Hanh Cao was angry. Her roommate was frightened. They had just learned that a right-wing student group called Young Americans for Freedom spiced up a press conference by proclaiming, “Death to Hanh!”
Who is Hanh Cao and what is her crime?
She is a USC student. She is in charge of the student body elections.
Plainly, campus politics at USC are not for the timid. The death ditty--just a joke, the YAFers say--is only one episode in what ranks as a vintage year on a campus where political chicanery is something of a tradition.
Such second-drawer Watergate figures as Ronald Zeigler, Dwight Chapin, Gordon Strachan and Donald Segretti learned a few tricks here. Assemblyman Patrick Nolan (R-Glendale), now a subject of an FBI probe of alleged Capitol corruption, was not merely a Trojan, he was once Tommy Trojan, riding Traveler in the Rose Parade to the strains of “Conquest.” Nolan was also, as a student, a YAF leader.
This time, the power struggle essentially features the reigning Student Senate against a coalition of YAFers and other conservatives bent on takeover. Win or lose, conservatives say, their campaign is another sign of the growing conservatism on the nation’s campuses.
Today, student officials are expected to announce the results of what has been the nastiest election in many years. Or rather, the nastiest two elections. The first election, two weeks ago, was voided amid charges of ballot-box stuffing. Some students admitted to a student judicial council they had voted more than once.
YAFers, in turn, suggest this was an election Ferdinand Marcos would have loved. The Senate, they say, conspired to cheat them out of victory in the first election. (Those allegedly tainted ballots, for the record, were never counted.)
Most Don’t Care
Before the drama becomes overwhelming, however, it is well to remember most USC students don’t give a hoot about campus politics. More than 15,900 undergraduates are eligible to vote; about 2,000 are expected to bother.
Such apathy is bemoaned by student politicos. After all, they point out, the 32-member Student Senate--half graduate, half undergraduate--controls nearly $1 million a year, funding some campus groups and disappointing others. It has pushed for such popular student causes as increased campus security, extended library hours and improved parking facilities, with mixed results.
This Senate has also tried to have a voice in what is sometimes called The Real World. It has attempted, unsuccessfully, to pressure USC’s Board of Trustees to withdraw investments from corporations that do business with South Africa. Part of the idea, says Senate President Phil Clement, is to change USC’s image from the “University of Spoiled Children” to the “University of Social Consciousness.”
But “this divestment thing,” as conservative undergraduate Brad Walters put it, became a touchstone for campus conservatives. A coalition formed that includes several present and former members of Phi Delta Theta fraternity, in addition to the YAFers. The conservatives put together a full slate of 16 undergraduate candidates and at least one graduate candidate.
Like Presidential Campaign
Andrew Segal, past president of the “Phi Delts” who is expected to graduate in June, assumed a leadership role and entered the race for a graduate seat. Inspired by a class taught by well-known Los Angeles political consultant Joseph Cerrell, Segal developed a game plan he called “a microcosm of the presidential election.”
Just as the Bush people turned that election into a referendum on liberalism, the student conservatives made their contest a referendum on the Senate, arguing that it is too liberal to represent USC’s student body. In addition to divestment, they attacked Senate “junkets” and funding for a gay and lesbian students group.
Student senators counterattacked, labeling YAF as extremist. “I’ve been quoted as saying YAF is half a step left of the skinheads, and I do believe that,” Clements said recently. The Student Senate, on the other hand, is a mix of liberals, moderates and conservatives that fairly reflects USC’s student body, he says.
YAF President Ken Dubberly, 21, concedes that his group has an image problem--so much so that he has left references to YAF off some campaign advertisements. Dubberly insists the USC chapter, which claims 75 members, is part of the conservative mainstream.
“People call us racist, but we’re not,” he said. “People call us Nazis, but I don’t think those people know the meaning of fascism.”
Two weeks ago, some conservative candidates were accused of campaign irregularities. Under the election rules, the 16 undergraduate seats are divided among four constituencies: four seats representing the Greeks, four representing residence halls, four for students who live off-campus in the immediate ZIP code area and four for commuter students.
Five conservatives, including Segal, were disqualified for running for seats for which they did not qualify. Later, some were reinstated--but only as write-in candidates. “I was railroaded,” Segal said.
Then came the first elections, from March 6 to March 10. More than 2,300 students voted, the most in years, but there were numerous charges of ballot-box stuffing--students were able to enter the voting area more than once because lax poll watchers did not cross off their names the first time they voted.
Finally, the student Judicial Council wiped out the election and ordered stricter guidelines for a replacement contest. Candidate eligibility rules were clarified, and the manager of the first election--a conservative--was stripped of his duties. In stepped Hanh Cao, a member of the Judicial Council who had run elections in the past.
Clement denies YAF allegations that student government leaders conspired against conservatives, noting that he and other senators had argued to let the first election stand.
“They say the rules were designed to keep them out,” he said. “Well, they’re the ones who are breaking the rules. The rules were designed to keep out the people who break the rules.”
Tactics Tame Now
Cerrell, the influential political science instructor, sees USC’s current electoral troubles as tame compared to the “shenanigans” of yore. When he attended USC in the 1950s, he once hired a stripper named “Patti Waggin” to drum up support for his candidate among the fraternities. Even so, “my guy lost,” Cerrell said.
More recently, troubles in the 1971 student election prompted the USC administration to abolish the old government system and develop a new one. Clement maintains that political life has been relatively clean over the last few years, especially when contrasted with other campuses. At student leadership conferences, Clement says, politicians from other schools sometimes boast about how they’ve rigged the elections.
Although the conservatives accuse Clement and other senators of rigging this one, they at times have proved to be their own worst enemy. Such was the case at the press conference held last weekend to denounce the senate’s handling of the election--marred when at least one YAFer proclaimed, “Death to Hanh.”
Questioned on campus this week, the group’s leaders initially disavowed any knowledge of such statements. “It’s stupid to call for someone’s death. We’re not right-wing death squads roaming the campus,” said YAFer Wayne Bowen.
Later, however, Segal offered another version of the press conference after complaining that published reports blew it out of proportion. What really happened, he said, was that the guys were getting their picture taken, and instead of saying “cheese,” somebody said, “Death to Hanh.” Just a joke, he stressed. Others confirmed this account.
That is the version that Hanh Cao accepts.
“ ‘Death to Hanh’ . . . that’s what makes them smile,” the election commissioner said. “Right now I want to treat it like it never happened and just do the elections and get it over with. . . .
“Hopefully, I won’t have to deal with these people again.”