A place for new ideas to settle.

19 April 2011

AS Presidential Debates: Shit Gets Real

After attending a highly entertaining and informative debate between the candidates for President of the Associated Students of Western Washington University, I can say that I will gladly and enthusiastically vote in the elections next week.

That might seem a little weird. But the thing is, last year I didn't have the first clue about any of the candidates running for either President or VP. Except the incumbents, maybe. But I felt that voting on an incumbent, knowing nothing about their goals for the coming year, their accomplishments in the previous year, or even their eligibility compared to a challenger, would be an irresponsible waste of my vote. So I didn't vote.

This year will be different.

The debate was lively and extremely well-moderated. Everything ran quite smoothly; if two soft chimes don't count, nobody went into overtime with long-winded exhortations. The moderators' questions were direct (literally), pointed, and very often loaded. It was great to hear such critical questions being tossed at the candidates ("Why did you pick such a vague mission statement?" "Why do you keep taking sole credit for what was voted on by a seven-person panel?") rather than the typical softball cotton-candy "interviews" that we see in the media. That a student-run debate with student candidates had harder questions than a typical CNN interview says a lot about the general suckitude of cable news. But I digress.

That was the general framework of the debate. Now, I offer my humble(?) opinion of the four candidates, from left to right on the stage.

Ben Brockman: If anyone had a sharper divide between message and tone tonight, I must've not been paying attention. As the debate wore on, Ben started eliciting certain emotions among the people around me... most notably exasperation. This is not to say his message wasn't clear and to the point: we need to work on collaboration, accountability, and efficiency when it comes to student and academic affairs. The problem was not in the message, but rather in his delivery. I'm not sure if it's his natural speaking cadence, but Ben affected a sort of pompousness or arrogance which clearly turned off a lot of people, even if his ideas were quite sound and his VP-BizOps record a clear demonstration of his effective policy-making. For such a strong vision it's rather jarring to place him at 3rd or even 4th place in the eligibility rankings, but there he goes. Because really, if there's one thing that destroys the effectiveness of student leadership, it's an air of superiority, regardless of its truth value. Sorry, Ben, but you'll have to at least pretend to be more humble about things.

Anna Ellermeier: I'd hate to call her the "Obama candidate," but Anna's message was very hope-and-change-esque. Not to say that this was a bad thing, because it certainly charged the crowd—she consistently got cheers mixed in with heavy applause toward the end of the debate. Her record isn't shabby either. Indeed, she stands a very good chance of winning this election, judging by the audience response. But hope and change does not translate into policy, and we need results more than "empowerment" or other intangibles. That's where I thought Anna fell flat; other than talk of encouraging diversity, I didn't think Anna gave any clear and specific examples of a policy she would work to implement. She might have popular appeal, but too often that populism is a house of cards.

Byron Starkey: Byron goes straight to the middle of the road, which means 3rd place in my opinion, given the popular appeal of Anna and the succinct policy goals of Jamin. While Byron did offer up some nice goals for his potential tenure as AS President, he used the same hand motion far too much; an indicator of either nervousness or mediocre public speaking skills. Either one is a black mark for a Presidential candidate. He also lacked the charisma of the other candidates, and generally seemed to barely hold his own.

Jamin Agosti: My vote goes to Jamin, though he might very well not win the election (again, extremely close between him and Anna, in my opinion). He did not share Ben's perceived superiority complex or Anna's intangible policy goals. He did present a clear and (to me, at least) compelling roadmap for where he wants the AS to go for the coming year, and that's a good start. Plus he's the current VP-StudentLife, which puts him closest to the President's "true" role—that is, representing the fifteen-thousand-member student body when the debate moves to the WWU administration, state legislature, or wherever.

So my pundit's final ranking is: 1) Anna* 2) Jamin 3) Byron 4) Ben. *Note that this is probably how the general election will go, even though it may be a close race between Jamin and Anna, and I prefer Jamin.


  1. Personal biases aside, I can't really find myself disagreeing with most of your conclusions about the candidates.

    But because I can't help adding my two cents, I would like to point out that it was my understanding that most of the cheering for Anna during the debate came from people already supporting her. Which, while making it seem like she had popular support, I would actually argue was more putting on a show for the people who weren't there with interest in the candidates.

    Unlike you and I, a good chunk of the 350+ students at the debate were only attending to get class credit. Were you to have asked them who was running for AS President a week prior, they probably could have told you one name, two if they paid attention to the posters lighting up our campus with color.

    So intentional or not, having that kind of presence among so many undecideds makes quite the strong statement in her favor.

    I regret not being able to stay for the rest of the debate and I hope that not only do the candidates take into consideration what you've said, but that through the social networking that is probably going to spread this post pretty widely you've convinced more of that fifteen-thousand student body to take part in its campus politics.

  2. I got that impression myself, actually, but I gave everyone the benefit of the doubt since I wasn't sure how much preconceived feeling they had. And of course, if there were so many people supporting her already, how did that happen? Is she just friends/acquaintances with a lot of people? Did she make some campaign-ish statements earlier?

    After Maddy said that "everyone" was reading this I wonder how many places it was reposted...

  3. I disagree, I thought that the "hard" questions that the moderators asked two of the candidates showed bias and personal conflict that one of the moderators had with them. I felt it was very unprofessional and quite simply a waste of time for the audience. Because the moderators wasted time on these questions, students were left with less time to ask their own questions. I saw many students who were turned away from the microphone. Should't student's voices and questions have been the focus? Aren't they the ones most directly affected by this election?

    However, your description of the candidates was fairly accurate. Keep in mind though that this was one debate, and the best candidate might not necessarily be the one who speaks well at a debate. While I admire Anna's eloquence and public speaking ability she might not be the best for the job. I thought her ideas were vague and unrealistic some of the time. I think it is important the voter looks past what ideas sound good vs what ideas work. I beg that when voting you will vote for the person who has realistic plans rather than fantastical ideas.

  4. I love your critique of the candidates from the debate. While it was direct and accurate, these few minutes give a far from complete picture of the candidates and their experience. Out of the three current VP's, Jamin's position of VP of Student Life is actually the least similar to the role of the AS President out of any of them. The AS President is the head of the organization and deals primarily with leading the AS (very similar to Ben's position), works closely with the administration at Western and with various levels of government (very similar to Byron's position), and will have to work communicate with students regarding important issues across campus (questionable of any of the candidates). Overall, the president needs a track record of success and the ability to work with others as a part of a team. The only two candidates that have the history to show this are Anna and Byron.

    Anna has the experience of running her own department (the AS Review) as editor-in-chief for two years, the knowledge of working with over three different years’ worth of board of directors, and has leadership experience across campus (from lifestyle advisors to clubs to several key committees on campus).

    Byron has the experience of implementing the most successful Viking Lobby day in AS History, helping achieve the highest voter turnout in memory, and has both developed and led a legislative team consisting of faculty, administrators, and students. He has also worked to develop strong ties across campus groups and with legislators at the state and federal levels.

    Ben has forged results in the AS by drastically improving the job descriptions of employees, lead and significantly improved the system of assessment in the AS (to ensure the AS serves students in the best way possible), and worked closely with all of the current AS managers from all AS departments.
    Jamin has worked with RHA, the Office of Sustainability, says he developed the Green Energy Fee from scratch, and not spent a lot of time working on issues related to his job. Being the second VP to work on the Green Fee, he has ensured that the program is implemented this year, but I haven’t heard anything about it since the beginning of last quarter. Also, there are two student positions as well as a staff member on campus whose jobs are to develop and implement the program. I would agree that Jamin presented a good show and is very good at messaging himself, a desirable characteristic for someone whose primary concern is marketing.

    In my opinion, Anna's representation of herself was the most genuine and honest out of all four of the candidates. I would even go so far as to say she was the *only* one who neither misrepresented herself nor lied to cater to the crowd. She may not be the most glamorous of candidates, but her expression of herself, her character up on stage, and the fact that she was the only one not to bicker pettily was the swing for me.

  5. John, which two questions? I thought that they were balanced in that nobody got a really softball question (although I thought that perhaps Anna's was softer than the guys'). The core of the questions, I thought were pretty standard: "What's your leadership style?" "What are your explicit goals?" etc. but delivered to the candidate that had the weakest showing in that particular area of their statements. Plus, it's not really a moderated debate if there aren't moderator questions; then it's a town hall or a panel discussion.

    I was also disappointed that there was only enough time for a few questions but they did have to make time for the VP candidates reception thing, which was helpful in itself. I would split it into two events though, if that were feasible.