. “We obviously want to represent members of Greek life. They are a big part of our campus … They have serious needs. There’s a lot of problems in Greek life that need to be addressed.”
Martin said MVision was a party for more than just Greek life on campus and that the team was working to push issues that will affect all students. Christian added to this sentiment.
“I just want to add … A lot of members on our core team aren’t involved in Greek life,” Christian said.
Christian and Martin sat down together for an interview on March 22, the last day polls were open. The two of them had spent the morning on the Diag, along with representatives from MomentUM, passing out fliers and encourage passersby to vote in the CSG elections.
“That dog though cannot win,” Christian said as she left the interview. “It’s so embarrassing ... We, not just us but also the other parties, have been outside campaigning and trying our best to reach out to students on campus.”
“That dog,” was Reggie the Campus Corgi, a Pembroke Welsh corgi that frequents campus and has over 5,000 friends and followers on his Facebook page. The week before voting began, students had organized a grassroots write-in campaign for their beloved Reggie as both a joke and protest vote, catching fire on social media and drawing press attention from the likes of the Detroit Free Press and Buzzfeed.
The Monday before voting began, Michael Sola, Reggie’s owner and an Ann Arbor resident, jokingly endorsed the write-in campaign from Reggie’s Facebook page. However, after voting had been open for 15 hours, students persuaded him that his dog was disrupting the other candidates and he urged Reggie’s followers to vote for “humans” on Facebook.
“As soon as they made me aware of that, I realized the thing to do would be to go ahead and end the campaign,” Sola said.
On election night, Reggie came in fourth in the election with 1,403 votes, while Greene and MVision won first place with a plurality of votes, nearly double the number of votes earned by runner-up MomentUM but well-short of an outright majority.
Nonetheless, a dog had beaten four parties, half of which were led by students of color. On March 24, the day results from the election were released, Sarkar tweeted her disappointment at students on campus and those from the press that gave Reggie’s campaign coverage.
Business sophomore Michelle Fan, aMplify’s director of communications, bemused that while it is important to properly advertise and market candidates, she chalks up the election results to students’ lack of knowledge about how to vote.
“It's all focused on names in the campaign,” she said. “I think part of it is, also on North Campus, it's like also very largely ignored.”
Fan said students who have most of their classes on North Campus may feel that CSG policies do not affect and apply to them.
“They don’t really care about elections necessarily, or because they’ve personally been ignored, so it’s not like a big point for them to take out the effort to do it,” she said.
The tendency to vote for candidates like Reggie also stems from a mistrust of CSG, she and several others who worked on campaigns have said.
“I know that there are definitely some aspects of CSG that are very problematic, of course, but I think when it comes down to it, there are people who are running for a reason, and they’re running to make a change with CSG, so it’s really important to vote for them,” she said. “But people just think, like, ‘Oh, nothing's going to happen.’”
This is a trend that is evident on the national scale, Fan said.
“In the Asian-American community, voter turnout is really low in the United States,” she said. “If you’re ignored constantly, or you don’t feel like anything’s going to change, you have no motivation to vote.”
True Blue came in third in the CSG elections, narrowly beating the dog by 63 votes. After multiple attempts to reach Sabada for a comment on her experience during elections, I did not get a response.
As for the accusations of tokenizing against MVision, the tendency to use individuals for their race and ethnicity as a means to reach particular voter bases is nothing new, Ashman said.
“They’re not viewed as contributing members of the assembly ... They’re viewed as ‘Oh you’re going to bring me a population of votes so that’s why we need to engage, that’s why I need to talk to you,” Ashman said.
He doesn’t know if there were any merits to the allegations against MVision’s marketing and can’t speak to their validity, but hopes that Greene and Baer rectify the situation during their time in office.
“I think we have serious questions about how a party that stands accused of doing this thing can seriously lead and change the culture of CSG that has existed for years now that tokenizes students of color when they stand accused of doing what sounds like essentially the same thing,” Ashman said.