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One AU student gets a lesson in political hardball.
Like many young men before him, Benjamin Wetmore came to the nation’s capital with big ideas. Upon arriving in Washington last year, he surveyed his new surroundings, declared himself a political outsider, and set out to reform the “institutions of power.”
Wetmore isn’t a professional politician. He’s a 19-year-old sophomore at American University (AU) in upper Northwest, majoring in political science. His primary lessons thus far, however, have been learned outside the classroom, in AU’s student government. Political Hardball 101.
With a student body that hails from approximately 150 countries, AU has long held a reputation as a relatively liberal campus. Wetmore, a north Texas native with a penchant for quoting William F. Buckley Jr. and Henry Kissinger, is a conservative. Already, the collision between institution and reformer has resulted in Wetmore’s impeachment from student government, his disqualification from an election, and the founding of a campus newspaper.
Wetmore first kicked up dust at AU after being elected last May as speaker pro tempore of AU’s student legislative body, the General Assembly (GA). He was impeached and removed from that post last December, according to GA documents, for repeatedly failing to attend meetings and publicly misrepresenting the assembly’s positions.
“I was trying to invoke some new ideas into an institution that doesn’t welcome new ideas,” says Wetmore. “But AU’s student government is a nepotistic little cult of aristocratic privilege, full of supposedly dedicated people who aren’t dedicated to anything at all.”
Wetmore then decided to run for president of AU’s student-run Residential Housing Administration (RHA) this spring. The RHAwhich sets dormitory policies and manages a $100,000 annual budgetisn’t a glamorous institution. Its president, however, receives a nice perka $5,000 stipend.
Wetmore campaigned on a platform that was, more or less, dorm populism: free fax machines, monthly guest speakers, and better cable channels.
The student prosecutor who pressed for Wetmore’s removal from the assembly, Speaker Kevin Malecek, a senior, signed on as the campaign manager for Sally Renfro, Westmore’s opponent in the RHA race. Wetmore and Malecek crossed paths again during the RHA’s three-day election period, which began on March 27.
Wetmore and Malecek ran into each other on the first night of the election in an AU residence hall. Wetmore was posting campaign signs, and Malecek observed that the candidate had exceeded the permitted number of posters and that his signs lacked the required seal of approval from the RHA Board of Elections (BOE).
When Malecek presented the BOE with photographic evidence of the violations, the election board formally disqualified Wetmore. They also threw in another reason for excluding the candidate: He had failed to turn in financial records.
Wetmore did not receive a hearing before his ouster, although the BOE’s constitution appears to call for one. In a press release, Wetmore alleges that he was “secretly and illegally disqualified” from the RHA election.
Several student leaders insist that this isn’t the case. The RHA’s elections board chair, Jacob Kaskey, says the board’s interpretation of the constitution was that no hearing was necessary in the case of clear-cut violations.
AU junior Anthony Macri, the RHA’s outgoing president, concurs with that assessment. “There was no election theft,” says Macri. “Wetmore was disqualified, but only he knew about it. Nobody took his name off the ballot, and it wasn’t publicized.”
Student officials insist that Wetmore’s official disqualification would have meant something only if had he won the final tally of votes. He didn’t.
“Of about 400 votes,” says Malecek, “he lost by more than 140.”
In an era when even the world’s most celebrated political contest can become an epic circus, student elections at universities across the country have become increasingly heated affairs in which money, media, and malfeasance often make for calamitous democratic exercises. Critics of higher education often contend that colleges aren’t doing enough to prepare the leaders of tomorrow. But recent events at AU suggest that students are, in fact, getting plenty of crucial real-world experience in the political sphere.
Wetmore, for instance, also raised hackles by donning a second hatnewspaper publisheron the eve of the RHA election, when he unveiled a new campus newspaper called Politica. (Conservative columnist and AU alum Cal Thomas is Politica’s honorary publisher.) Wetmore put up $500 of his own money to cover the costs of printing the first 2,000 copies.
Though bland in appearance, Politica’s eight-page debut is a heavy-handed blend of opinionated reporting on student government and transparent agitprop. A front-page story alleges that “corruption” helped one student win a recent GA election, relying heavily on a purportedly “unedited and unabridged” transcript of an America Online Instant Messenger conversation between Wetmore and a student leader as its main evidence. Another front-page “news” story, written by Wetmore, reads like a first-person narrative.
Most strikingly, Wetmore pulled a self-promotion stunt right out of Citizen Kane, placing a half-page campaign advertisement for himself (“Get More With Wetmore”)
on Page 3.
Some AU students complain about Politica’s tone and content, and they question whether its motto “Because the truth matters”applies only to Wetmore’s version of the truth.
“Ben wants to challenge authority, and I have no problem with that,” says Malecek. “But just do it in the proper framework. It’s his tactics, not his political views, that I object to.”
In the aftermath of the electoral hubbub, none of the parties are quite sure what they’ve actually learned from all this. They all agree that the student political climate at AU is now poisonous.
For his part, Wetmore claims that he has no desire to enter professional politics. He pledges to continue Politica, despite his insistence that he doesn’t aspire to a journalistic career. At the very least, Wetmore has succeeded in becoming a high-profile campus figure.
“I took a course on dissident media last year,” says Wetmore, grinning. “I got a D.”
His grade might have been higher if he’d submitted Politica as extra credit. CP