Is MPOWER Really Divisive?

We’ve heard it in the campus press, on local blogs and during ASM meetings: MPOWER is a radically partisan, secretly radical group of conniving politicos who can’t be trusted to serve student interests.  We’ve heard that they are pro-divestment and anti-Semitic, innately uncooperative and exclusive and a cover for GSSF power

And of course, these incessant criticisms were ultimately successful in limiting MPOWER in ASM next year.  The only MPOWER candidate elected to a leadership position was Carl Fergus – probably the only slate member considered exceptable by the other side.  Jonah Zinn lost the Chair election by 20-12, while other MPOWER folks lost by similar or even worse margins. 

As we all know, uninvolved students don’t really read the papers or blogs (especially if it’s about ASM); only those on the inside of campus politics pay any attention – and that includes Student Council members.  Herein lies the only real impact the campus media makes: It’s relevant for ASM leadership elections because those voting actually pay attention.  For this reason, Kurt Gosselin and co., fully dedicated to destroying MPOWER, were remarkably successful.

But let’s consider this notion of divisiveness, and who really encapsulates it on ASM.  In this vein, I’d like to make two basic points: 1) MPOWER was, in fact, quite the opposite of divisive and 2) Those who really fit the term were those most likely to throw it at others: The invisible slate that defined itself in opposition to MPOWER.

Regarding the first point, I find it transparently absurd that a slate which included self-identified conservatives like Carl could actually be labeled divisively radical.  MPOWER was diverse – politically, racially, ideologically.  Its members were simply united by its proactive, pro-student agenda.  As for the platform, disagree with it if you will, but good luck finding anything that could be identified as “far left.”  Max Love may have been “caught” expressing support for divestment from war profiteers on the West Bank on his Facebook profile, but this was his own opinion, not that of MPOWER’s.  Other slate members, like Cale Plamann, told me that they were opposed to initiatives like that.

MPOWER also went to remarkable lengths to stay positive during the campaign, taking painstaking steps to avoid criticism of the other side, even on the issues.  Take a look at some of the comments from MPOWER members made during first Council meeting during leadership elections.  From Smathers’ blog:

Rep. Love – I personally would like to hear how many people were lobbied by constituents. Personally, I have my own choice and I think it comes down to setting the ideological approach. [Doesn’t say who he supports for Chair.]

Rep. Fergus – I’ve worked very closely with both candidates. I’m going to keep my vote secret, so I won’t say who I endorse, but I think we really showed here that we can stay impartial and I hope we can continue that course.

Stevenson – Both these candidates are really great, really fair, have a great deal of ability of keeping their opinions to themselves.

Rep. Plamann – I really think that either one of them would be a good choice. The tone that ASM really wants to set with administration. For better or worse, we have spent a lot of time being kicked around by administration. And while I know both will do a lot of work to prevent it from happening, Jonah’s history with SLAC is the deciding factor. I’d be happy to work with both of them.

Wow, talk about divisive!  (That’s sarcasm, by the way.)

Let’s contrast this with the talk of the invisible anti-MPOWER slate:

Beemsterboer – Rep. Zinn’s work with SLAC has been very anti-administration. It’s hard to do that and work with admin. I think you have to build work with adminsitration and there are times when it is definitely needed. Brandon Williams is the best candidate to enact positive change.

Rep. Nichols – I’ve been contacted and received a few e-mails. Fully support Brandon for a few reasons. I think one of the things that helps is serving under the person on that committee. I was so blown away by how good of a committee chair he was. It was the first time I’ve come onto a council and wanted to do a good job because I want to do a good job for the chair, as well. I can’t tell you what an amazing experience that was. He would also not give me his own opinion until he knew I had an opinion first off. I think he’d be a very very good chair. [Unclear if she then proceeded to blow a kiss in Brandon’s direction.]

Junger: Supporting Johnson. Which is largely speaking to his ability to resurrect Leg. Affairs.  Want to speak to Love — when there’s a discussion about new ideas to SC, we need to realize we’re not doing that. We’re bringing WISPIRG ideas to SC. There’s a place for that – WISPIRG. And some of those are not student issues. Rep. Lizotte has done some great things from recruitment, but that’s not the sole role of the VC.

Junger: Reads an e-mail from Dan Pasca from United Council, who has called Tina unreliable and said that many board members were happy to see her go. Would undo most of Leg Affairs work.

So, while the MPOWER crew expressed almost no criticism of opposition candidates and a very careful support for their own, the anti-MPOWER crew was not hesitant in either supporting their own side or attacking the other. 

Similarly, during the campaign, it was the anti-MPOWER side (led by Kurt Gosseslin) that insisted on running negative posts; good luck finding anything comparable done by MPOWER people.

And let’s be real: Gosselin, Williams, Johnson, Junger, Nichols, Manes, Romenesko and the rest were at least as organized as MPOWER.  They’re all good friends who coordianted their strategy.  They just didn’t call themselves a slate.  Incidentally, one can’t help but note the remarkable racial and gender homogeneity of their crew – in contrast to MPOWER.

The sad truth is that MPOWER’s stalwart commitment to avoid any semblance of divisiveness was actually its undoing.  MPOWER allowed itself to be lambasted, barely defending itself and letting the opposition (falsely) present itself as reasonable consensus-makers.  Let’s remember that FACES, which elected only eight people to Council, lost the Chair by only one vote and got more of its people elected to committee leadership.  I think this is principally because it did a better job in upholding its (equally laudable) agenda; it was also justifiably willing to point out the flaws of its critics.

Ultimately, there is nothing wrong with being partisan and vocal in what you believe; I wish MPOWER would have more resembled its divisive image.  Their members were committed to working actively for positive change in ASM; as far as I can tell, the new ASM leadership for next year is essentially the same as last year’s, so it will likely be yet another dud year for student government.  MPOWER should have been more willing to point this out.

The invisible anti-MPOWER slate was cunning in its strategy, and their success is worth learning from.  Sure, they were outrageously dishonest, but otherwise they deserve credit for running an effective campaign.  They are good at what they do – even if their ideas (or lack thereof) are bad for the student body.

Let’s remember that the progressive UNITY slate in the 90’s ran for a few years before winning a majority in 1999 – instituting the most successful year in ASM history.  So, like last year, this will be another building year for campus activists in ASM.  Hopefully, the third time turns out to be the charm.

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About introspectivejourney

A UW-Madison student, activist and writer. Hopelessly idealistic, tirelessly introspective, socially inept, slightly insane.
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