Being an outsider—or at least portraying yourself as one—pays in a Princeton USG presidential race. For the past three presidential elections, the USG Vice President has run and lost to a candidate that promised to be a breath of fresh air in the stale world of Princeton student government. During the 2002 campaign, the hot issue was the new seven-week moratorium for varsity sports teams. Then-Vice President Sonja Mirbagheri said that she planned to work with the administration to overturn the moratorium. Her opponent, Pettus Randall, suggested staging a sit-in at President Tilghman’s office. In 2003, though Jacqui Perlman boasted of her superlative experience on the USG, Matt Margolin’s promises to “raise hell” and “redefine tradition” proved more appealing to the student body.
Neither Randall nor Margolin could assert true outsider status, either politically or socially. Randall was USG Senator before becoming President; Margolin was a U-Councillor. Furthermore, Randall, a KA in Cottage, and Margolin, a member of Ivy, were both comfortably nestled in the Princeton mainstream social scene.
When this year’s USG presidential nominees were announced, it appeared that the race was going to run the same as always: the vice president (Shawn Callaghan) vs. the “outsider” (Leslie-Bernard Joseph). Callaghan emphasized his experience with the USG, urging his constituents to “Be a pal again, vote for Cal(laghan)”, while Joseph promised to “preside over a cultural shift in the organization of the USG.” As in years past, the challenger beat the champion.
Unlike his forerunners, however, Joseph seems to have a legitimate claim to “outsider” standing. The former head of the Black Student Union, he had never held any USG office before running for President. He wanted to go straight to the top. “I didn’t want to be the treasurer. I wanted to say what needed to be said,” he told me last month in an interview in his Feinberg dorm room.
Joseph’s Princeton social experience is also different from past USG Presidential candidates. Joseph is not a member of an eating club. “I can’t afford it,” he explained, adding, “Financial aid for eating clubs is not what they say it is on paper.” He is an R.A. in Wilson College, a position which he said makes him more aware of the mental health, sexual harassment, and alcohol problems that Princeton students face.
“Other USG members might not know what it’s like for freshman girls first semester on the Street,” he pointed out.
Accordingly, nearly all Joseph’s plans for the USG this year involve making Princeton a more “inclusive” place. Besides his highly publicized vision of “Princeton in the Nation’s Service” day, Joseph also hopes to see a revolution on the Street.
“I want the four main Bicker clubs [Cap, Cottage, Ivy, T.I.] off pass two times a semester,” Joseph said, as a solution to the perceived exclusiveness of some clubs on the Street, “especially those considered ‘quintessentially Princeton.’”
While the “outsider” strategy is apparently fool-proof for getting a candidate elected, it remains to be seen if such an attitude can be sustained throughout a Presidential term. Randall’s anti-moratorium sit-in never occurred, and while Margolin raised some decent-sized hell over grade deflation, the issue’s most important outcome—Dean Malkiel’s explanatory letter to graduate schools and employers—resulted from working with, not against, the administration. It appears that you can only be an outsider for so long; once elected, you have to play by the rules.
Joseph has already been chastised for his unconventional, aggressive e-mail style. After two weeks of e-mails with subject headers such as “Take it to Tilghman” and “Let’s Shake Things up a Little” that opened with the salutation, “hey whassup everyone,” administrators asked Joseph to assume a more professional tone. “Note: This e-mail will not contain my usual jovial tone,” he wrote in a February 17 message to the student body about the report on race. E-mails since have demonstrated a more subdued, “presidential” voice.
Indeed, despite his professed disdain for “nuts and bolts” issues, Joseph’s achievements so far have been, though appreciated, rather quotidian: increasing the e-mail quota, including a cross-cultural classes section in the Fall’s course guide, promoting “Sweat,” last weekend’s USG/Alcohol Initiative event at the Fields Center.
Furthermore, his “Top 10” article in the premier issue of Green Light magazine displays a more than willingness to praise the Street culture he claims to disdain. Included among the most powerful people at Princeton were officers at Ivy and T.I., two of the exclusive, “quintessentially Princeton” eating clubs.
Nevertheless, Joseph professes to remain committed to the idealism of his campaign.
“If you can’t tell your friends what you’re doing on the USG and have them be excited about it, you’re not doing your job,” he said.