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J.P. Blackford studies engineering at George Washington University. Most everyone on campus knows of him. More than a few have said his name in vain.
Blackford, to be sure, doesn’t cut a prominent physical presence on the GW campus. Like many of his classmates, he hasn’t lost his rounded baby face. His skin is pale, his hair short, dark, and parted on the side. He walks quickly and straight ahead, undistracted by the outside world. He looks, in sum, like someone who’s more comfortable interfacing with software than people.
And Blackford’s campus fame has nothing to do with his dissertation on boat traffic density in San Francisco Bay. Instead, it comes from his work in the senate of the campus government, the Student Association (SA). The group’s charter, approved by the university’s board of trustees in 1990, defines the SA’s responsibilities as protecting the rights of students, encouraging participation in university policymaking, and reporting “on matters of concern to the students.” The senate functions as the SA’s unicameral legislative branch.
Blackford, who grew up a few blocks from Union Station in Northeast D.C., was slow to embrace a career in campus politics. It wasn’t until his senior year that he decided to get on the ballot. “I had a friend who was running for office, and he said, ‘Why don’t you run for office, too?’” Blackford remembers. “It wasn’t anything big….It was just like, Why not run for the SA? OK, sure.”
The legislator was even more reluctant to break from the senate chambers. His first term began in 1994. After getting his undergraduate degree the following spring, Blackford milked two more years in the SA during his master’s studies in civil and environmental engineering. He racked up six more senate terms as a doctoral student in environmental and energy management. As he got older, his fellow politicos stayed the same age. Blackford might be the only 29-year-old whose colleagues call him “Strom.”
Over nine terms representing the School of Engineering and Applied Science in the SA, Blackford has recruited various classmates to hitch their wagons to his political machine. Senators have found that it’s handy to have him on your side. Blackford’s the go-to guy for a quick interpretation of the bylaws or advice on whether your bill’s constitutional. One of Blackford’s closest allies these days is Eric Daleo, the SA’s executive vice president. The two bonded via legislation action. “During debate at senate meetings, whenever there was a question that came up about which committees people were going to be assigned to, of course the first person I turned to was J.P.,” says Daleo, a 20-year-old junior.
Blackford has also unwittingly recruited new GW pols. During his first term, for example, he began serving as chair of the SA’s all-powerful Finance Committee, the body that essentially decides how much money goes to 100-plus student organizations. “I got involved in the Student Association for one reason, and that was money,” says David Burt, who served as SA president in the 2000-2001 school year. “My group, the Caribbean Student Association, constantly got dicked out of money by J.P. Blackford.”
Making enemies of SA presidents has become a specialty of sorts for the longtime senator. Take the current chief executive. SA President Phil Robinson says he never had a problem with Blackford when they worked together on the Rules Committee. That is, until he decided to run against Blackford for committee chair. Blackford won that race, but Robinson sensed that victory didn’t soothe the political veteran’s hard feelings. “Pretty much everyone and their mom, my friends, even people who didn’t like me, were like, ‘Yo, you ended up…not on his favorite list,’” recalls Robinson, whose bad blood with Blackford would eventually fuel rumblings on campus.
Dumping on fellow student politicians finally caught up with Blackford in the current academic year. Last October, a political rival began preparing a report detailing alleged improprieties in a purchase of soda and ice by Blackford. Four hours before the investigation results were to be presented to the SA, Blackford resigned his seat in the senatea class conflicted with the senate’s Tuesday-night meetings, he explained. For the moment, the report would remain sealed. But three months later, amid rumors that Blackford was plotting his political comeback, that seal would be broken.
The SA serves as a dry run for GW students who can’t wait to snare a post on Capitol Hill. If you set aside the fact that the SA presides over a budget of $400,000, not $2 trillion, you could easily mistake its machinations for the real show several blocks down Pennsylvania Avenue. The big difference is that most GW students have to fit their entire political careers in a four-year period.
The result is politics in fast-forward. SA honchos are endlessly executing impeachments, scandal investigations, and power grabs.
Each May, the SA treats itself to a ritzy transition dinner. All the players in student government turn out in tuxedos and evening gowns to eat gourmet cuisine, talk shop, and listen to a speech from the newly elected SA president. It’s supposed to be the start of the president’s campus honeymoon.
At GW, though, the honeymoon barely lasts beyond the first course. That was particularly true at the 2002 transition dinner, which capped off an especially bitter election cycle. Throughout the political season, Blackford had assisted a slate of SA hopefuls running under the banner “Working for Us.” That slate’s presidential candidate lost to Robinson in the GW equivalent of the Florida recount. Robinson prevailed in a court showdown that hinged on one double vote for the “Working for Us” candidate.
Blackford and his buddies were outraged. “There’s a strong feeling among us that [our candidate] didn’t lose the election, that he just lost the court case,” says a Working for Us member.
“There was never a congratulations,” says Robinson, now a 22-year-old senior. “That kind of carried over to the summer. There was obviously some bitterness.”
The Blackford-backed slate, however, wasn’t shut out of power. Working for Us won eight of 30 senate seats as well as the executive vice presidency for candidate Daleo. And six other
senators-elect who weren’t part of Working for Us tended to support the group. In a meeting soon after the election, the Working for Us contingent basically decided committee assignments and the makeup of the senate leadership.
Those gains in legislative power notwithstanding, the Working for Us faction simply couldn’t get over its presidential defeat, even in the collegial confines of the transition celebration. Justin Oshana, Robinson’s vice president for judicial and legislative affairs, says that along with his juicy chicken, he got a taste of Blackford’s bitterness that night. As the party wound down, Oshana found himself at a table alone with Blackford. Their conversation turned to the most dangerous game. “We were talking then,” says Robinson’s confidant, “and he expressed something to me about how Phil needed to be careful or else Eric Daleo would be president.”
“If I did say that, it was just general advice to make sure that Phil followed procedure,” Blackford says. “I wouldn’t have said that as a threat, like ‘I’m out after Phil.’ I would have said the same thing to any president.” But for Robinson’s right-hand man, the message was loud and clear: The administration was under attack.
Oshana believes that Blackford is a mastermind of political discord, the root of all of the SA’s problems. “I cannot describe to you how much I dislike J.P. Blackford,” he says. “A lot of people have put up with a lot of headaches because of him, and I’m not going to apologize for trying to keep him out of the Student Association.” Oshana’s perception of the eternal senator inches toward cartoonish supervillainy: He repeats as if it were canon the legend that Blackford once climbed through the rafters of GW’s student center to break into the office of the Joint Elections Committee.
If Blackford’s dinner-party remark was a warning shot, fresh ammunition against Robinson followed at the beginning of the school year. In early October, Robinson’s vice president for financial affairs presented the senate with a list of executive expenditures. Blackford asked for a copy of the expenditure approval form (EAF) for a dinner at the University Club. He found a scandal.
“[It was] for some dinner that Phil had signed off on, but that didn’t have a required signature,” Oshana says. “That was the first time I heard rumors that they were thinking of impeachment.”
Blackford, Daleo, and other members of the anti-Robinson faction were doing more than thinking about impeachment. They were planning it. Members of Working for Us believed that in the Robinson administration, the president got too much powerand all the love from the media in the form of glowing articles in the GW Hatchet, the school’s student newspaper. This alleged escalation of executive authority might have come at the expense of the legislative branch, but the senate still had Robinson over a barrel: The Working for Us faction controlled the legislature. Getting the votes to remove the chief executive didn’t seem like a problem. By Oct. 23, a template for articles of impeachment had been circulated to Blackford and Daleo, among others.
Robinson wasn’t without bargaining chips: His chief sleuth was holding an EAF of his own. Oshana, a 22-year-old senior political-science major, says he was rummaging around the SA office in August when he stumbled across an expense report that had been misfiled in the Greek Affairs folder. The ledger, filled out by J.P. Blackford, listed a total of $276.74 in expenses for a senate mixer on April 30, 2002. One of the vendors was Riverside Liquors, where Blackford had spent $136 on “Soda, Ice.” Oshana decided to investigate.
According to Article II, Section 10, of the SA constitution, Oshana, in his role as the vice president for judicial and legislative affairs, has broad authority to “[i]nvestigate and prosecute alleged violations of the Student Association Constitution and/or Bylaws.” One longtime SA observer thinks Robinson should have stayed above the fray and reined in his sidekick. “It’s a matter of listening to their advice and making the decision rather than letting them make the decision,” he says. “His most trusted adviser, Justin Oshanathat kid loves it. He loves scandal.”
When details of a multipronged plan to impeach Robinson reached Oshana in late October, the student investigator was getting close to finishing his inquiry into Blackford’s costly beverage purchase. Blackford had once said that the outlay went toward a keg of root beer. But a former Blackford colleague had told Oshana that Blackford once joked with her about covering up a purchase of alcohol as soda and iceeven though SA rules don’t prohibit such a purchase. Daleo also confirmed that spirits had been bought. “J.P. told me over the phone once that it was indeed liquor,” says Daleo. “I had to report it, because if I didn’t, then I could be in serious trouble for malfeasance. I issued a letter saying that J.P., while I respect him, he did say that on the phone with me. He was like, ‘Do what you have to do.’”
Blackford might, at times, have been put on the defensive by his SA colleagues, but it usually wasn’t anything he couldn’t handle. This was a forum where he mounted the attacks, where he used his unparalleled body of knowledge to dominate discussion. “He was a very commanding presence,” remembers former SA President Phil Meisner. “The senate runs by Robert’s Rules of Order, and he was tremendously well-versed in that procedure. He could just manipulate things really easily.” Many senators quietly grumbled about Blackford’s hijacking meeting agendas, but very few dared confront him. “He knew the procedure, and he didn’t necessarily have to follow it,” says Chrissy Trotta, who served with Blackford on the senate in 2002. “He could interrupt the [executive vice president] and tell him that he was wrong, and nobody would question him ever.”
The SA careerist let his fellow pols know that they could never match his mastery of parliamentary procedure. In 2001, for example, the Senate Rules Committee, which Blackford chaired, three times rejected Adam Greenman’s nomination for the position of vice president of judicial and legislative affairs. “Each time he told me to learn more, and I did, but then he rejected me anyway. He would ask minuscule questions about the bylaws. He might be the only person in the whole university who has the bylaws memorized, so it was kind of unfair,” says Greenman. That year’s president eventually relented and appointed someone else for the position.
No matter how many of his colleagues he shouted down, Blackford never had to fear for his political future. Come election time, he always had the rare ability to control his own destiny. It certainly wasn’t because of his overwhelming popularity. In fact, over the past five years, Blackford has earned around 30 votes from his fellow students in GW’s graduate engineering school. That’s 30 total. Make that 25 without his own.
“A lot of them are part-time students with jobs,” Blackford says, explaining the spotty turnout of his fellow engineers. Despite this voter apathy, Blackford has always had a sweeping mandate. That’s because, in nine consecutive senate races, he had no official opponent. The one time he ran for contested office, in the 2001 executive vice president race, Blackford finished a distant third, with 19.8 percent of the vote. But in the same election, he wrote himself in for the senate, winning re-election with one vote.
Blackford’s easy ride through campus campaigns has also exempted him from a labor that most other GW politicos must take on: wooing the media, aka the Hatchet. “Usually to get in touch with him, we have to call one of his friends and say, ‘Listen, we really need to get in touch with J.P.’” says Alex Kingsbury, the Hatchet’s news editor. “It’s a lot quicker than going through his message machine. He screens his phone calls.”
Some of his fellow legislators have a hard time reconciling Blackford’s PR deficiencies and microscopic popular support with his power in the senate. “I’m elected and you’re elected,” says Raj Parekh, an undergraduate at-large senator in the 2001-2002 school year, “but if only two people voted for you, and one of them was yourself, how can you claim to speak for the entire student population?”
Oshana felt he had just the instrument to subvert the will of Blackford’s two-student constituency in the engineering school: his beverage investigation. He figured that any well-substantiated report of procurement irregularities on Blackford’s part would force him from the SA.
By late October, the twin engines of Robinson-impeachment machinations and the Blackford scandal had driven the SA to a battle of full-tilt political brinkmanship.
On the afternoon of Oct. 28, the warring camps held a historic meeting. An emissary of the Blackford-Daleo faction came to the meeting with an offer for a straight-up trade: Blackford’s buddies would call off impeachment talk provided that Robinson and Oshana dropped the soda scandal. “I told Phil that we should make the deal,” Oshana says. “I really believed Phil was going to get impeached, and this was the only way to stop it. They had the votes.”
Robinson, apprised of the offer, didn’t want to sign off on the deal just yet. Instead, he assented to meet with the ally of Blackford and Daleo. At that second meeting, the Blackford emissary asked Robinson to repeat the parameters of the agreement. “[He] was acting weird that night,” Robinson says of the Blackford negotiator. “He was putting his arm around me.” There was a reason the Working for Us advocate was acting strange: He was carrying a concealed tape recorder.
Robinson and Oshana didn’t suspect anything amissthat is, until Robinson was roused by a phone call that same night at 1 a.m. He and Oshana went to GW’s student center, the Marvin Center, where they were met by Blackford and two of the senator’s friends. Robinson says he thought Blackford had convened the late-night meeting to try to bury the hatchet. But instead, Oshana says, Blackford confronted them, accusing the executive branch of demanding that impeachment proceedings be dropped, or else the nine-termer would get his.
Accusing them, that is, of extortion. Oshana was incredulousthe Blackford camp, after all, had proposed the deal in the first place.
When Oshana asked what evidence they had, one of Blackford’s associates piped up: “We have it on tape.” Oshana says one of Blackford’s cohorts then played a portion of the tape. Oshana says he didn’t think anything on the tape was incriminatinghe was just offended that the bugging had taken place. “Everything escalated after that,” he recalls, with the conversation quickly degenerating into name-calling and threats. “When Blackford was walking away, he said, ‘I guess we’ll play that at the impeachment trial.’”
Blackford says he doesn’t remember what happened that night, but three days later, on Halloween, the Hatchet published a facsimile of the Riverside Liquors receipt, along with a story on the “possible fund misuse.” Oshana was responsible for the leak.
On Nov. 5, Blackford wrote the SA a check for $136 to cover his liquor-store run, along with a memo that said he wasn’t admitting guilt. Oshana wasn’t satisfied. “The SA’s not like a bank,” he says. “You can’t just take money out and repay it when you want.”
In a Nov. 14 editorial, the Hatchet called for Blackford to step down, or be forced out. Daleo says he went to Blackford and suggested that he consider resigning. “My thinking on this was just that it wouldn’t be good for the association to have the report [from Oshana’s investigation] come out,” Daleo says. “When it looked like we couldn’t do anything else, that’s when I went to him.”
The embattled legislator tendered his resignation on Nov. 17, four hours before Robinson and the senate were to receive Oshana’s final report. Blackford had not, in fact, bought that keg of root beer.
In his resignation letter, Blackford explained that he would be taking a class in the spring semester that overlapped with the first hour of Tuesday legislative sessions. By continuing in his post, he would be doing the senate a disservice.
Blackford’s resignation saved him the embarrassment of the report’s being handed to his colleagues. Oshana told the Hatchet that his office didn’t have the jurisdiction to investigate Blackford now that he was out of the SA. The report wouldn’t see the light of day.
With Blackford out of the picture, Robinson and the senate began to repair whatever damage the impeachment rumors had wrought. “We realized that a lot of these differences that we had could have been resolved if we had just talked about them,” Daleo says. “I don’t think it’s a problem with the organization, with the structureit was with the people in it. I didn’t want to be the one responsible for the downfall of the student government.”
In the weeks after his resignation, Blackford tried to find a comfort zone outside the world of government. He generally stayed out of the political spotlight, devoting most of his time to finishing up his dissertation. But if his focus had shifted primarily to schoolwork, Blackford couldn’t resist looking for an outlet for his civic energies.
The former senator tried to join the Marvin Center Governing Board, the group that doles out office space and plans programs for the student center. While deciding who gets to use Room 405 may not seem glamorous, it was a perfect match for the skill set Blackford had honed over a decade in student politics: He would be telling people what to do and where to do it.
There was only one crimp in Blackford’s plan for a triumphant return: He could no longer count on voter apathy to get him a vote. “We completely rejected him,” says Parekh, who is also a member of the Marvin Center board. “We didn’t want him in our organization.”
After this rebuff, Blackford beat a quiet retreat from student politics. Daleo says the legislative veteran took leave of SA businessthe two continued to chat, but only on a personal level.
By the time election season rolled around, however, Blackford seemed to have recovered his political zeal. The ex-legislator started to appear outside the Marvin Center with his fellow politicians, his allies’ campaign stickers pressed onto his blue-and-beige baseball jacket. Sen. Omar Woodard, who took over as rules chair after Blackford’s resignation, suspected there was more to the ex-legislator’s sudden ubiquity than simple boosterism. “You never saw J.P. so much in one week as you saw him [the week before the election].”
Word of Blackford’s burst of activism sent tremors through the offices of Robinson and Oshana. Was he plotting a write-in campaign, just like D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams? Blackford denies that he had any such plan. Daleo, for one, says he never heard about an election strategy. “I thought he wanted to be on the Marvin Center Governing Board.”
If the ex-legislator did press the flesh, it happened behind the scenes. To the casual observer, Blackford was merely standing around at political events. On the rainy February Friday before the election, Blackford hung out by the Marvin Center with his hands in his pockets. He didn’t give out buttons or stickers, nor did he meet and greet potential voters. He didn’t look like someone who was running for office.
Oshana was still wrenched by the thought of Blackford’s trolling for votes. He now realized that a single embarrassment wasn’t sufficient to drive an inertial nine-term student legislator from the ballot box. So on Feb. 26, the first day of the 2003 elections, Oshana dropped off his Blackford report at the Hatchet office.
The story hit the newsstands the next morning, the second and last day of voting. For Daleo, who was running for re-election as executive vice president, the timing couldn’t have been worse. The Hatchet story focused on testimony that he had known about Blackford’s purchase of alcohol and revealed it only much later. Daleo called Oshana and vowed never to speak to him again.
Oshana went to his dad’s house in Virginia for a few days to hide out. He says his only regret is that he didn’t release the report when he wrote it. “The timing could have been better in retrospect, but I feel like the information in the report was important for students to have. The thing that really bugs me about Eric and J.P. and those people is that they do this righteous indignation when I write reports about them. It’s not wrong until it’s found out.”
SA-watchers had been waiting quite a while for scandal or graduationanythingto force Blackford out of the SA. In 2001, for example, Blackford told the Hatchet, “Next year will be my last year at GW. I felt it was time to step up and lead the Senate.” Two years later, Blackford was still in the thick of campus political intrigue. (He now says that he will graduate in fall 2003 or spring 2004.)
Former President Meisner, who served with Blackford in the 1998-1999 term, is one of many who don’t understand why Blackford’s still on campus. “He’s a bright guy. He’s working on a couple of postgraduate degrees. He’s incredibly employable. He could be out making money, so why the hell does he bother with that?”
On Feb. 27, Election Night, anxious young politicos gather in a bare room on the third floor of the Marvin Center to watch the votes roll in. Each time conversations bubble up from the impatient crowd, Christina Vamvas, the chair of the Joint Elections Committee (JEC), looks over scoldingly and yells, “Shut up! Conversationsoutside.”
Even so, the idle chatter stops when it’s time to count the ballots for graduate senator from the School for Engineering and Applied Science. A JEC official calls out the name on each ballot, then flips the page. “J.P. Blackford,” he announces. “J.P. Blackford. [Flip.] George Nunez. [Flip.] Alfredo Lagos. [The engineering school] is complete.” The official adds, “Can I go on record defaming the engineering school for not voting?” At the top of the easel, Blackford’s name gets a Sharpied circle. “I want to puke right on the floor,” says Jessica Duffy, chief of staff for Robinson.
Blackford is not present to celebrate his one-vote victory.
With the results from all the contested elections yet to be announced, the crowd drifts upward to the fifth-floor election party as rumors of free food filter down the staircase. The decor is election rudimentary (balloons, no bunting), the refreshments functional (cans of soda, cookies, a few grapes). The only planned entertainment is an election-themed improv comedy game that ends at 11:30.
Blackford finally shows up at 3 a.m. The balloons have all been destroyed or deflated, and the banquet table is covered with empty Fanta cans, but there are still about 100 people around. Blackford says he learned about his victory via a phone call. The outcome didn’t surprise him: He had put his own name down and “figured somebody would probably write me in. I didn’t ask anyone to vote for me.”
Tonight’s event is a social affair: The senators and staffers talk loudly, rock out to Avril Lavigne, and shoot pool. Blackford, though, keeps to himself. He sits at a table or stands off to the side, not doing much of anything. As he waits, Blackford invokes memories of bygone elections. “I would prefer to not be here this late, but you’ve got to stay to see the results,” he says. “One year when it was done all on paper ballots, it took forever.”
Occasionally Daleo sidles up to Blackford and pulls him away for a quick strategy session. They talk quietly and intently for a few moments before Daleo leaves again. Blackford prefers that the contents of their huddles remain confidential: When asked what they talked about, he just chuckles and shrugs his shoulders.
By 4:15, the crowd is down to about 70 stalwarts, and only half of those are still conscious. When the head of the Marvin Center Governing Board announces that the results are not yet imminent, a small crew in the back starts chanting “Asshole. Asshole.” At 4:26, by a show of hands, the remaining few vote to turn off the music. A few minutes later, there’s another vote to turn off a bank of lights so the less hearty can sleep.
At 10 ’til 5, Blackford walks out. He has meetings in the morning, he says, and the results will be the same tomorrow. He stands alone in the fifth-floor lobby, waiting for an
elevator to take him down and out of the
When the JEC members wander into the fifth-floor room at 5:15, the weary crowd whoops and breaks into a huge round of applause. For all the wait, the names of the winners are rattled off quickly. Most of the results follow a trend: announcement, then cheers.
As each of his friends wins re-election, Daleo claps loudly and lets out a whoop. He exhales deeply, then grabs the hand of fellow candidate Trotta. When Daleo’s own name gets called, he turns and lifts his girlfriend in the air and plants a huge kiss on her mouth as the flashbulb of the Hatchet photographer pops. A second later, he makes a call on his cell phone. “Dad, it’s Eric. They just announced the election results. Fifty-one percent….I won.”
There’s one exception to the pattern of adulation. When the announcer calls out “Graduate senator for the School of EngineeringJ.P. Blackford,” there are a few small cheers. The huzzahs are followed by a chorus of booing. But after a few seconds, the only audible sound is the peals of laughter that fill the room. CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Photographs by Charles Steck.