Boulder votes Democrat. It’s a People’s Republic tradition. But when it comes to the University of Colorado’s student government, that tradition may have to be amended. In its recent election, CU students showed up in record numbers to elect a new set of representatives. And in a sweeping victory, one ticket took every seat it ran for.
That ticket was INVEST, and that ticket was conservative.
And while much of their success was due to a splitting of progressive votes and intense campaigning, there were also bigger powers involved. A national organization called the Leadership Institute helped INVEST win the election. It held a workshop to organize and train the young student group, a practice that’s beginning to show up across the country.
Is it grassroots outreach, or is it external manipulation?
How it happened
In the week-long election, each of the three parties held events, lined the University Memorial Center with tables and wrote chalk messages on sidewalks, urging students to vote. And while students did come out and vote, with a record number of 10,407 students, totaling 36 percent of the student body, the results were surprising to a traditionally liberal campus.
“I’m honestly shocked the conservative ticket won,” says Isra Chaker, who ran for president on the EDGE ticket.
She credits the fact that there were three tickets, two of them decidedly liberal, as the reason for INVEST’s win.
“It came down to the fact that if you had just two options, it would be easy to decide who you’d vote for, conservative or liberal,” Chaker says. “If the two [liberal] tickets were just one, we would have won by a landslide.”
The numbers back up that claim. In the race for the executive candidates, the INVEST ticket earned 3,860 votes. But the EDGE and PROPEL tickets combined would have garnered 5,840 votes.
While INVEST members may admit that the split vote helped, they also relied on their platform — one in which they pledged to continue decreasing student fees and improving campus safety — and their campaigning, to get the win.
“We campaigned easily more than 1,000 hours combined,” says Brooks Kanski, newly elected vice president of external affairs. He says the INVEST campaign focused on reaching out to its constituencies, being present in student centers to talk to voters, chalking sidewalks all over campus and basic networking with students.
The other two tickets’ efforts may have rivaled those. They held events, but also created commercials, sunglasses and even a superhero.
“We set up seven different events at different places in Boulder starting the Thursday night before election week,” Chaker said. “We had an amazing lineup that would get EDGE out there, and let students know who EDGE is.”
Their campaign included handing out sunglasses, which Chaker says are still being worn, even after the elections. They had an EDGE superhero who dressed up to go meet students around campus.
“We were at a different level, truly, than any other ticket,” she says.
The PROPEL ticket, too, held events at bars and clubs around Boulder, and put in hours of chalking and tabling.
Between the three tickets, the campaigns were more visible than they’d ever been.
“It seemed as though you couldn’t walk more than 10 yards without seeing a poster, flyer or chalked sidewalk,” Kristy Gustavson, director of public relations for the University of Colorado Student Government (CUSG), wrote in an email. “Each ticket did a great job of getting out there and working for their votes, it was really something great to see. I’d definitely say it was a very competitive year for election.”
The race may have been too competitive, some of the candidates said.
“It was definitely personal,” says Chaker. “People called me names during campaigning. I was called a terrorist.”
Even after the event, allegations of personal attacks on candidates were reported. Corey Wiggins, who ran for president on the PROPEL ticket, accused a member of the INVEST party of allegedly chanting “I hate gays” at the end of the election week.
Both parties have witnesses saying the incident did — or didn’t — occur.
“We don’t stand for what took place with Corey Wiggins. He’s a good friend and colleague of mine,” Chaker says.
The PROPEL ticket ran on a GLBT-friendly platform and had an openly gay representative running in each category except the judicial branch.
“We were running as the largest queer ticket that’s ever run before,” says Hillary Montague-Asp, who ran for representative-at-large with PROPEL.
While Montague-Asp says she felt the alleged attack on Wiggins was personal, there were other incidents that just may have seemed that way.
“Our platforms are based on personal identities that we have,” she says.
“When those platforms are knocked, it feels personal. It can be a personal attack, that’s also valid. But I feel like we’re dealing with a really passionate group of people who are really, really invested in what they’re trying to do, so I think that makes everything a little more personal.”
Personal goes political
Though the atmosphere surrounding the campaign became increasingly heated towards the end of election week, the INVEST ticket had a calming influence a few days before voting started.
That was the voice of Michael Thompson, who taught the Campus Election Workshop, one of the Leadership Institute’s many programs to get students involved in the political process.
“The Leadership Institute’s goal is to increase the number and effectiveness of conservative students worldwide,” Thompson says.
The Leadership Institute is an organization founded in 1979 by Morton Blackwell, a well-known activist who has been on the Republican scene since the 1970s.
Blackwell, Virginia’s Republican National Committeeman and founder of the Conservative Leadership Political Action Committee, has had success working with young Republicans before, including with the Youth for Ronald Reagan campaign in 1980. Karl Rove is one of Blackwell’s more notable graduates. Blackwell was out of the country at press time and could not be reached.
The institute itself is a tax-exempt nonpartisan organization, established under section 501(c)(3). According to the IRS, the 501(c)(3) designation means that the organization cannot be an “action organization,” or one that attempts to influence legislation as a substantial part of its activities. It also cannot participate in any campaign activity for or against political candidates. It cannot be organized or operated for the benefit of private interests and is restricted in how much lobbying it can conduct.
According to its website, the Leadership Institute has a Congressional Advisory Board that is described as “bipartisan” but also as “statesmen and women [who] understand the importance of training the next generation of conservative activists.”
The Leadership Institute is funded by donations. The 2009 tax returns posted on its website show that their assets, including property and investments, total $13,960,755, all from contributions and pledges.
That same year, the institute spent almost $7 million on its program service expenditures, which are the programs put on for students. These included “247 training schools of 32 different types to train youth leaders and provide education regarding the public policy process,” according to the 2009 return.
It included, too, the Campus Leadership Program, as well as CampusReform.org. Campus Reform is “designed to provide conservative activists with the resources, networking capabilities and skills they need to identify, expose and combat leftist bias and abuse on college campuses,” according to the return.
The workshop at CU was free for the students and was held days before voting began. But that isn’t standard procedure.
“We normally do [trainings] well before the election,” Thompson says. “But [INVEST] already had their message in place. They’d already done a lot of the work, so we just helped them to tailor their message.”
Kanski, who wasn’t involved in the workshop, said it was a chance to align the ticket “as a team and as a family.”
Thompson described it similarly.
“We try to create a unifying campaign strategy,” he says.
Thompson, and the rest of the Leadership Institute, are forthcoming about their status as a conservative organization.
“Anyone is welcome, although our stated goal is to increase the number of conservative activists worldwide,” he says. “It’s important that you work with college students to get them excited about a career in public policy.”
Thompson says that if a liberal student were to come to one of their trainings, he or she wouldn’t be turned away.
“We’ve had liberal students before,” he says. “Political strategies are neutral; anyone can use them for their detriment or for their benefit.”
At each school, and in each workshop, the message is different. Some of the trainings don’t involve running for government, but student involvement in areas like fundraising and public relations. Some are trainings for students looking for jobs in the media or in congressional offices.
The institute also offers Webinars, hour-long seminars held online for conservatives who may not be in range of the physical workshops. These, too, are free of charge, thanks to donations to the Leadership Institute.
‘Building vibrant and tolerant democracies’
Foundations formed to train tomorrow’s leaders aren’t restricted to conservatives.
Campus Progress, a similar 501(c) (3) organization run by the Center for American Progress, held a day-long nonpartisan training seminar in June called “How to Win in 2010: Mobilizing Young Voters.”
It was training for candidates, campaign staff and media on how to get more youth turnout at the polls. They talked about outreach, branding and fundraising, among other issues.
Campus Progress also held a campaign called “Vote Again 2010,” which used the Web and video campaigns to get more young people to the polls for the national elections.
“Through programs in activism, journalism and events, Campus Progress helps young people make their voices heard now on issues that matter, and works with young leaders to build a strong, united progressive movement that can bring long-term positive change,” Katie Andruill, communications and outreach manager for Campus Progress, wrote in an email.
There’s also Open Society Foundations, an organization that lists youth activism among its many functions. That foundation, too, is a tax-exempt nonpartisan one, although it was founded by George Soros, who donated millions to organizations that supported Democrats in the 2004 election in an effort to remove former President George W. Bush from office.
According to its website, the focus of Open Society Foundations is “building vibrant and tolerant democracies.”
What’s next for CU
The splitting of the liberal vote into two parties probably had more effect on the election’s outcome than the Campus Election Workshop held a few days before voting began, even though the Leadership Institute was trumpeting the INVEST victory in a press release and on its website.
“The credit goes to the students,” Thompson told Boulder Weekly. “The sweep is indicative of how the students’ goals and aims for student government were received by Colorado students. They’re working for all students, whether those are liberal or conservative.”
Kanski credits the hard work his team did in both campaigning and developing its platform, as well as the fact that students might not be as aligned with parties as their adult counterparts.
“At this point, students aren’t as concerned with political tickets as they are with what we’re doing for them,” he says. “We have a very unique organization that we’re running, and students are educated enough to see who can run that organization at its optimum point.”
The INVEST candidates say they will work to decrease student fees, increase student safety and educate students on campus about how to work with their student government. Kanski says he doesn’t know just how the budget cuts will work out. “I can’t foresee anything right now,” he says. “It comes down to if we’re in a situation where we need to make a reduction, and what compromises we can make with cost centers on those fees.”
The members of PROPEL and EDGE tickets, though, expect to see more cuts like those to CoPIRG, a student interest group that works on energy and environmental initiatives, among other issues, and ITP, the Interactive Theater Project, which performs monthly skits about relevant social issues.
“I think we’ll see what we’ve seen from them all year long,” Chaker says. “Cutting programs — I would expect to see just that.”
She, and Montague-Asp, who co-chairs a board through the student government for the GLBT Resource Center, plan to stay involved in the community and government at CU.
“It was never for the title,” Chaker says. “My involvement at CU has been about positive change and truly benefiting the student body. This doesn’t take me away from the work.”
She also offers advice to the 10,407 students that voted, and those that didn’t. It’s advice that’s helpful to even the Democratic wave of voters in Boulder.
“I want to ask the student body to keep this focus,” Chaker says. “Have a voice. Apathy should not be taking the lead role anymore.”