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At UC Berkeley, a squirrel ran for student Senate and won — driving some people nuts

At UC Berkeley, a squirrel ran for student Senate and won — driving some people nuts
A campaign ad for Furry Boi, left, created by Stephen Boyle, in squirrel suit at right with newly elected campus President Alexander Wilfert. (Stephen Boyle)

The candidate for a seat in the UC Berkeley student Senate promised safe spaces for squirrels, better access to acorns and support groups for those experiencing habitat loss.

His name was Furry Boi, he campaigned in a squirrel suit and he attracted immediate attention.

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"omg i love him he's so cute," Iris Melody Xu, a UC Berkeley student, wrote on Furry Boi's Facebook page. "Finally, a candidate I can get behind," someone else wrote.

But when the character that sophomore Stephen Boyle had created as a joke actually won one of the Associated Students of the University of California's 20 Senate seats up for grabs last week, the backlash was fast and furious.

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The student newspaper published an editorial calling Furry Boi's election "a travesty."

"It's a shocking display of privilege to vote for a squirrel over candidates who have actual plans to help students who need it," the Daily Californian said. "Instead of electing qualified students who had real, tangible ideas ... many of you (at least 538 strong) thought it might be a funny joke to have a man dressed up in a squirrel costume with no real platforms represent you at the administrative table."

Thirty-seven students were running for the Senate seats. Rigel Robinson, ASUC's elected vice president for external affairs, said Furry Boi had snatched a spot away from serious candidates who could have advanced the work of one of the UC system's most active and visible student governments. Some of those candidates, he said, have put in a lot of hard work, such as organizing students to protest tuition hikes.

"It's deeply disappointing," Robinson said.

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But Furry Boi may surprise his naysayers in the end.

A flood of "obnoxious" electioneering on social media was what prompted Boyle to launch his tongue-in-cheek campaign. All the messages clogging up his feeds gave him the idea to run — and maybe even win and be in a position to push for change.

"Cal is respected worldwide but not necessarily by students on campus," he said. "They feel Cal doesn't take care of them, not like Stanford or the other privates."

So he posted his own campaign ad March 16 on the page of a popular student Facebook group: a photo of a squirrel standing upright with the message, "Furry Boi for Senate."

As he kept posting and started making campus appearances in a squirrel suit, he sensed his campaign's momentum was growing.

Even the Daily Cal, which would later slam his election in its editorial, got on board with a lighthearted story about the candidate, who it said "resides in Berkeley's Eucalyptus Grove."

"As squirrels acclimate to urban settings, they become more comfortable entering human spaces — one such example is Furry Boi, a squirrel who is running independently for ASUC Senate," the story began.

Squirrels actually do have a significant presence at Berkeley.

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The campus is home to hundreds of tree-dwelling fox squirrels, who are subjects of research at the Jacobs Lab for Cognitive Biology, and a Berkeley Squirrels Facebook page has more than 10,000 followers.

"The squirrels on campus are super-frickin' adorable," Boyle said, though one bit him when he tried, while out campaigning, to feed it a sweet potato fry.

Now that Furry Boi has won his seat, Boyle says he has no intention of resigning. In fact, he's broadened his platform to a more serious one that might have more to offer Berkeley students. He posted it on Furry Boi's page this week after he came out as the student behind the squirrel.

In a way, it could be seen as a sneaky switcheroo. Students looking for something different elected a squirrel. Now it seems that he's one of them after all.

Still, Boyle wants to help forge better social ties among Berkeley's fractious student communities and bring back late-night dining hours so students can bond over food. He'd like to reduce food waste and support students with disabilities, an interest stemming from his own battle with bipolar disorder. And he'd like to get rid of boring activities and "cringe-worthy" icebreakers during student tours and orientations, which he said are the worst in the UC system.

"People are my passion," said Boyle, 19, who grew up in Stockton and is majoring in electrical engineering and computer science. "I want people to love each other."

If they give him a chance, he said, "I have a lot of ideas to make big changes."

Twitter: @TeresaWatanabe

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