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Elections Wrap Up

A Momentary Lapse of Reason

By William Beutler

Whether the ASUO will ever hold a smooth election is not even a subject worthy of debate. Students who have attended the University of Oregon for just a short time might look at this year's spectacle and call it for what it is: a debacle - but this year is hardly exceptional.

It was a somewhat unusual year for ASUO elections though, starting with the advanced schedule. This is the first year that the process took place during winter term, as opposed to the spring term of history. All voting took place online; the familiar voting booths with their nifty little Scantron sheets are a thing of the past. The Chapter Chair of OSPIRG even lost her senate campaign to a Commentator staffer chiefly employed in the capitalist practice of soliciting advertisements. This, a mere three years after OSPIRG State Board Chair Kalpana Krishnamurthy reigned as Senate President. On the other hand, a certain Commentator editor did lose his race to a guy in a barrel. The voters are a fickle bunch.

The major development of course is that Jay Breslow and Holly Magner, relative outsiders to the ASUO Kremlin (aka Suite Four) stole the presidency out from under the beleaguered (and depending on who you ask, much-venerated or much-vilified) CJ Gabbe.

Gabbe and running mate Peter Larson (if you've been ignoring the elections like any sensible person would) drew a great deal of criticism and campus media coverage for the International Students Association coffee hour they sponsored on Feb. 4. Spending $40 on the event, the two violated elections rule 2.4(a), which bars candidates from providing a "thing of value" to solicit votes from students.

CJ and Peter claimed their ISA coffee hour was a voter awareness campaign, rather than one intended to promote their own candidacy - sort of the university-level equivalent of the issue advocacy advertisements of Clinton's 1992 campaign. Both featured the candidates prominently; both carefully avoided the phrase "Vote for..." However, Clinton's ads were paid for by Democratic soft money, utilizing a convenient campaign finance loophole. The Gabbe/Larson "voter awareness campaign" was paid for by themselves, and anyway, the ASUO Constitution probably wouldn't hold up to the test of such a political maneuver.

What hurt their candidacy in the end was not this mistake per se, but their unapologetic response to what was clearly a breach of elections rules. On Feb. 9, campaign manager Melissa "Munger" Unger told the Emerald that "we were there to promote our campaign. But we weren't there to promote the outcome." Whatever.

Gabbe's candidacy was rumored as early as fall term, and since the announcement, his was the front-running ticket. The length of his tenure in the ASUO, his connections on this campus and elsewhere, and not least his sizable war chest all positioned him ahead of the pack. Only one thing stood in Gabbe's way: his reputation. Even as he ran for the presidency, Gabbe faced charges of non-fulfillment of duty as a Student Senator. The whole thing culminated at the Feb. 25 ConCourt hearings, where Gabbe was the connective tissue between two unrelated hearings - one being the Senate charge, the other Gabbe and Larson's appeal of their removal from the ballot on account of the coffee hour scandal. Gabbe dodged both bullets, evading expulsion and winning reinstatement to the ballot. Bill Clinton couldn't have been more proud.

After Gabbe and Larson were initially pulled from the contest, the Oregon Daily Emerald drew flak for running back to back commentaries by the embroiled candidates and by Ken Best on behalf of the Elections Board. Upset at the free media granted his rivals, then-candidate, now President-elect Jay Breslow paid a visit to the Emerald's office in search of satisfaction.

Breslow's concern was not hard to understand; political scientists (like social scientists, except more likely to appear on CNN) have determined that small-scale elections hinge on the basis of a candidate's recognizance more than on their platform. University elections are classic examples of this. Gabbe/Larson hardly needed any more free press than they had already been awarded. A week later, after surviving the primary election, Breslow got his Emerald commentary.

CJ Gabbe and Peter Larson inarguably had a right to respond to the allegations made against them, but fully half of their 470-word defense was devoted to promoting their campaign. Furthermore, the Emerald displayed poor judgement in running the piece. The attendant commentary from the E-Board was perhaps a greater error in judgement - the Board can hardly call itself a neutral party when it goes on the record to debate the candidates it has removed. For his part, Best later told the Commentator that "after I submitted the commentary, I pretty much decided that it was a bad decision on my part." This kind of self-reflection may have been exactly what tipped the scales in favor of Breslow/Magner: Gabbe/Larson displayed none of it. Even after the ConCourt found them guilty but restored them to the ballot as per technical error of the E-Board, they continued to plead innocence. Based on the results, it would appear that the student body was unconvinced.

As an act of contrition, the Emerald printed letters critical of their editorial page in its letters-to-the-editor column during the week leading up to the general election. However, they also continued to run letters in support of Gabbe from student government representatives of neighboring universities - people who have little knowledge of this campus, nor any vested interest in the outcome of ASUO elections. All told, the Emerald handled themselves poorly throughout, involving themselves in the controversy more than is healthy for any impartial 'journal of record.'

Attributing the fall of the Gabbe/Larson juggernaut to the Emerald's influence is a bit presumptuous, though. Apart from last year's support of Wylie and Mitra, the Emerald has not endorsed a winning ticket for going on four years, and even the potential for the Emerald (or even the Commentator) to saturate a voter's consciousness pales in comparison with the expensive poster and T-shirt campaign that any serious candidate counts as their first priority. In a year where campaign finance reform has been one of the major issues in the US presidential elections, the cost of an ASUO Executive campaign continues to soar.

The trend in campaign spending on ASUO Executive contests resembles that of politics on a national scale. The average campaign cost $400 in 1994; this year Gabbe spent a total of $1,360, while Breslow put down a modest $527 for his bid.

Gabbe/Larson invested in a slick, if clumsy, site design and URL to mirror the Gladstone server that hosted their web pages. Once the allegations started flying, CJ and Peter's news page was conveniently neglected, updating only to point the user toward Duckweb during the primaries. If CJ and Peter really wanted to respond to the grievances against their campaign, their site would have been an ideal forum. They wasted it.

The less-professional Breslow/Magner site was also the more informative, even if the floating, disembodied heads of Jay and Holly were the most obnoxious javascript trick this side of your average internet porn site.

At least to some degree, how much money you spend isn't as important as how well you spend it.

In the end, Breslow/Magner spent approximately $.59 per vote, while Gabbe/Larson paid an obscene $1.69 per vote - and lost, fair and square. Spending a sizable amount of money on an ASUO election is not inherently wrong. A little pathetic, maybe, but definitely not wrong. The other good news is that this election may hammer the final nails into the coffin of the Progressive Slate. Once the premier (read: only) political party on campus, the defeat of Gabbe puts this faction out of power for two years straight, even though they chose not to organize this year.

On the other hand, "Progressive Slate" is merely a name - a convenient handle. The corruption and idiocy that went along with it are never going to disappear from the ASUO entirely. Sooner or later, the same creeping organizational tendency is bound to re-emerge.

Finally, we are allowed a sigh of relief that the elections hinged on the actual votes of the students, and not any ruling of the ConCourt, as once appeared possible. Whether Jay Breslow can transform the ASUO into an actual program that the students will care about is dubious. This time around, at least, the forces of evil have been defeated by the forces of the not-so-bad-after-all.

William Beutler's alleged ties to the Posse Comitatus are the subject of an upcoming Oregon Daily Emerald exclusive