Wannabe politicos come to D.C. colleges to soak up the federal ambiance. In the age of Starr and Lewinsky, they’re learning their lessons well.
On the evening of Tuesday, Nov. 9, a George Washington University student court chief judge named Peter Marquez tells more than 100 onlookers who have skipped Party of Five in order to drag their Dockers and their notepads into a law school mock courtroom that they are about to witness something that “hasn’t been done before.”
One can only hope so: A student government impeachment hearing that lasts until 7:30 in
the morning is something that should never have to be repeated.
Especially when it involves starched-shirted students elevating the affair to the sanctimonious heights necessary to utter a phrase like “He has undermined the integrity of the student government.”
And especially when the accused’s sins—the school paper called him an “evil genius”—involve the shocking allegation that he somehow came down with mononucleosis and failed to follow the proper procedure for assigning responsibility when forced to return home for two weeks of recuperation. He also overslept and missed a commencement ceremony.
The all-night impeachment proceedings—which end the reign of GW Student Association President Phil Meisner—mark the first time that the school has ever impeached a student body president. “I’ll regret that everyday for the rest of my life,” the junior from northern New Jersey says. He’s talking about missing the graduation ceremony at which his sole role would have been sitting on the dais. “I have no excuses.” The offenses cost him his position and the $11,500 leadership scholarship that went with it. “My dad’s not going to be happy about that,” Meisner says.
But, although no one in the room may have previously seen a student “prosecutor,” “judge,” and “jury” weigh the future of a job that ordinarily involves apportioning college activity fees, the phenomenon’s not quite as rare as Marquez
makes it sound.
Politics, of course, is the major reason many students choose D.C. universities. Back in the old days, that meant a town full of careerist collegians with short hair and a bit too much reverence for things like the student council. No problem there. But here in the age of the soiled blue dress and the presidential cigar, our young political wannabes have taken on a different tone—less the young parliamentarian than the middle-aged Linda Tripp.
What that means is that Meisner is hardly alone among deposed local student leaders. In fact, three of D.C.’s four major universities have had new student governments take over from embattled predecessors this year. Meisner faced a total of eight counts of impeachment, including one for missing the commencement in May. American University’s student president was forced to resign under duress last month after a campus graffiti scandal. Howard University’s previous student government came under fire for misusing a long-distance telephone account. And there’s still a month left in the semester.
AU senior Keith Pemrick says he decided to run for student body president last year for the most earnest of reasons: He wanted to fight apathy among his fellow students. “For three years,” says Pemrick, “I really didn’t do much.” The native of Philadelphia’s northern suburbs won a surprise victory last spring over more experienced student politicians by appealing to disaffected students.
These days, Pemrick is thinking twice about his abundance of spirit. He and two of his top officials resigned Oct. 15, three weeks after graffiti reading “AU” and “Go Eagles!” were found on eight campus buildings during the school’s alumni weekend. The paint permeated the surfaces of the buildings—several of which were marble—preventing removal for more than a week. During the intervening time, speculation circulated that Pemrick and two of his top lieutenants were the artistic force behind the scribbling.
That was enough for many of Pemrick’s fellow student pols. According to senior Steve Froehlich—who represented Pemrick before the school’s administrative judiciary—Pemrick’s political adversaries seized on his vulnerability, drafting a letter demanding his resignation. “I wouldn’t call it a coup, but I don’t have any other word to describe it,” Froehlich says.
Pemrick has never publicly admitted responsibility for the vandalism. But he doesn’t deny it, either. He claims he had butted heads with administrators in the past and says that after the vandalism those officials “saw a chance to silence me, and they took it,” asking him to either resign or face possible suspension hearings.
“It’s Beltway politics,” Pemrick says, possibly referring to the last time the president of the United States was caught writing “Go USA” on the wall outside the White House.
And ally Froehlich scoffs at the assertion made by the student paper and others in the AU community that Pemrick got off easy, pointing out that he and his two top officials were punished both as students—all were placed on disciplinary probation—and as student officials—all forfeited their 15 percent tuition remission.
A month after his fall, Pemrick says that he realizes, in retrospect, “how little power I really had. It’s puppetesque.” But even as he’s blasting his enemies, he says he’ll get something out of his tenure. “For some students, it’s just another thing to put on their resumes,” he says, before adding, “Don’t get me wrong: I still get to put it on my resume—and hopefully it will help me.” Just so the tagger-in-chief scores that key Hill job after he graduates.
Across town, at Howard, resume-building was also a motivating factor for now-deposed student leaders. But on this campus, the school’s young Bill Clintons faced more serious charges. Howard student governments run as party blocs. And last year’s administration—which won under the name the Firm—lost its bid for re-election last spring to a group of students who ran on a platform of “Full Disclosure.” They alleged that the Firm was hiding important information from the students.
After defeating the Firm and taking office this fall, the new student administration—with the help of the Hilltop student newspaper—revealed that the Firm had run up a $55,000 long-distance telephone bill on the university’s dime.
The university provides the student government and several other student groups with long-distance calling codes for official use, the Hilltop reported. But Esigie Agulle, a Howard senior from Nigeria who was the Firm’s chief of staff last year, says that his administration’s code was given to other students for purposes linked to student governance. Those other students, he claims, are to blame for running up the bills.
Either way, Hilltop Editor April Turner says, the bill propelled the student government into debt and prompted the administration to revoke the long-distance calling privileges of all student organizations, including the Hilltop. According to Turner, there was a perception that members of the Firm, none of whom have been charged for calls attributed to them, got off easy for their role in bankrupting the student government because of their privileged positions.
“[The phone bill scandal] brought up questions about whether we can trust our student government,” Turner says, adding that many students attribute this year’s higher-than-average tuition hike to the Firm’s phone habits.
Inside the mock courtroom back at GW, the impeachment proceedings are grinding along. Outside, junior Shawn Heller is marching with a group of protesters in red arm- and headbands. “Student government is a joke,” says Heller. His comrades hoist Black Power fists and poster-sized pictures of Che Guevara, but Heller professes no delusions about the righteousness of their cause: “We’re making a mockery of a mockery,” he explains.
The student pols responsible for Meisner’s ouster are little more than “resume whores,” Heller says. “They’re wasting our time and money with their own egos and politics.”
While Heller and his so-called Student Action Front chant “Fight the Power” outside, lead prosecutor Nathan Williams is in no mood for humor inside. “There is a perception that student government is a joke, that we’re just puppets,” he says. “The only way to change that perception is to have strong student leaders.”
About 10 hours later, the student senators who sit in judgment agree, impeaching Meisner and handing over the presidency to his former vice president—who, incidentally, lives with a student senator who was one of the more vocal proponents of impeachment.
A couple of days later, Meisner shows up at the student government offices to pack up and remove his belongings, only to discover that the locks have been changed. He now says he has collected enough signatures—1,700—to dissolve the student government.
Calling Meisner’s impeachment “inside-the-Beltway junk,” GW administrator Mike Gargano—who oversees the student government—says that “I don’t think there’s any question that there are people who are in [student government] for their own Machiavellian ways.” Neither Meisner nor Gargano dismisses the notion that the students behind the impeachment may have gotten their ideas from watching the partisan maneuvering that almost cost another D.C. president his job last year.
Viewed through the lens of historical precedence, what happens next is downright predestined: Top officials in the new administration reported a late-night break-in at the student government headquarters. Meisner denies involvement.
GW police will investigate. CP