As part of Student Government History Month, a study of power plays is warranted. One of the best-timed political grabs in my personal experience occurred during Spring Break 2005, when then-Speaker of the Senate Cristobal “Chris” Vega at UW-Milwaukee (UWM) opted out of the so-called “Legislative Congress” or LegCon hosted by the self-important United States Student Association (USSA, not to be confused with insurance group USAA). While the other established stars of the UWM Student Association (SA) were away at play, Vega and the hungry newcomers held their own university-recognized Student Senate meeting with just enough officials present to achieve quorum, or the minimum number of voting members — usually any amount over 50% — required to take binding action. This brings me to a lesson learned:
Never take a leave of absence without first committing colleagues to your cause.
Vega filled the power vacuum while the main players were away in D.C. with their busy schedules of partying, sightseeing, barhopping, and perhaps lobbying elected officials for a few hours out of the entire five-day trip. He spoke one-on-one with those in town about how the cliques in the SA were treating us like second-class citizens and how we could reverse the roles by holding a Student Senate meeting that weekend.
The first point of order on the Student Senate agenda was the approval of additional voting members. Because we achieved quorum before the additions and because we approved the same unanimously, the new student senators were approved by a majority of the committee of the whole (all sitting officials, whether present or absent) and hence were added to the voting roster. The soon-to-be surprised LegCon goers had become outnumbered by a new majority!
Vega showed how one could grow and rally the “B Team” to wrest control from the “A Team.” Note that I said “grow and rally” because mobilizing existing support players is not enough; one must expand the roster to have numbers on your side to win democratic power struggles. Let’s just say that the SA should have proactively amended its definition of quorum to be a super-majority or at least arranged for more student senators to be out of town during LegCon.
The student government elections the following month wiped clean most of the slate for when the new officials took office that June. Nonetheless, the Vega coup was an experiment in how disparate interests can be unified under the banner of “oppression” to promote and sometimes effect democratic change. Rather than go into a dead-end spiel about how this plays out in modern national politics, I instead identify another lesson learned:
A good gesture stymied remains a good gesture.
Perhaps as a reward for my cooperation, Vega appointed me to the Executive Committee in late April and held a contest to reward the student senator who delivered the most “class raps” or brief announcements of SA happenings prior to class. I was on the agenda for approval at the May meeting and was on track to win the class announcement contest. However, the Student Senate failed to achieve quorum for its May meeting — something which I learned through later experience was actually a time-(dis)honored tradition of blowing off the final Student Senate meeting of the academic year.
So although the Student Senate never confirmed my seat on the Executive Committee or recognized officially the rankings in the class announcement contest, the specter of such blandishments was very motivating. I would see this pattern of “coincidentally” withdrawn golden apples in other organizations, thereby leading me to conclude it is a common but scarcely named control tactic, a subtle form of manipulation — and that’s the most effective kind! I’m grateful to have observed those lessons in a low-stakes environment such as the SA because it equipped me to watch for those situations in other areas of life such as group projects, maintaining roommates, and pretty much anything involving cooperation.