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Abuse directed at U. student candidates mars election, draws warning

Published March 16, 2011 2:12 pm

Campus politics • The Represent party dominates elections, but tree got 549 votes.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2011, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Dusty Hansen placed his face around the University of Utah campus in the form of posters billing his candidacy to represent the College of Humanities in the student assembly. He didn't bargain on vandals adding facial tattoos he says are associated with a street gang known as the Mexican Mafia.

Another student says she found her posters stuffed under her door at the residence halls after someone had apparently torn them down.

Those incidents were part of an unprecedented wave of personal and racially tinged attacks on U. candidates for student government, which prompted stern statements from administrators and student leaders.

While tame in comparison with what occurs at some U. football games, the abuse has raised concerns about campus civility and spurred an anti-racism rally on campus Wednesday. Some suspect the derogatory comments will discourage students from participating in future elections.

"The leadership of the University of Utah does not and will not condone speech that is defamatory or obscene. While we encourage our faculty, staff and students to engage in thoughtful and critical dialogue, it is essential that those participating in the conversations respect the dignity of individuals," wrote David Pershing and Barbara Snyder, the U.'s vice presidents for academic and student affairs, respectively, in a public statement Wednesday.

This year's election pitted two parties, the racially diverse VO!CE and the Greek-affiliated Represent. In voting that ended Wednesday, Represent swept VO!CE. Neela Pack and Tobin Bennion will assume office as president and vice president, respectively, of the Associated Students of the University of Utah. Represent candidates claimed 56 of 64 assembly and senate seats.

Ficus Tree, a leafy figure occupying a green plastic pot, garnered up to 549 write-in votes. (Officials did not tally votes for each write-in candidate, which in past years included Jesus, Chuck Norris and other ineligible non-students.)

Pack and Bennion won 2,159 votes to opponents Ata Siulua and Lavinia "Nia" Taumoepeau's 1,465. This year's 450-vote bump in turn out could be attributed to Ficus Tree's active campaigning, championed by a computer science student to draw attention to low voter turnout in student elections.

Dusty Hansen, a VO!CE candidate, had removed his vandalized posters days before voting started Tuesday. According to VO!CE leaders, some minority candidates have been taunted that they don't stand a chance against the "white" party.

Such conduct and worse is not uncommon in student elections at many big campuses, according to Butch Oxendine, executive director of the American Student Government Association.

"The more contentious the election gets and desirable the office gets, it starts mimicking national politics," Oxendine said. He suggested schools' student codes should single out campaign abuses for sanctions, although holding anonymous perpetrators accountable is difficult.

"What can you do if you can't prove who did it? You can't penalize the party" that presumably benefits from acts of abuse, he said.

Earlier this month in Cedar City, posters for an openly gay student running for office at Southern Utah University were decorated with insults targeting the candidate's sexual orientation.

During the three-week U. campaign, student candidates debated ways to make parking more available, develop a stronger voice on campus, make education more affordable and other bread-and-butter issues for students.

But under the surface was a stream of ugly rhetoric, much of it playing to racial and cultural stereotypes. Represent candidates were called "terrorists" and "spoiled brats." Candidates from VO!CE were tagged the "ghetto" party. Vandals overwrote platforms on many candidates' posters, with suggestions about expanding welfare and affirmative action or making drugs freely available.

"It may seem like a thoughtless tactic, but it shows something about our society, that race still matters," said political science student Alissa Skinner, who organized Wednesday's anti-racism rally and is not affiliated with either party. "It's important to show solidarity and that this is a space where they belong and they can be successful in their endeavors."

Among those who addressed the rally was current student president Chase Jardine.

Officials are investigating the abuse at the U., but have yet to identify any perpetrators, according to Lori McDonald, the U.'s student conduct officer. Many of the acts violate student code provisions against destroying campus property and intimidating

In a joint statement, party leaders said they were shocked and disgusted by what they have witnessed.

"Some candidates are even being targeted at their place of residence and many students do not feel safe going to class. These are just a small sample of a culture of intolerance that we acknowledge is hidden within our campus, community, and country. ... Exploits of classism, racism, sexism and other forms of discrimination are filled with hatred and must be confronted for the betterment of the University of Utah and our community as a whole," they wrote. "Regardless of the outcome of this election, we are determined to stand up against such intimidation tactics."

bmaffly@sltrib.com