SGB campaign fosters friendship, competition

By Danielle Fox / Staff Writer

Brandon Benjamin alternated between singing “Roar” by Katy Perry and chanting encouraging phrases Sunday night as he prepared to face the downpour outside of the William Pitt Union.

“Let’s go! Let’s go! L-E-T-S-G-O! Lets! Go!,” Benjamin yelled.

He directed his encouragements toward Mike Nites and Sara Klein, his fellow candidates on the Forward slate for the Student Government Board election.

The three candidates were printing out flyers for the paper campaign that had begun minutes before. During this phase of the campaign season, candidates could begin hanging campaign flyers around campus on billboards, which Benjamin said would become “polluted” with “such a dizzying mess of bright-colored papers that [students] don’t even know what to look at.”

Sign up for our newsletter

Get Pitt and Oakland news in your inbox three times a week.

“What are you doing at 10 p.m. on a Sunday evening?” Andrew Abboud, a candidate from Three Rivers slate, jokingly asked the Forward slate.

Abboud was on his way to post his own flyers, but stopped to give Nites and Benjamin each a hug.

During last year’s election, there were fewer hugs and more competition between candidates. Eighteen students vied for eight board member positions, and the presidential race was heated.

This year, the odds are in the candidates’ favor. Only ten candidates are running for Board, and Nites is the only presidential candidate. While the competition is milder, the candidates said they are not treating the election any differently.

But the number of votes each candidate gets still matters.

The Board candidates who get the three largest amounts of votes will have more power than the other Board members. They will act as representatives to the University Senate, and the Board member who receives the most votes presides over the Board as the president pro-tempore if the president is absent. These incentives drive the candidates to campaign hard, even if their attitudes toward one another are friendly.

For Jake Radziwon, a candidate running independently instead of on a slate, the problem is dress clothes. He hates them.

“My roommates are yelling at me for not wearing ties and are getting annoyed by me asking, ‘Can I borrow your dress shoes?’” Radziwon said.

He prefers casual clothing, and he personally designed the graphic on his campaign shirts.

“I said kiddingly that the main reason I was running was because I wanted a shirt with my name on it,” Radziwon said.

Radziwon is an informal guy. His most popular campaigning event was a tailgate at the Pitt vs. Notre Dame football game, and he thinks SGB should listen first, act second and be there to help the average “kid” with an idea.

Radziwon said he doesn’t possess the same resources that candidates on slates do, and he sometimes feels pessimistic about being an independent candidate.

Last week, WPTS hosted a candidate debate in Nordy’s Place, during which candidates who were on slates took turns representing their slates and answering questions. Radziwon only had himself.

“I went up [to the podium] for my opening statement, and my heart was just like, ‘ba-boom-ba-boom,’” Radziwon said.

While Radziwon found the rigors of the debate terrifying, other candidates had an easier time.

Abby Zurschmit, Mona Kazour and Abboud, who campaign together on the Three Rivers slate, take advice from their campaign slogan and “go with the flow.”

Zurschmit said they picked their name because it was catchy and incorporated Pittsburgh.

“We joke around and say that [our campaign manager] is the Wisconsin Glacial Flow that keeps the rivers moving, but that nobody really notices,” Zurschmit said.

The Wisconsin Glacial Flow Zurschmit was referring to is an aquifer that contributes water to the Ohio river.

To keep with the theme, Abboud said the slate spends a lot of time listening to John Fogerty’s hit, “Rolling on the River.”

But during all-day campaign poster painting sessions, Kazour said the group bonds over the summer hits of the 1990s.

Candidates spend anywhere from three to eight hours a day with their slate members making posters, working on their campaigns and speaking to student organizations. On a Sunday, some candidates speak to 10 student organizations.

Add that on top of class and extracurriculars, and each candidate has a full schedule.

In an effort to save time while rushing from class to Downtown for a promotional photoshoot, Nites, Klein and Benjamin got up close and personal with one another as they changed in the car on the way.

Unfazed by the makeshift dressing rooms, Klein said the real shock was when Benjamin pulled a shaving razor out of his suit jacket and began shaving his face before having his picture taken.

Lately, members of the slates have begun to notice that they’ve gained a great deal of chemistry. This chemistry has, at times, manifested itself in playful teasing. Benjamin said there is a general flow to the way his slate speaks to student organizations — as long as Nites, a self-described rambler, speaks accordingly.

“Sometimes, Mike just says things that kill the flow and will give us no opportunity to continue, and we just say, ‘Damnit, Mike.’” Benjamin said.

Nites laughed when Benjamin said this and agreed.

Lauren Barney, who is running independently instead of as part of a slate, is taking a different approach to campaigning.

Barney has been the only candidate to not attend campaigning events offered by the Elections Committee or to meet extensively with student organizations.

Barney said campaigning should focus on why a candidate wants to make changes.

“Forget about the who and the what, it’s the why that keeps the campaign going,” Barney said.

Every candidate faces unique problems while campaigning.

For Ron Reha, Ellie Tsatsos and Graeme Meyer, members of the Pitt Gold slate, the hardest parts of the campaign have been making time for schoolwork, keeping their suits pressed and dealing with the amount of “crickets” they hear when speaking to student groups, as Reha put it.

Reha said there is a lack of participation from the student body, and very few students ask his slate any questions.

“The toughest question we had is, “What type of sex toy would you be?,’” Reha said.

Meyer said he has been asked only two questions in the campaign so far.

Tsatsos said her slate has had to explain to many students what SGB is and what the Board does, instead of going into detail about members’ campaign platforms.

“We don’t get a chance to show that we’ve done all this work,” Tsatsos said.

One question that Benjamin and Klein said comes up repeatedly is, “Are you related to the Druids?”

The Druids is a secret society on campus. Last spring, The Pitt News reported that six members of the current Board were involved in the society. The student body spoke out against these members’ actions and cried that the situation displayed a lack of transparency.

Nites, who currently serves on the Board, said it is typical to see low interest in SGB after a particularly dramatic term, which would explain the small number of candidates.

Benjamin said events such as the Druids scandal made people distrust SGB, and it left a bit of “saltiness” in students’ opinions of the Board.

“The image of being on SGB is not advantageous right now,” Benjamin said. “It’s not the public victory that it used to be.”