GUSA Senate: the Few, the Proud

February 19, 2009

“Last week’s discussion got bogged down a little bit, so if you’ll bear with me for a couple of minutes, I’d like to read you all something I wrote … to help focus our minds,” Tyler Stone (COL ’09) intoned in a fatherly voice as he nonchalantly took the podium at the February 4 meeting of the Georgetown University Student Association Senate.

Stone then began reading an editorial he had written for the February 3 issue of The Hoya-the entire editorial-which, he explained, was originally written as a speech. As Stone orated to 24 members of the GUSA Senate and about half as many guests, the audience’s respectful silence turned into skeptical discomfort. When Stone began his conclusion-“Diversity, one way or another, is our destiny…”-one Senator let loose a nervous laugh.

Stone’s February 4 speech not only made the debate on the Student Commission for Unity’s recommendations one of the tensest nights in the Senate’s short history-it revealed a few things about the inner workings of the GUSA Senate, not the least of which was Stone’s importance. No one else could have gotten the chance to speak first on one of the hottest issues of the year for 10 minutes without interruption. Stone got it simply because he asked Speaker Reggie Greer (COL ‘09), and when he talks, Stone seems to have a way of getting what he wants. Although he has been involved in GUSA for less than a year following a two year stint at Davidson, Stone, every inch the politician, has engrained himself in the organization, visiting campus newspaper offices after meetings, lobbying in whispers while the Senate is in session, and voicing his well-crafted opinion on every bill.
But Stone is by no means the only central character in the GUSA political machinery.

“Senate debates are usually controlled by about six people,” Johnny Solis (SFS ‘11) said. The five others are members of what Solis only half-jokingly calls “the ‘Bro’ clique”: not exactly Senate elite, but powerful, vocal senators who often see eye-to-eye.

Solis won’t name any names, but when the body meets, it’s pretty clear who enjoys the bonds of “‘Bro’-therhood”: Stone, Matt Wagner (SFS ‘11), Andrew Butler (COL’11), Justin Kirschner (COL ‘11), Tim Swenson (COL ‘10), and a few lucky freshmen like Sam Hyman (COL ‘12), to name just a few.
Stone says there’s no conspiracy-he never lounges around with other key players dreaming up ways to push their agenda-but he can’t deny that the “‘Bro’ clique” exists.

“I think it’s natural for any student group … to develop a leadership core,” he said.

Stone has mastered a calculated, congenial tone of voice that gives him an air of levelheadedness, no matter what he’s saying.

“A group of people who were elected to be leaders, either who have the strength of character or who voice their opinions … end up running the show, or at least having more influence over the process than other people,” he said.
But there’s more to the “Bros” than the strength of their characters. As Vice Speaker Nick Troiano (COL ‘11) put it, the clique is “characterized by people with seniority, people who have been there longer, who really know the depths of issues.”

Wagner is the best example of a Senator with a sense of history. He thinks the Senate’s largest shortcoming is that “it has to reinvent the wheel every single year [because] half, if not more, of the Senate is usually freshmen.” If the Senate had a historian (or a better record-keeping system), its members could build on what it has already done instead of readdressing old issues, Wagner said.

Perhaps Wagner gets his eye for Senate history from good friend Eden Schiffmann (COL ‘08), a former Speaker, Senate co-creator, and all-around GUSA guru. When I e-mailed the recent grad for what I assumed would be a phone interview, he told me he just happened to be in Georgetown that day, and ended up giving me an exhaustive lesson on the birth of the Senate for an hour and a half in the M Street Starbucks. Schiffmann is the original “Bro”: he shows a deep passion for student government, and he’s a Sigma Epsilon brother to boot. (Historically, there have been many members of Sig Ep in the current Senate, including high-profile members like Wagner).

When Schiffmann arrived at Georgetown in 2004, GUSA was considered a campus joke. It consisted of two parts: the Executive branch and the Assembly, a legislative body made up of four representatives from each class. In 2006, Schiffmann, along with Twister Murchison (SFS ’08) and Matt Stoller (COL ‘08), scrapped the old system and came up with a new one based on geographical elections. Schiffmann’s new system also gave the Senate the power to peek into the pocketbooks of other student groups, after discovering clubs on campus had squirreled away a total of $804,000 in savings accounts for a mysterious rainy day that never came.

Wagner and other big names know this story by heart, though more casually involved Senators are less conversant with GUSA’s past. This well-rounded knowledge of Senate affairs is a source of clout for the “‘Bro’ clique.” For example, when Josh Mogil (SFS ‘11), who is running for GUSA president, piped up at a recent meeting that he had talked to administrators and faculty about the issue of extending the add/drop period, Wagner took the wind out of his sails with a quick, authoritative, “Were you aware of what the Senate did last year on that issue?”

Troiano, a transfer student from American University, has sometimes felt that the bigshots of the GUSA community try to elbow him out of the way whenever he opposes them.

“The worst meeting I’ve ever been to is the meeting concerning SAC,” Troiano said, referring to the uproar caused by a power struggle between the two organizations in the fall of 2008. “The leadership … decided to apply the rules to limit my voice … A few people thought, ‘Who’s this other kid trying to do something without our permission? That’s not the way things are supposed to work.'”
Stone butted heads with Troiano that night, which a number of Senators called one of the most contentious moments of the school year. On Nov. 17 of last year, some GUSA members attended a SAC meeting. When SAC Chair Sophia Behnia expelled the press and guests for a vote, Troiano refused to budge. His impromptu sit-in made Stone concerned that Troiano was burning the bridges between SAC and GUSA that Stone had worked so hard to build.

Two days later, at the GUSA meeting following the SAC fiasco, Troiano was still talking about SAC when Stone wanted to move on to other issues. When Stone couldn’t take it any more, he stood up, slammed his fist down on his desk, and pointed at Troiano, yelling over the din, “Shut up, Nick! I want to talk to you after the meeting.”

Stone’s side of the story is essentially the same, if more sheepishly told, but the interesting part of the exchange was the aftermath.
“I actually met with him for coffee later to apologize,” Stone said. “I kind of said, ‘Hey, back off. Matt Wagner and I and a few other people know what we’re doing. Just calm down and let us handle it.'”

It’s not a typical apology, but Stone is right-the “‘Bro’ clique” knows how to get things done. In fact, they’re so forceful, they often steamroll right over Speaker Reggie Greer. “Even though we have a speaker … it’s tough for him to keep us on the right path,” K’Sean Henderson (COL ‘12) said. Many senators described Greer as sweet, but less forceful than the Senate’s last Speaker, Eden Schiffmann (COL ‘08).

Greer describes his leadership style as decentralized. “I’m more hands off, but I like to think if someone wants to do something, they do it.”
Many Georgetown students think the Senate does nothing at all, but a student government’s progress looks a little different from the inside.

“Everyone wants to think that student government should be effective and just bang out legislation as fast as it can,” Stone said. “You don’t want that … If we voted on and approved everything that came our way, that would be terrible.”

The “‘Bro’ clique” excels in separating the bills they like from the bills they don’t. Giving the Senate a nudge in the right direction isn’t necessarily a bad idea; Senate insiders have headed some of the year’s most widely praised achievements. Stone, for example, worked extensively with the Department of Public Safety to provide GUSA support for a self-defense program that will begin next year. According to Stone, collaboration between DPS and the student body on that scale has never happened before.
But Stone and Co. don’t play nice with every idea.

Matt Wagner is a formidable enemy, wielding with an arsenal of knowledge about the Senate’s constitution, bylaws, and finances.

“Matt is definitely our numbers man,” Irina Valena (MSB ‘11), the Senate Whip, said. “He always bases his decision on a bill based on whether it would be financially sound, and it’s good to have somebody on the money trail.”
The “‘Bro’ clique” also knows how to build support. According to Solis, there’s a fair amount of lobbying in the Senate, and the “Bros” do their part.
“When they [lobby], it’s kind of obvious because some of them will sit by some of the freshman and whisper in their ears,” Solis said. “I’ve seen one freshman vote [one way], and then 10 minutes later when we had a re-vote, one of the other senators went and sat by him and was whispering in his ear for about 10 minutes, and then he changed his vote. I saw it with my own eyes.”

Although the “‘Bro’ clique” forms the core of the Senate, they are kept from monopolizing the body by a number of members. Troiano has a reputation for being the Senate’s rebel with a cause, but he’s not the only outspoken representative outside of the “Bro”‘s tight circle. Many senators pipe up loudly and often, whether they agree with the “‘Bro’ clique” or not. Some provide a welcome change for students who feel that GUSA is remote or unapproachable.

As Senate Whip, Varela provides a high-profile example of unconventional senatorial comportment.

“I try to be a smart-ass,” Varela admitted. “I don’t typically raise my hand when I have something to say.”

Three weeks ago, the Senate voted on whether or not to approve the recommendations of the Student Commission for Unity, a group with a mission to improve diversity awareness on Georgetown’s campus. At that point, the SCUnity was a commission squarely under the authority of the GUSA Senate. The SCUnity proposals that GUSA found most controversial were creating a new core curriculum requirement of two classes based on social justice issues and allocating $10,000 to clubs that would collaborate on diversity-friendly programming. During the debate, Varela talked right through Greer’s gentle, then increasingly insistent, warnings that she had reached the 45-second time limit until he gave up altogether. She’s not your typical senator, but then again, that’s why she ran.

“I think I’m the only Latina in the Senate,” she said. “There’s like four girls, and me and Kiran [Gandhi (COL ‘11)] are the only ones that speak out loud … I think that’s part of the reason why I wanted to be in the Senate, to be a minority voice, and a local voice. If the Senate is going to be an all-white boys club, they will listen to me. I’ll make them listen to me.”

Differences in gender and racial identity are evident in the Senate, although they don’t often present an obstacle in debates. 30 out of 35 senators are male, and 24 out of 35 are white. Gandhi, another vocal presence, ignores these statistics for the most part.

“I try not to think of myself as a girl,” she said. “That kind of thinking just perpetuates a problem.”

Gandhi does concede that there was one time when her identity played a part: the meeting about the SCUnity proposals. The supporters and opponents of the bill fell generally along racial lines for the first and only time this year, with minority students in favor of SCUnity’s recommendations and white students more hesitant to support them. The divide was obvious throughout the night.
“We have a joke,” Solis confided, “[that] there’s a minority caucus … and our key to success, to winning anything that [we as individuals] think is a good bill, is to unite the minorities with the freshmen.”

Solis stressed that this is rarely the real way a bill gets passed, but he did think that Stone’s speech to open the SCUnity discussion outlined the debate in highly racial terms. Thankfully, however, the speech turned out to be the meeting’s tensest moment. Despite the senators’ various races and perspectives, their conversations were surprisingly thorough, level-headed, and efficient. Most of the SCUnity’s recommendations passed and, though the “‘Bro’ clique” and the “minority caucus” do not always see eye-to-eye, everyone seemed to be getting along.

Henderson summed up his feelings about the Senate’s “Bros” as a less experienced senator.

“[The younger members] can take a broad look at something, and to us that’s perfectly fine,” he explained. “They’ve seen the issues grow, and because they’ve been on the Senate and on campus that much longer, they know that if you don’t grab an issue right away, it will cause problems later. I wouldn’t trade anything for this experience in the Senate … I will enjoy it up until we’re done.”

As Henderson might already know, the Senate-“Bro”‘s and all-still has a lot of work to do.

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Comments 11

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    Good work on your first cover story!

    Haha though I have never been identified as a “bro” before in my life, I think you do a really fair job of characterizing what we do and what the culture of the senate is like.

    Keep up the good writing!

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    This is such a welcome respite from all of the 35,000-feet-up coverage that most student groups/clubs/organizations tend to get from both the Voice and the Hoya. It’s so nice to have a reporter who actually attends meetings write a piece like this based on going to meetings, interviewing members, and showing all sides. In the past, various writers (COUGH Donald “D.” Pierce Nixon III) wrote long diatribes about clubs, whether it was the Senate or the IRC or whatever, without ever visiting them, and came off as tools as a result.

    What a refreshing portrait of one of Georgetown’s higher-profile groups! The press should do this with all the major clubs (including themselves). It really gives you a sense of the group.

    Kudos Ms. Kaiser! Hope you get a Bunn award!

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    Can we call ourselves the “Rain-bro Six”?

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    As a senator, I too have respect for the fact that Lily attended meetings, asked valid questions, interviewed specific senators with relevant questions and committed a month to the project before she actually released an article as big as this one. It highlights both the positives and negatives of the senate but these are aspects that hold truth beyond opinion and observation. It seems that she only published what she found was agreed to be true with many different people involved with this campus body. I greatly appreciate the Voice’s effort to want to highlight the nature, job and efforts of the Senate and hopefully this will allow for the student body to be more interested in what the body does, attend more meetings and also understand some of the things that can often slow down decisions that might seem easy to make.

    Again, thank you for all of your work and commitment, Lily!

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    As a freshman Senator, I can assure you that the Bros you mentioned are our version of Skull and Bones. Sly, manipulative, but also downright charming. They are always whispering and laughing while pushing their elitist agenda through Georgetown with ease. This is why democracy fails. People like this run the world, and I have no doubt that many of the bros will have power and influence in public affairs in the future.

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    Well, the first thing you should know is we have people everywhere.

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    To the “GUSA freshman” above-

    I appreciate the connection you draw to “Skull and Bones,” but you may consider that experience in and knowledge of the student government, rather than membership in some pompous secret society (*cough* I am a Jew who resents and is simultaneously amused by the existence of the Stewards cough cough), may be a basis for guiding some (but certainly not all, as evidenced repeatedly this year) of the Student Senate’s agenda.

    What exactly is “elitist” in the GUSA Senate, might I ask?
    And might you use your own name when posting, so that you might garner the support of the remaining huge majority of the Senate not listed by the Voice as members of the “bro” club?

    I also might point out the Nick Troiano, who is portrayed in this article as a sometimes-rival of this so-called clique, is frequently a friend and ally at least to me when an issue revolves around fiscal accountability, parliamentary procedure, or the rules and bylaws of our Student Association?

    Lastly, I do enjoy how you cited the “bro clique” as being sly and manipulative for lobbying votes and whispering and laughing, but not the jokingly-named group of senators who rally around Johnny Solis (another frequent ally of mine in debate, as you might observe) to “unite the minorities with the freshmen.”

    That’s pretty sly and manipulative too. As a self-proclaimed “GUSA freshman” yourself, I would have thought you would have been more perceptive of that.

    Not that anything is really wrong with being sly when advocating for a cause in which one believes. That is the nature of being an advocate of any kind, though convincing others of the reason in one’s point should hardly be characterized as sly.


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    *I meant to say “I might point out THAT Nick Troiano,” not “the” Nick Troiano. Just to correct my typo.

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    This article was really good, Interesting and relevant. Plus it was really well written. It’s probably the best article I’ve read in a Georgetown college paper to be honest. Major props. It would be interesting to see how GUSA runs compared to other campus organizations.

    At Georgetown, because of the student turnover knowledge is power in any organization. I’ve been reading the series of interviews The Voice has had with GUSA candidates and even as I was looking through them in my head I was going through the action items thinking “not feasible, contradicts current policy, already tried two years ago etc…” based on my experience working with administrative policy at Georgetown for four years.

    I think it’s important that people with a lot of experience work in overdrive their junior/senior year to pass it on to the newer generation of leaders. But it’s also important to recognize part of the point of college is for the new students to figure some things on their own and who knows maybe if it wasn’t successful the first time new leaders will be able to make an initiative successful the second time. I constantly forgot that and tended to be too dismissive I think while I was there.

    Eden, it wouldn’t be an article about GUSA without you mentioning GDs, oh you master of spin :) I love how Tyler is clearly the new you.

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    Thanks for your comment, Molly and everyone who enjoyed the article. We’re trying to run more cover stories that provide comprehensive, creative coverage of student organizations (see our ballroom dancing team story from last week for another example of that) and it’s great to see that you all are enjoying the stories.

    Stay tuned for more stories like this in the coming weeks!

    Thanks for reading.