He was never a member of the Yale College Council before he ran for president.
“There needs to be more involvement outside the council,” Zheyao Li ’06 told the News in 2004, explaining his decision to run in that year’s elections. A sophomore in Pierson College at the time, Li accused the body of not understanding the “actual everyday cares of the campus.”
Li was steamrolled at the polls. Andrew Cedar ’06, the only candidate for president that year to have served on the YCC’s Executive Board, cleaned up with 62 percent of the vote, cruising to victory on a platform based on experience.
Li and Carter are gone now, but the experience dynamic remains a factor in YCC elections.
Of the 16 students vying for a spot on the six-member “E-board,” 13 lay claim to holding student-government positions this year, many within the body they now hope to lead. Only three — vice-presidential candidate Jarrett Burks ’10 and Yale Student Activities Committee-chair contenders Kristian Henderson ’09 and Travis Long ’10 — cannot point to extensive student-government credentials. And if the conventional wisdom holds true, that could prove problematic for their campaigns.
Just ask Brent Godfrey ’08, whose campaign for president last year fizzled: The newcomer finished with just 16 percent of the vote in a race that quickly turned into a two-person contest between then-Davenport College representative Rebecca Taber ’08 and then-secretary Zach Marks ’09.
This time around, candidates in the YCC election are scrambling to prove they can best take the reins from predecessors and be, in the words of YSAC-chair candidate Kristian Henderson ’09, “ready on day one.”
“It’s easy for candidates to make campaign promises,” reads the vice-presidential candidacy statement of incumbent Emily Schofield ’09. “But I’ve demonstrated that I’m serious about achieving concrete results.”
Abigail Cheung ’11 delivers a two-line introduction in her candidacy statement for secretary before serving up a three-line section bearing the title “Experience.” Her opponent, Jonathan Edwards College representative Jasper Wang ’10, also touts the “plenty of experience” he has racked up over the last two years.
All the elbowing appears to be justified by hard numbers. At the end of the 2007 election cycle, undergraduate research and marketing firm Maya conducted a survey of Yale College students in an effort to discern trends in Eli voting behavior. After interviewing over 550 voters about how they weighed the candidates in the 2007 election, Maya found that a candidate’s experience ranked highest in voters’ minds. The category “Experience,” Managing Director of Research and Development Michael Truskowski ’08 said, pulled in ahead of runners-up “Personal Recommendations” and “Campaign Platform.”
That poses difficulties for candidates like Burks, Henderson and Long, newcomers to the student-government scene. But all three are looking to confront the challenge — each in his or her own way.
For Henderson, that means trying to demonstrate her competency for the YSAC chairmanship by pointing to her experience in other leadership posts.
“My biggest weakness is being the outsider,” Henderson acknowledged, “so I’ve been trying to stress my experience planning other events and my knowledge of how that process works.”
And Henderson can justly lay claim to experience, although not on YSAC. Since declaring her candidacy last Thursday, Henderson, who said she expects the race to head to a run-off, has been touting her work planning and executing last month’s Black Solidarity Conference. That event brought over 400 students from around the country, along with television personality Tavis Smiley and rapper Lupe Fiasco, to Yale’s campus.
Long has another tactic: visibility. Admitting he has “no experience with YCC,” Long said he has a lot of homework to do but looks forward to the task. Armed with dozens of fluorescent posters bearing his afro’ed visage and the words “Work Horse!” Long said he hopes his grassroots efforts and promises of increased transparency in a Long-run YSAC can mitigate the effect on voters of a perceived dearth of experience.
Of the newcomers, only vice-presidential contender Burks questioned the legitimacy of experience’s place in the pantheon of qualifications for student government. Burks served last year as a Freshman Class Council representative from Berkeley College. Since then, he has stayed out of student government. He told the News on Tuesday that his sabbatical from councils of any kind would allow him to bring personal relationships formed outside the sometimes-claustrophobic world of student government to the YCC.
“For me, it’s not like I’m going to get into that position and then start meeting people,” he said. “That makes bringing issues and complaints to the E-Board more efficient: It’s easier to bring some type of complaint or issue to someone that you already know and you can talk to on a personal and friendly level.”
So far, voters have responded well to his message, Burks said.
“The only people that have given me a hard time about not serving on the YCC have been [the News’ editorial board], Rebecca Taber and the current E-Board,” he said. “The people who I’ve gone out to and seen are ecstatic to actually have someone they know in the race. A lot of people have said to me, ‘It’s cool you’re running, this is the first time I’m voting because this is the first time I know someone who’s running.’ ”
Like other candidates for positions on the board, Burks promises a student-focused YCC if elected. But unlike the others, the Berkeley sophomore is, in his own words, a “fresh face.”
And maybe this year freshness will prove enough — but YCC veterans in the race are not buying it. Henderson’s and Long’s opponents, sitting YSAC representatives Colin Leatherbury ’09 and Jon Terenzetti ’10, both emphasized the importance of previous student-government service.
“From the outside it looks like, ‘I just have to plan this concert and get great acts,’ ” Leatherbury said. “Looking back, the second time shows you all the things you could have done using the freedom you have.”
With a year under their belts, both Leatherbury and Terenzetti cited YSAC’s potential to do more than plan a Fall Show and execute Spring Fling as a major reason to support an experienced candidate. Doing so, Terenzetti said, requires a detailed understanding of YSAC’s place within the broader student-government infrastructure.
“The importance of experience is not so much that you know every little detail of how to put on every event,” he said, “but that you have the institutional knowledge of working within the organization.”
And, Terenzetti said, planning goes more smoothly when the new chair can sit down at the YSAC table in September and already enjoy strong relationships with representatives.
Schofield, Burks’ opponent in the race for vice president, echoed those sentiments. In the decentralized administrative jungle that is the University, Schofield said, she thinks a candidate for a top student-government post must be well-versed in seeking out the right contact for each issue or project the YCC might pursue. She also pointed to gains in efficiency, arising from a firm knowledge of what can and cannot be accomplished in concert with the University.
“You don’t waste time doing things that failed in the past that you don’t know about,” she said. “You’re able to focus on what can be done.”
Ultimately, the final word will rest not with the outsiders or the insiders but with the voters. As they head to the polls and candidates knock on their last doors today, all are awaiting the aggregate results of thousands of individual decisions — the proven or the potential?