Past Meets Present: Reflections of a Former SBA Senator
By Dean Aynechi, 3L SBA Senator
Life is a series of infinite loops. This realization came to me like a surreal dream as I, Dean Aynechi, California native, SBA senator, former SBA Presidential Candidate and Section 15 SBA representative (Class of 2013) wrapped up my interview with California native, SBA Senator, SBA President Elect and former Section 15 SBA representative A.J. Sutton (Class of 2014). During my interview with A.J., I couldn’t help but note some of the parallel issues and frustrations we faced in our respective roles. After the interview, I wondered whether my own actions have or will reverberate and influence the SBA long after I throw in the towel. Always the introvert, I slowly began to zone out. When the Nota Bene asked me to do some post election coverage for their final issue, I decided instead to share our two stories with you, the constituents.
A.J. Sutton wanted GW Law, but he didn’t think GW Law wanted him. He thought he’d have zero chance of getting accepted, but applied anyway, following an interest in patent law. A.J. got on the wait list and was accepted shortly thereafter. Ecstatic, he came to GW with a work-hard but don’t-gun mentality. He wanted to give something back to the community as a show of appreciation. SBA seemed like an avenue for that, though from the start, he was concerned that he didn’t know anyone and acknowledged a need to work on and improve his communication skills.
Like A.J., I also hail from sunny California, a brisk 2,700-mile, cross-country trek. Like A.J., I had few friends in D.C. when I began my 1L year. I figured the SBA Senate was a great way to meet new people, and at the same time, create a positive sense of identity among my Section 15 peeps (holla if you see me in the streets.) Unfortunately, I gradually came to dislike the general body Senate Meetings.
Being Senator for me was a two-fold job: create a sense of community and take care of the students. I did this by hosting multiple events during my 1L year and by working with the Finance Committee as we attempted to fairly allocate our ever-decreasing budget to an ever-increasing body of student groups. I think I was pretty successful in both respects. The Finance Committee members and I spent some long nights hearing, researching and debating budget requests. (As an aside to student groups: stop sending us excessively bloated budget requests; you do know we research your costs don’t you?) Additionally, I can safely say I stand in the elite company of those students who have successfully gotten a GW professor hammered during happy hour (y’all know who I am talking about). I was also helped by some fantastic committee chairs who deserve the recognition of the student body; Mike Johnson (Finance), Angela Buckner (Academic Policy), Rob Russo (Charter & Constitution) and Mike Williams (Wellness). These individuals donate a substantial amount of time out of their busy schedules to serve the various needs of the student body.
To me, that’s what the SBA boils down to: community service. Representatives give up their free time to help the student community. Over the course of the next two years, I became dismayed by some of the issues that ultimately dominated many general body meetings. I thought that since the purpose of the SBA is to help the students, its not relevant to debate how we should punish senators for being absent or debate the finer intricacies of our by-laws. These issues were superfluous relative to the goal. I started skipping meetings, but I never grumbled. Holly Trogdon, our exiting Vice President was a no-nonsense leader who kept a tight ship. Privately, I thought the idea of impeaching senators was novel since we don’t even have enough people running for office as it is.
A.J.’s campaign, like my own, was also somewhat controversial. Prior to the 2013 campaign, a group of Senators (including A.J.) sponsored and passed the Election Reform Act of 2012. The Act regulated what conduct was permissible and established a disciplinary procedure for those who violated the rules. Guidelines on Internet campaigning were also expanded. During and after the campaign, A.J. was cited for numerous campaign violations that were, according to Election Committee Chair Christen Gallagher, sufficient grounds for terminating his campaign. Only one violation was cited for the combined three other candidates who ran. A.J. became frustrated by what he felt was a continued and targeted effort to discredit his campaign. During the confirmation hearing, he vigorously defended his campaign and criticized the apparent bias shown to him. Independent investigation by this writer revealed that at least two violations from opposing candidate and runner-up, Andrew Beyda, were not reported, but it is unclear why. The Senate, being given a damning report on A.J.’s campaign but considering A.J.’s perspective and defense, voted to confirm him by a controversial 12-6 margin, with four senators abstaining. To my knowledge, all other GW Presidents have been confirmed unanimously.
I couldn’t help but feel sympathetic to A.J.’s frustrations since I shared some of them myself. More importantly, I began to wonder whether I had a hand in the “great electoral tension” he went through. I myself ran for President during my 1L year, challenging a much more experienced and credible candidate, former SBA President Nick Nikic. During the campaign, I made the short-sighted decision to insinuate that Nick’s tenure as a 3L would only amount to a “lame-duck Presidency” and that people should vote for me because I’d have an extra year to get the job done (I swear it was a lot funnier when I first came up with the idea). A couple of my flyers got torn down, and not-so-friendly comments were written on others; a particularly offended supporter of Nick grilled me during a town-hall debate—an incident I fondly remember today. Unsurprisingly, Nick went on to crush me in the election and preside over a successful term.
Reverberations of my past transgressions did not end with defeat. The Election Committee team, appointed by Nick, began a process of revising election guidelines in an effort to establish a non-negative campaign environment. Candidates were prohibited from any negative campaigning whatsoever, subject to their own interpretation of what constituted negative. I, as well as other opposition candidates, were advised not to act “obnoxious” in subsequent campaigns. The Senate, as previously noted, also reformed the official Election Laws (which places significant discretion within the Executive Election Committee to promulgate rules and enforce penalties.) At the end of the year, Nick also took the unusual step of campaigning heavily for current President Mike Lueptow. Mike also soundly defeated his opposing candidate, my good friend Sam Stone, and went on to lead a very hardworking and successful executive branch. Unlike his predecessor, Mike remained on the sidelines when his Vice President of Programming decided to run this year. Although I respect him for his decision, I suspect that A.J.’s slim (but still significant) 37-vote margin of victory might have been different had Mike decided to get involved.
A.J. has since moved on from the controversy and is focusing on his tenure as President. He told me that he will not endorse anyone for next year’s election and will strive to maintain an open and fair election process. During the interview, he also made a surprising commitment to publish both the SBA budget and the allocations of all student groups as part of his campaign to maintain a transparent Presidency (something no President thus far has dared to do.) I tried to press A.J. on his commitment to full transparency, questioning him about the current administration’s policy of not commenting on the recent “Dean-gate” scandal involving the apparent ousting of Dean Berman and the reasons surrounding the administration’s decision not to anoint Dean Bracy as interim-successor. However, A.J. hedged his answers by replying that he would have done things differently, but that in the end, he might have followed the same policy depending on what his own investigation revealed. He argued that the bottom line is that there was no story in the first place. It was clear during the interview that A.J. was cognizant of maintaining good relationships with both those who had served in the SBA in the past and those who will be taking office next year. He repeatedly emphasized his support for Mike and incoming Vice-President Marisa Ortega. A.J., as he should be, was focusing on the future while I was digging up the past.
Did everything come full-circle? Did my actions as a 1L candidate affect the race I witnessed as a 3L student? For better or worse, right or wrong, self-indulgent or objectively accurate, I think they did. This year’s SBA Senate also became a more combative body than the one I joined in 2010, a body that was known for its unanimous approval of laws and camaraderie among senators. While an aggressive tone is sometimes desirable (for instance, when we are debating budgets,) unnecessary confrontation and even personal animosity at times became unproductive. Towards the end of the year, there were multiple debates on eliminating proxy votes and impeaching senators. The highly detailed report on A.J.’s apparent campaign violations and the lively debate that ensued during his confirmation surprised me as well.
But today is a new day. I wish the incoming administration, led by A.J. Sutton (President) and Marisa Ortega (Vice-President,) as well all the incoming Senators, all the best. I hope y’all take my reflections not as criticisms of anyone in particular, but as one man’s perspective and the lessons he learned. Being involved in the SBA is a thankless job, and we all deserve credit for the time we invest in the organization (especially those that take the most demanding positions.) I hope everyone gives themselves a pat on the back and focuses more on what matters most: serving the students.