Even more than real-world politics, student government associations are largely popularity contests. With only a handful of students caring enough to vote, it'd be surprising if one in five students could even name their student body president.
But a semester of political turmoil in the College of Charleston's Student Government Association has proven amateur hour is over — complete with an impeachment, contested election results, a popular rum slogan, and a really cool tube of Blistex.
With his impeachment overturned and his invalidated SGA presidential election recently restored, sitting student body Vice President Seaton Brown has learned that, even in the world of student politics, it's sink or swim ... and watch out for the sharks.
Brown's first foray into collegiate politics was in 2006, as one of the only non-Greeks elected to a sophomore seat on the Student Senate. Early on, he made a name for himself by lobbying to stop loud campus construction during finals.
Last fall, he began serving as vice president, primarily responsible for overseeing the Senate and coordinating a legislative agenda (pressing for relocating bike racks or rerouting the campus e-mail, for example). But on Feb. 19, the Senate was mired in what these groups often get mired in — constitutional minutia.
In deliberations over a handful of constitutional updates, the Senate began debating whether to include "The University of Charleston," CofC's graduate school, in the official title of the student government. Graduate students had established their own SGA, so Brown couldn't understand the argument for including UofC in the undergrad association's title and felt compelled to argue against it.
"If I'd known about all the trouble it would cause, I may not have done it," Brown says.
He passed the gavel to Senate leader Morgan Bauserman (don't worry about remembering names — the same ones pop up over and over again). No longer running the meeting, Brown tried to participate in the argument like a senator but was rebuffed. So he proceeded to work the room as a non-voting student observer. In the end, the Senate approved the grad school's inclusion in the SGA name, but the full lot of constitutional changes was vetoed by SGA President Whitney Hinds. The Senate could have overturned the veto — had the group not been busy in an attempt to tar and feather Brown.
His lobbying in the constitutional debate wasn't a bombshell, but it was the ridiculously insignificant straw that broke the camel's back. A day after the Senate meeting, Hinds told Brown that letters requesting his impeachment had been filed. Having worked closely with the bylaws, Brown knew what that meant, but he couldn't understand why.
He thought what he'd done was not only allowable, it was the kind of move that had been admired by past SGA executive board members. What he hadn't realized was that festering frustrations with his style had been building for months.
Complaints not only included the fateful February meeting, but also the fact that Brown didn't hand out copies of the bylaws in the fall, and Hinds and others cited at least two instances where Brown had a potty mouth — calling himself a "jackass" during one SGA meeting and saying "hell" during a faculty Senate meeting.
"I'm sure there's been far worse said during faculty Senate meetings," he says.
The Senate impeached Brown with the two-thirds needed, forcing an unprecedented appeals hearing in front of the CofC Honor Council. Led by Jennifer Von Der Heiden, the council typically handles constitutional questions and appeals from student groups, but had never weighed the merits of an SGA impeachment.
After five hours of testimony and two hours of deliberation, the Honor Council overturned the impeachment, ruling that Brown's perceived infractions were irregular, but not against the rules.
Brown, Brown Liquor for President
Ecstatic that he'd been vindicated in the impeachment process, there was no time to celebrate — Brown had a presidential campaign to win. His competition was Morgan Bauserman (the Senate member who'd served as his second-in-command, presiding over the Feb. 19 constitutional discussion and the following impeachment proceedings).
Brown was hopeful about his election chances, but Bauserman, a sophomore, fought hard, including incorporating a Captain Morgan slogan in her campaign materials to draw some name recognition.
Looking back, Brown believes his impeachment was an attempt to damage his campaign by his SGA opponents (though not necessarily Bauserman), but instead it may have inspired students to rally around him. One student Brown didn't even know created a Facebook group supporting the candidate that collected hundreds of members, he said.
Once results were posted, Brown had not only won the title, but had the largest margin of victory in years (about two-thirds) in an election that had brought a record number of students to the polls (13 percent — which is huge for notoriously apathetic college students).
But Bauserman, curious about the size of Brown's last-minute ad in the student newspaper, The George Street Observer, challenged the election and asked that Brown be disqualified. The election commission — guided by Hinds of the SGA and Von Der Heiden from the Honor Council, both serving as non-voting members — found nothing wrong with the ad, other than the fact that Brown hadn't included his receipt on his election filing campaign form.
Crafted to serve as verification that candidates weren't going over set donation and spending limits, the filing forms had been given a sharper focus in the past two years. Candidates were required to include receipts and copies of donation checks, as opposed to rough estimates that were accepted in the past.
Brown's election filing form was a mess. He'd fractured his wrist in a fall from the Cistern fence earlier in the day and tried to submit all the information as he shuttled himself from the campus to the hospital and back. The check copies came in the wee hours of the morning, and Brown had forgotten to edit a Wal-Mart receipt to note that bedroom sheets and a tube of Blistex weren't campaign purchases.
Everything was resolved before the deadline, except for that damn newspaper ad receipt. He says he hadn't thought to get a receipt and, in the confusion, didn't even think of the expenditure. He wouldn't receive a bill for it until two weeks after the election. Considering it a gross oversight, the election commission was empowered to overturn Brown's win, call for a new election, or do nothing. They went with Bauserman's request and handed the election to the candidate who was more than 300 votes short of a win.
"Eight hundred people voted for me," Brown says. "Three people disqualified me."
And Brown took his case again to the Honor Council, that just weeks before had heard an unprecedented case and now faced an opportunity to do the same. Ironically, Von Der Heiden, the Honor Council chair, recused herself from chairing the hearing and proceeded to argue the Election Commission's case against Brown.
"The election commission determined the rules were broken," she says.
Bauserman picked up on that theme in her testimony, telling the Honor Council, "This is about setting a precedent that candidates can get away with anything."
In the first hearing, Brown had successfully argued that he'd committed no recognizable offense. His argument this time was that his evident mistake shouldn't mean his disqualification.
The Honor Council agreed, restoring Brown's presidential win. And so, within two months the student government had impeached an elected official and overturned an election on a technicality — something that took Washington Republicans about four years.
Bauserman says she's largely moved past the election and that students who understand the details (and that rules shouldn't be broken) have been supportive. She says she's applying for a position on the Honor Council next year.
Though he's a hospitality major with aspirations for the corporate world, Brown isn't prepared to rule out a future in politics after graduation (he notes with sarcastic amusement that one local coffee shop manager refers to him as, "The next mayor of Charleston"). While he says he's prepared to move past this semester's saga, two of the three people who called for his impeachment are serving as student body vice president and secretary. Fences have been mended, but hey, they don't call them fences for nothing.
Since the impeachment, the Senate has already instituted what he calls "The Brown Clause," which adds three additional steps before an officer can be impeached, ensuring that it'll take more than an afternoon of voting to toss him out.
"If they try to get rid of me next year, it'll at least be harder." Lesson learned.