UCSD’s Varied Political Spectrum

    When the College Republicans hit the streets with sweets, it’s not your mother’s regular neighborhood PTA bake sale; it’s a political protest.

    JENNIFER HSU/Guardian

    And so it was last spring, when the club held its “Affirmative Action Bake Sale” on Library Walk — charging customers rates determined by their race, with whites paying the most. The other side of the political spectrum, of course, has had its fun too, with a plethora of student groups offering everything from movies condemning human rights violations abroad to pamphlets urging a communist revolution at home.

    Yet this fierce partisan split enjoys no analogous equivalent in the other facet of campus politics: student government. According to many past and present student government leaders, this strange separation between campus issues and larger political questions is not accidental.

    “Democrat and Republican doesn’t matter one iota in student government, because they’re not going to declare war on Iraq,” said Earl Warren College senior Daniel Watts, former chairman of UCSD’s College Republicans and a spring 2005 candidate for A.S. president.

    After all, attempting to pigeonhole student issues under partisan labels is difficult. Do civil libertarians oppose the school’s ascension into NCAA Division I athletics? And do environmentalists pick different student representatives for the Transportation Policy Committee, which oversees parking issues, than religious fundamentalists?

    When ideology does collide with campus issues, the results are sometimes surprising. For example, Sixth College Senior Senator Matt Corrales, who often extols progressive politics on his blog, is also one of the loudest advocates of fiscal responsibility on the A.S. Council, voting against almost every attempt to increase various parts of the student government’s budget.

    Watts himself is emblematic of this melting pot: Despite his role in the College Republicans, Watts insists he’s actually a libertarian, though he also attends a meeting of the College Democrats now and then. In 2003, he competed in the state’s gubernatorial recall election — as a Green Party candidate.

    “The most important thing is that politics makes strange bedfellows, especially at UCSD,” said Bryan Barton, a UCSD graduate who’s running for the 53rd Congressional District seat in the U.S. House of Representatives as a Republican.

    Barton earned his conservative credentials the hard way, in the trenches. He made national headlines last April when federal immigration officials detained him in Arizona — at the time, Barton was a volunteer with the Minutemen Project — on the suspicion of abusing a Mexican immigrant. The immigrant said that, shortly after sneaking into the country, he was stopped by Barton and asked to pose for a photo on a shirt with the words “Bryan Barton caught me crossing the border and all I got was this lousy T-shirt.” The matter was finally ruled a misunderstanding and Barton was set free.

    At UCSD, Barton did not hunt illegal immigrants (though he did try to run for student government president). In his campus agitation, including his recent attacks against the A.S. Council for its role in the Student-Run Television porn fiasco, Barton has often partnered with alumnus Steve York, a Green Party supporter.

    In addition to both acting as editors of the Koala, Barton said the two men were “staunch allies,” though “in the grand scheme of politics, we have very differing [political] opinions.”

    Part of the explanation for the unusual alliances is the way campus elections work.

    “Your platform is almost entirely irrelevant — in fact, the vaguer the platform, the better,” said Watts, whose foes acknowledge his brilliance when it comes to campus political strategy. “If you have absolutely no concrete goals you can achieve, you’ll have a better chance of winning.”

    Most winning candidates compete on coalitions known as “slates,” the campus equivalent of political parties. And most slates draw their support from specific clubs, with cultural organizations being the most important players, though endorsements from the Greeks and the Triton Athletic Council help as well, according to Watts.

    Instead of forming slates with like-minded people, winning teams reach out to the broadest coalition possible, to tap into a larger pool of would-be-voter “friends,” a process Watts says is analogous to tentacles of an octopus reaching out in different directions.

    “If you have five people on your slate, you want each person on your slate to be the president of a different organization,” Watts said.

    Political ideology can come into play, too.

    “We are a progressive slate, unapologizing progressives, and we’re damn proud of it,” UCSD alumnus Harish Nandagopal screamed at a rally in 2004.

    At the time, Nandagopal was competing to become A.S. president on the Students First! slate; he lost to a candidate that did not mention ideological politics on the campaign stump.

    “The mistake I made is that — well, it wasn’t quite a mistake — I made very clear what my views were,” Nandagopal recalls now.

    A large majority of the campus’ students lean to the left, as a Guardian exit poll at the 2004 presidential election showed, and so do the majority of the students elected to the A.S. Council. However, this left-of-center majority breaks down further into “progressives” and more moderate “liberals,” with the two groups butting heads in campus elections.

    In 2002, the College Republicans ran their own New Wave slate, only to see it routed, without a single candidate winning a seat on the A.S. Council. The mistake, according to Barton, is that the slate was not diverse enough, because “the College Republicans don’t have the power to take over UCSD alone.”

    “If the Republicans start running a slate, they would just lose,” Nandagopal said. “The most they have been able to do is disrupt elections.”

    That is exactly what happened three years ago, when several College Republicans members devised what UCSD graduate Phil Palisoul once called the “biggest anti-campaign the world had ever seen.” The plan, created by Palisoul, alumnus Ryan Darby and others, resulted in the disqualification of the entire Student First! slate. Both and Palisoul and Darby now serve on the executive committee of the California College Republicans, although the damning video that led to the disqualification was filmed by Green Party supporter York.

    Barton attempted to take control of student government in another way: a “coup.” In spring of 2004, he marched into an A.S. Council meeting with masked troops armed with water guns, water balloons — and a goat. He warned that if the council did not give up power voluntarily to Barton and the goat, who would serve as co-dictators of the new student government, it would be overthrown. The coup failed, and the stunt earned Barton a one-year suspension from campus.

    What the College Republicans have lacked in campus political success, though, they have made up on the national scale. Their national umbrella organization controls a $17-million budget, a goliath when compared to the resources of its Democratic counterpart.

    At Berkeley, a campus known for its liberal slant, College Republicans are one of the largest student groups on campus.

    After the recent wave of federal campaign finance reform, the national College Republicans organization has reinvented itself as a “527” — a group similar to MoveOn.org and Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, allowed to collect an unlimited amount in campaign contributions, which are used to support Republican candidates in national races.

    Last summer, Michael Davidson, a UC Berkeley graduate and former chairman of the California College Republicans, spent $200,000 trying to capture the group’s national chairmanship, though he fell just short (possibly because of unscrupulous campaigning by his opponent), despite endorsements from Ann Coulter and the son of former President Ronald Reagan.

    The job is an important one: Past chairmen include President George W. Bush’s top adviser Karl Rove and lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who shook the Washington establishment last week by pleading guilty to a slew of criminal charges. College Democrats have no equivalent.

    At UCSD, though, that sort of politics seems far, far away. By tradition, second week of winter quarter marks the start of UCSD’s election season. This year, Watts predicts a presidential contest between A.S. Vice President Finance Greg Murphy, Vice President of Academic Affairs Harry Khanna and Revelle College Senior Senator Rachel Corell.

    If the prediction pans out, the competition will be fierce, though probably not ideological: All three candidates enjoy similar records on A.S. positions and all three have strong ties to the Greek community. And Watts says he’ll throw his hat into the ring, too; he’ll even stay a sixth year, if he gets elected.

    However, Watts doesn’t say if he’ll follow his own campaign advice and run on a platform that is “almost entirely irrelevant.”

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