‘Very exciting, a little intimidating’: Ramanan looks to next year after chaotic Election Day

Next year’s Student Government Board president won the race by a two-to-one margin — but not the candidate that many observers had expected heading into election day.

Independent presidential candidate Harshitha Ramanan bested current board member and favored candidate Tyler Viljaste with about 62.72% of the vote — a margin of 1,222 votes. Ramanan was one of several newcomers to SGB who ran in this year’s elections.

Ramanan said after she was announced as the new president, she was both shocked and excited.

“It was definitely, it was a fun moment,” Ramanan said. “It was very exciting, a little intimidating, but I’m very excited.”

Ramanan secured the presidency with the largest vote percentage in five years, since Natalie Dall won in the 2016 election with 65% of the vote. It is not clear the last time an independent candidate won the SGB presidency — the post is typically won by someone running on a slate, which is similar to a political party.

Ramanan said her win was an unexpected surprise because she was running as an independent candidate against two candidates with more established slates — Vision and Brightside.

“A huge part of why I didn’t think I’d win was because I was an independent candidate, and it was becoming very clear, like even in the first week there were two major parties arising and I was not one of those major parties,” Ramanan said.

But this dynamic quickly shifted right before the election.

The board’s elections committee disqualified Vision the morning of the election after a series of late-night hearings with the elections and judicial committees that ran from Monday night to Tuesday morning. Tyler Viljaste, Brightside’s presidential candidate, filed a complaint Sunday evening claiming that Vision handed out slate-branded shot glasses to first-year students in primarily first-year residence halls — going against the slate’s pre-approved campaign materials distribution plan. With Vision presidential candidate Joe Landsittel off the ballot, Viljaste and Ramanan were the two options left for student voters.

The Vision slate quickly took action, sending emails to clubs that endorsed them and posting Reddit threads that contained strongly worded critiques of SGB — describing it as a “impenetrable clique” — and of Viljaste. The emails and Reddit threads urged students to vote for Ramanan. The slate even briefly changed its Instagram username to “voteharshitha.”

“It took SGB 3 hours and 3 students to silence our THOUSANDS of supporters. There’s nothing we can do. But you can,” the email from Vision said. “VOTE [HARSHITHA] FOR PRESIDENT.”

Landsittel also said Tuesday on Reddit that Vision supported the Betterment slate and independent candidate Daniel Temmallo. He said “change only comes from the outside — never from within.” Vision later posted a Wednesday statement on Instagram condemning personal attacks against Viljaste, calling him a “decent man of good standing.”

Daniel Rudy, a junior and board candidate on the Vision slate, said Thursday that the slate’s endorsement wasn’t “transactional,” and they didn’t expect any positions in SGB if Ramanan was elected. He said Vision only endorsed Ramanan because of their shared policy goals.

“I do just want to make it personally clear our endorsement for Harshitha was because we support her platform and we honestly believed in her ability to do the job, and to do it well,” Rudy said. “I don’t expect or want anything in return for our support for Harshitha.”

Ravi Gandhi, a junior and campaign manager for Vision, said Ramanan’s “outsider” status with SGB and her willingness to “reform” the organization meant she was already “closely aligned” with Vision.

Ramanan said it was “definitely a surprise” to see Vision throw their support behind her, but appreciated it “very much.”

Other students also took to various social media platforms, including the Pitt sub-Reddit page and Instagram, to voice their feelings about the disqualification of the Vision slate. Some students defended Viljaste’s decision to report Vision, others criticized the move as anti-democratic, while others resorted to harassment and threats of violence against Viljaste.

Student Affairs spokesperson Janine Fisher said Thursday morning that the Office of Student Conduct has received a conduct referral related to behavior targeted at Viljaste. Pitt spokesperson Kevin Zwick said the University “expects students to be courteous to each other and commit to maintaining a safe and respectful campus environment.”

Aboli Kesbhat, a junior and board candidate on the Brightside slate, said Pitt students shifted their focus on Tuesday from a conversation about policy to attacks on Brightside slate members.

“Tuesday became nothing about initiatives, it became not about how we want to better the school, not about how we want to build up the school, it became about how can we break individuals down, what can we say about Tyler that is so incredibly slanderous, hateful, harmful to break him and his slate down to be very vulnerable,” Kesbhat said.

Ramanan said if students had taken a moment to think about their actions, the situation wouldn’t have gone to extremes. 

“I am going to choose not to speak about either slate because I think there were mistakes made on both parties or both sides,” Ramanan said. “I think the excitement levels got a little too high and things got a little too intense. I think if there was a moment of calm, for people to reflect before they acted, things could have gone differently.”

Looking to her presidency next year, Ramanan said she hopes to bring in both sides. She said Viljaste and Landsittel had good initiatives and, as president, hopes to work with both candidates.

“I do hope to work with both Tyler and Joe in the future in some capacity, whether they are a form, in some part of SGB or just like personally texting them, getting to know more about SGB, getting to know more about their ideas, because they brought some fantastic ideas to the front of the debate,” Ramanan said.

Landsittel said Ramanan reached out to him Wednesday about potentially joining her Office of the President in some capacity. Landsittel said his job title and specific purview of that role is still in “flux,” and is still talking with Ramanan. He declined to offer more specifics.

“I don’t know if it’s fair for me to say anything that Harshitha has said to me privately that she’s not interested in bringing forward,” Landsittel said.

Viljaste said he has not talked to Ramanan recently.

The SGB president selects members of the Office of the President. The current positions in this office are the chief of staff, operations director and art director. But according to SGB’s governing code, the president can create new positions within the office “in order to accomplish the Board’s agenda.” In addition, the president helps choose committee chairs.

Gandhi added that he is also not interested in serving on SGB next year, and is more focused on reforming it from the outside. Rudy also said he doesn’t intend to seek a position in SGB.

Ramanan said she hopes her becoming president is a good “middle ground” for both the Vision and Brightside slates, adding that she is looking to “build a bridge between the two communities.”