The Underdogs

A definitive history of Student Government’s offbeat candidates

The Underdogs

On Feb. 11, 1977, the regents of the University of Texas were being addressed by a UT-Austin student. The regents wore the usual regalia of esteemed men who do important things: suits, ties, neatly shined shoes, and spectacles. The young man speaking to them had dark curly hair hanging down to his shoulders and wore mirrored aviator sunglasses and a crumpled stovepipe hat.

“Trying to run any kind of government as a comedian is like tap dancing in mud,” he admitted. “It would be wonderful if you could do it, but you have a tendency to sink in.”

The student was Jay Adkins, and he was the president of the student body. Adkins, BA ’78, JD ’82, was elected along with vice president Frederick “Skip” Slyfield, BA ’77, on a promise to “avoid all issues,” though they also promised to host garage sales on the 50-yard line during football games, barbecue Bevo (it would not have been the first time), and change the inscription on the front of the Main Building from “Ye shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free” to “Money Talks.”

Adkins and Slyfield ran, unsurprisingly, on the Absurdist ticket, promoting a platform they called “Arts and Sausages” and generally copping a kind of post-flower-power attitude that bore the smudgy fingerprints of its era: the anti-authority comedy of NBC’s groundbreaking young sketch show Saturday Night (the network would soon affix “live” to the name) and the blurry surrealism of Hunter S. Thompson. Many on campus were annoyed, though proposed reforms to the student government apparatus were not pushed through, since the Student’s Association couldn’t reach the required quorum to vote at meetings. To promote a spring blood drive, Adkins and Slyfield posed for a photo spilling their own blood on a campus sidewalk.

But heavy is the head that wears the crown—or in this case top hat—and the responsibilities of leadership seemed, at least in that moment he stood before the regents, to weigh on Adkins. When they heard the remarks, Absurdist party members quickly rebuked their leader because, as the Cactus yearbook noted, “They felt that the address invalidated a lot of the things Arts and Sausages represented.”

In the end, the whole shebang was invalidated—and maybe that was the point. The following year, students voted to abolish Student Government altogether. The Absurdist administration marked the end of what Student Government’s website now euphemistically calls  “The Activist Years.”

The Adkins episode, and others like it over the last half century, highlight the tension that seems to be inherent in the very notion of student governance. Some see the idea of representing the broad, diverse, and at times divided student body as a joke. Others make it a joke. But to those who see its potential to shape, teach, and test young leaders, both are anathema. Throughout its history, Student Government has served as a bully pulpit for all of them. As a result, its utility, and the utility students see in it, has seesawed wildly over the years.

This fall, a new crop of student leaders returns to campus. They bring with them a long tradition of sticking it to The Man by being The Man—or at least trying to be. Every regime has its critics, every pharaoh his Moses, every Sarah Palin her Tina Fey. In the case of Student Government, there is a cherished and persistent tradition of running joke candidates whose platforms satirize or outright oppose the goals of student leadership. And sometimes, as was the case of Adkins, they succeed so thoroughly that they inherit the very power (or lack thereof) that they set out to tear down. That will again be the case this year.

From the beginning, UT students have exhibited good humor. When the university’s first mascot—a dog named Pig—died in 1923, students donned black, organized a funeral procession complete with pallbearers, and posted signs that read “Pig’s Dead. Dog Gone.” And yes, the burly boys of varsity ate Bevo I at the 1920 football banquet. Despite their claims to the contrary, self-seriousness is much more of an Aggie thing. Longhorns may sip tea, but they’re not above a spit-take.

The organization of a governing body, however, is by definition a serious endeavor. To represent student interests and convey them to administrators, regents, and legislators is not something to be taken lightly. It’s difficult since, by and large, students haven’t been particularly good at figuring out how they intend to carry out that duty. It’s true that since its establishment in 1902, UT Student Government has produced a number of future leaders on the state and national levels. But it’s also faced its share of stumbles, especially since the so-called Activist Era.

In 1971, the name was changed from the Student’s Association to Student Government. In 1976, it was changed back. 1977 saw the Absurdists take control, and ’78 saw the disbanding of the whole thing. In ’83 it was reinstated, and in ’96 the name was changed, once again, to Student Government. And, of course, there are the seemingly perennial allegations of rule-breaking in elections. Tickets, tantamount to political parties that run allied candidates down the ballot, were eliminated in 2008. Now the president and vice president still run together on what would normally be called a ticket, but here it’s known as an “executive alliance.” In 2012, the campaign violation claims were so serious that, for the first time in more than a decade, a candidate was disqualified. In fact, two candidates were disqualified, and a Travis County judge issued a temporary restraining order that delayed the hotly contested election. The ordeal even made the The New York Times.

While the Gray Lady has covered the machinations of UT’s student establishment, some of the university’s most effective raging-against-the-machine has come in print. In 1914, the publication of an alternative newspaper on campus called The Blunderbuss resulted in four suspensions. In the 1960s, when counterculture was sincere and not yet absurd, students published the Rag. From 1923-72 UT saw the remarkable run of the Texas Ranger, an award-winning humor magazine. Before all of those, however, there was the Daily Texan, a publication which has figured into the history of Student Government in ways that go beyond mere news coverage.

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When the student body gave another shot at self-determination after the debacle of the Adkins administration, a number of candidates vied for the chance to rebuild. Paul Begala was one of them. Begala, BA ’83, JD ’90, Life Member, would later go on to advise President Bill Clinton and other prominent Democrats. But in 1982, he was struggling. On Oct. 19, Hank T. Hallucination entered the race for student body president against Begala. Hank was a character from the comic strip “Eyebeam,” published in the Texan. A green, dinosaur-ish monster, Hank was exactly what his name suggested: a hallucination. Even in the imaginary world created by the comic’s artist, Sam Hurt, BA ’80, JD ’83, Hank wasn’t real. But that didn’t stop his momentum. At least 1,000 students signed a referendum to ensure that Hank’s write-in votes would be counted and announced. A rally was held—Hankstock—in support of his candidacy. He was described wryly as a “dream candidate” by his campaign manager, a savvy law student named Steve Patterson.

KMBT_C454-20150527144859“He’s the perfect candidate for the illusion of student government,” Patterson, BBA ’80, JD ’84, Life Member, told the Texan on Oct. 27, 1982. “He’s vague on the issues. You can see right through his bullshit—and practically everything else.”

Patterson went on to become UT’s current athletic director. Hank went on to win the election.

Doubly fictional entities cannot serve, of course, and Begala won the runoff.

“I’m not one to make a broad philosophical statement on a joke, and that’s how [Hank’s victory] ought to be taken—as a joke,” Begala told the Texan after Hank’s initial victory.

“He’s the perfect candidate for the illusion of student government. He’s vague on the issues. You can see right through his bullshit—and practically everything else.”

In 2012, the same year the Student Government election was making headlines in The New York Times, Begala described the ’82 race and the resurrection of Student Government to the Alcalde. “The rap was [Student Government] would breed a bunch of little campus politicos,” he said. “My answer was, yes! We train junior journalists, junior businessmen, junior everything. That’s how you develop a Jake Pickle or a John Connally.”

As the contemporary Connallys kept their control of Student Government, the latter-day absurdists found voice again in 1997, when the Texas Travesty debuted on the burgeoning medium of the Internet. The love child of The Onion and The Harvard Lampoon, the Travesty was riding the fake news wave before Jon Stewart made it cool. In 2009, they began running candidates on platforms that were more concept album than manifesto. The candidates were often editors of the paper, and thus far have been particularly adept at catching the student body’s attention. Like their forebears, they twinge their silliness with satire. In 2010 their candidate, Aaron Walther, BA ’11, Life Member, styled himself as an iron-fisted dictator who vowed to gouge out the eyes of his subjects so that they could not see the inner workings of his reign. The next year, David McQuary, BBA ’13, and Hannah Oley, BA ’12, claimed to be a human-robot duo sent from the future to defeat Natalie Butler, BA ’12, BS ’12, Life Member.

3This year, editors Xavier Rotnofsky and Rohit Mandalapu took up the mantle of mocking leadership. “This campaign isn’t just about what we can do to help the university,” they wrote in their official candidate statement, “but also how it can help us buff up our résumés and have something to talk about at interviews.” They signed it “Love, [redacted].” There was no central gimmick this time, just two very funny students who were remarkably adept at hitting their potential voters where they lived: online.

The pair produced web videos, including an attack ad on themselves, that spread like wildfire. Their humor lies somewhere between Cartoon Network’s [adult swim] and the old school outrageousness of the Arts and Sausages crowd. Their logo is an outline of California with the slogan “What Starts Here?” Their poster lists their website as www.Stereos4Sale.com. If Adkins and Slyfield bore the hallmarks of the ’70s, Rotnofsky and Mandalapu are blinking with the fast-moving, self-referential, pop culture-laden LED lights of today.

They earned 26 percent in the general election and forced a runoff, which saw a record 9,445 students turn out. Shockingly, the duo known as “RotMan” won in a landslide.

The Austin Chronicle called them “perhaps the most historic (or at least, comically memorable) election winners since Hank the Hallucination.” They may also prove to be some of the most effective, or at least effective. Quickly after taking office, RotMan filed a resolution calling for the removal of the controversial Jefferson Davis statue on campus, and though their argument referenced the Nickelodeon show Drake & Josh, it was genuine. They’ve come out strongly against guns on campus, a common biennial concern of Student Government, and wrote a very forceful, if very funny, letter to the Texas Legislature on the topic. What separates Rotnofsky and Mandalapu from previous playful presidents is the fact that comedy is the medium, but not necessarily the message.

Unlike Adkins and Slyfield nearly 40 years ago, the two Plan II students in charge today learned how to use humor to help earlier rather than later. Can you be a comedian and a Connally? Can you tap dance in mud? Rotnofsky and Mandalapu say they’ll try.

“We’re going to try and get work done while maintaining a sense of humor about ourselves,” Rotnofsky told the Chronicle after their win. “People respond to comedy and honesty.”

In the pages of the May 2015 issue of Texas Monthly, the same magazine where his unlikely election had been written about back in 1977, Jay Adkins, now an attorney, offered his spiritual successors some advice.

“Remind people that it isn’t just, ‘Grind out four years, get the job, move to the burbs, keep your head down,’ ” he said. “And be funny while you do it, dammit, because anybody can be idealistic and dull. The challenge is to be idealistic and hilarious.”

From top: Jay Adkins poses in front of the Main Building; an “Eyebeam” comic strip featuring Hank the Hallucination; Paul Begala celebrates his runoff victory; Xavier Rotnofsky and Rohit Mandalapu with former UT president Bill Powers; “RotMan” attracts voters with candy.

Credits, from top: S. Pumphrey, Cactus yearbook; Sam Hurt; Guy Reynolds, Cactus yearbook; courtesy Rohit Mandalapu.

 

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