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Campus Election Seasons Provide Political Intrigue

At the University of Texas at Austin and Texas A&M University campuses, the student body election seasons have been anything but ordinary.

John Lawler, a candidate for student body president at the University of Texas, talks with a student on the West Mall.

Most politicians in Texas spent February awaiting final word on the state’s redrawn political maps. Court delays pushed the state’s primary date from Super Tuesday — when Texas could have exercised some influence — to the end of May.

In short, it has been very quiet.

But those craving political intrigue this spring need look no farther than the University of Texas at Austin and Texas A&M University campuses, where student body election seasons have been anything but ordinary.

At UT, two candidates for student body president were disqualified for campaign violations. One of those students sued the university and the state over the constitutionality of the election rules.

At A&M, Jose Luis Zelaya ran a failed bid for student body president that attracted attention because of his illegal immigration status. And Samantha Ketcham ran to become the first woman to be A&M’s yell leader — a position once held by Gov. Rick Perry — and briefly appeared to have made it into a runoff. But when the results were tabulated again, she had fallen short.

“The fact that some untraditional candidates rose in the election process, that they were encouraged to run and the students handled it with respect, says a lot about the student body,” said John Claybrook, who was elected student body president at A&M after enduring some drama.

On the night of the March 2 election, Claybrook, who won more than 60 percent of the vote, was disqualified for allegedly exceeding his $1,800 campaign spending limit. He appealed, and the ruling was overturned.

Things have gone further at UT, where no presidential candidates had been disqualified from the student elections in more than a decade. But this year, there were two.

Madison Gardner was disqualified because photos of a candidate for Student Events Center president appeared in Gardner’s promotional materials — the election code prohibits candidates for different offices from associating with one another. He took the school and the state to court.

“I’m really passionate about this because I love my university,” Gardner said.

On Feb. 28, a Travis County judge issued a temporary restraining order, postponing the Feb. 29 presidential election for at least two weeks. A hearing is expected this week.

Yaman Desai’s campaign had earlier been ruled ineligible when a campaign representative misrepresented herself as a university official in an attempt to retrieve information about a rival candidate.

“I made mistakes, and I take full responsibility for what happened,” Desai said. He said the thought of legal action had never crossed his mind. “We would not be able to afford to sue UT, and even if we could, we would never want to do that. I love being at UT so much I don’t think I could stomach it.”

Gardner said he had paid for his lawyers with his own money. Some students, including John Lawler, another UT presidential candidate, have expressed concerns that Gardner’s actions, if successful, could tip the scales in favor of students with greater financial resources. Lawler added that the turbulence of this election cycle indicated that the election code was working, not the opposite.

“In my four years here, there has been a scandal with student government elections every year,” he said. “The scandal that has always persisted is that people get away with it.”

Thor Lund, who will also be on the presidential ballot, said that despite the turmoil with the election process, the experience had been positive and educational.

“Some of the stuff in national politics, some of the back stabbing, so to speak, does really start at the university level,” he said.

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