Tuesday, August 01, 2006

The Gavin Baker Interview

TheRadkial: A great party forms around a great candidate (not vice versa). A great candidate leads by will not by necessity. Jamal Sowell was a great leader, Access (a great party) formed around him, and despite a very short-lived existence, independents ruled. Despite having great people Dennis Ngin and Jared Hernandez, the independent community has not been blessed with a great leader in two consecutive elections. Would you consider a run for the presidency in 2007? Do you believe its time for another Student Alliance, another Party of Independents, as opposed to another coalition where indies are clearly the minority and opportunists the majority?

Senator Baker: No, I won't run for president. I may run for Senate again in Spring 2007; I may try for an appointment in the executive branch; I may leave SG entirely. I don't know yet. I do know, though, that I won't be running for an executive office. Simply put, I wouldn't have the time to do the job; additionally, I don't have the time or money to campaign for it. There are other considerations, but those are the main ones. It's very unlikely I'd change my mind.

There are good candidates for president next year; I'll be happy to
support one of them.

As parties go, I think students are looking for something authentic. They're more interested in someone they can believe in than someone with a long SG resume. People can smell bullshit from a mile away; if you're not being totally honest, your credibility is blown. That's a big part of the reason why people are turned off to "real world" politics as well as SG. Students are looking for transparency, openness, clear motives, a willingness to listen -- someone who looks and acts like a "real" student. For better or for worse, in Spring elections, your president is your party; people have got to be able to identify with your candidate or you're sunk.

I have a friend who's very turned off by SG; every now and then he wears his Access shirt. There was something that people believed in then that energized people in a way we haven't seen since then.

TR:: Since being elected, have students continued using the Public Debate portion of senate meetings towards lobbying their elected officials? And if so, do the members of the Senate actually listen?

Senator Baker: I have one notable memory on this subject. Maybe a month or two ago, a student came in and said, "I've a Native American. Where's the Native
Studies program at UF?" I thought it was a bit of a strange forum to raise the question, but also thought it was a good point: as Americans, I think we have a very poor comprehension of the history of the native people of this country.

I was pleasantly surprised when I saw President Boyles sit down next to the student and start talking with him about it. Since then, Sen. Lacey Logsdon has been working on compiling a potential curriculum for a Native Studies minor; the issue has been raised with the appropriate officials at the university, and I believe a committee is being formed to plan a program. I think plans are also underway to re-form the Native American Student Association that existed a few years back.

If this gets off the ground, it will be a great story of SG being responsive to student input, and using its ability to advocate to the university and navigate the bureaucracy.

TR: As a former Alligator columnist-turned-Student Senator and after several months of service do you feel that the group of people you serve with every Tuesday night truly cares about the well-being of the student body? Do you believe that when Senators speak of “the best interests of their constituents” that they actually are thinking of them, directly and solely of those that went to the polls for them -- or perhaps the term has become somewhat of a tongue in cheek term of SG lingo?

Senator Baker: I don't know how to answer this question. A lot of senators talk a good game when it comes to serving the students. How many write a bill to do
anything about it? How many attend committee meetings to contribute to discussion? How many say anything in Senate meetings other than "here," "yea" or "nay." Unfortunately, too few do; this is not a partisan issue.

Of course, we can't all do everything, but too many senators are content with doing nothing.

It's a whole new level of cynicism when we're talking about not just inaction, but malevolence toward students. See the awards funding episode.

It's not all bad -- but it's clearly not all good, either.

TR: Regarding UNITE…do you feel that a Student Party is just a name to make t-shirts and fliers or do you believe a Student Party can actually stand for something inherently all its own? Since much was lost post-Access (with the Impact, Progress, Voice split) and because UNITE failed to defeat SWAMP, do you see yourself following through with the next big party UNITE’s bureaucratic masters put together or do you see yourself taking the risky route and re-forming a true Independent party at UF (given that Independent parties traditionally spend their time fighting for converts as opposed to blending into the mainstream conscience)?

Senator Baker: I think there are independent-minded students, with the experience and ideas to pull it off, who will be able to put together a party that
truly represents and listens to students. I think the non-Greek/non-FBK faction can run a positive campaign that inspires people who don't even know that Blue Key exists. I think a campaign like that would also attract support from Greeks who are tired of the status quo. I hope I'll have the chance to work on a campaign like that.

TR: When your presidential candidate is a former IFC President, when your vice presidential candidate is a well known athlete (and is recruited to silence a rival party in broad daylight), when party meetings are held in Greek houses as opposed to the Reitz Union, and when your party competes with the Greek party insofar as club nights…do you honestly believe UNITE was a party of independents? If you weren’t running for senate with UNITE, do you think the people that supported you, would have supported UNITE? Why and/or why not?

Senator Baker: Unite wasn't an independent party in the traditional sense. I think it championed a lot of the ideals of independents: no patronage for political support, transparency, equal opportunity, fiscal responsibility. But the tactics Unite used were not traditional indie tactics -- and some of them were wrong.

With that said, I don't think it's wrong to compete for Greek support. Greeks are students; they deserve representation. To intentionally over-represent Greeks, or to dole out patronage for political support (or to threaten punishment for supporting the wrong guy) -- that's wrong.

As for me, I know there were people who voted for me who didn't vote for Unite's executive candidates -- including friends. When you have that kind of disconnect between your Senate slate and your executive candidates, that's a problem. There was an image problem with Unite -- and to some extent, a substance problem as well.

The Radikal:As a former Alligator staff writer and a fellow history major, I’m sure you’re all to well familiar with the group Florida Blue Key. What are your thoughts on FBK’s use of student Activities and Services Fees, their recruitment protocol, and their influence or alleged influence on Student Government?

Senator Baker: I totally oppose giving A&S money to Blue Key. PTI should have sustained her veto of the Gator Growl "subsidy" last year. I'm glad that this
year's Gator Growl will not be dependent on a giveaway from SG.

If I had my druthers, Blue Key wouldn't have office space in the Reitz Union; we'd be able to give that space to real student organizations.

The Radikal: What is the confirmation time-table like for Lydia Washington’s replacement? Is their faith on your party’s part, better yet on your
part,in that SB President John Boyles will select a person who’s truly qualified to run cabinet and attend to students’ concerns? With classes ending Aug.10 and with the possibility of gaining an extra week‘s time, would you consider forming a bi-partisan sub-committee to properly interview President Boyles selection and release a timely report either during time allocated by the Senate President or Public Debate?

Senator Baker: I think there's basically no possibility of this happening.

The Radikal: Whatever happened to your plans of ending the SG Awards Banquet? How much did the lavish bureaucrats spend this year and has the event seen any fiscal restraints since your watch began? What other, if any, areas of wasteful spending do you see in Student Government?

Senator Baker: I don't care if SG has a banquet as long as the student body doesn't have to foot the bill. I'd rather get a pizza at Satchel's, but if people want to have a banquet, let 'em.

During the AY 06-07 budget amendments, I offered an amendment to zero the $4,200 budgeted for awards. This would have required SG to pay for awards entirely from outside revenue: donations, banquet ticket sales, etc. Since SG has not been responsible with awards spending in the past (last year I believe they spent over $8,000 -- well over their budget), I thought it made since to reduce its budget to zero. The rest of the Senate did not agree with me, and voted me down (largely along party lines).

After the Senate failed this amendment, Sen. Pedro Morales offered an amendment to cut the awards budget by just a few hundred dollars -- still leaving it thousands more than any other organization's -- and the Senate, too, voted this down.

Later, Sen. Ryan Nelson offered a bill to limit excessive award spending by limiting awards to those defined in statutes. The awards defined in statutes are, e.g. "most outstanding cabinet director". This is a logical limitation, as SG-funded organizations can only spend their awards budget on awards for contests -- for instance, BOCC chooses a "best college council" every year. The Senate failed this bill, too.

The budget for 07-08 will be forthcoming in the next few weeks. The request from the Boyles administration is for a $4,200 awards budget. I will ask the Senate Budget committee to reduce this; if they do not, I will offer an amendment to the full Senate, and will ask for a roll call vote, so each senator will be responsible for their vote.

What else has been done: Treasurer Moseley has publicly pledged not to allow any money other than budgeted for awards to be spent on awards -- unlike last year, where the budget was blown out of the water. Unfortunately, this doesn't reassure me much: the awards banquet happens at the end of the year, at the end of a treasurer's term -- there's no checks to prevent mischief. I trust Ryan; I don't trust the situation.

Besides my effort to reduce the awards budget itself, I hope that the Senate will pass legislation to clarify that SG's awards budget is subject to the same restrictions as every other organization's, i.e. that awards dollars can only be spent on contests, and not to give a plaque to each and every cabinet director.

Those who give their time serving the students via SG deserve recognition, but our use of tuition dollars has been absolutely unreasonable.

I'll hold my tongue on the issue of other waste. SG has such a byzantine budgeting system that it's nearly impossible to really find out where money goes.

I will say I'm a bit uncomfortable with SG's perks for its own officials --the salaries, the phone service, the BlackBerries. I know that other Florida state universities actually give more compensation for their SG officials than ours, which gives me pause, but I'm willing to chalk that up to those schools having worse leadership than ours -- or maybe it's that UF has a more vigilant student body.

I think it's probably appropriate that we provide some financial assistance for our SG officials -- it's not cheap to do the job in a professional manner (it takes a lot of suits and dry cleaning, for instance), and without any help, students who couldn't afford those incidental costs would be de facto barred from SG leadership. I don't think that would be fair. All the same, I don't think our benefits package for SG officials has the oversight it deserves.

The Radikal: If Student Government properly budgeted its money and curbed wasteful spending, do you think it would ever be possible for SG to give a groundbreaking, unheard of A&S Tax Return of sorts to the student body? How awesome would it be for every student to get a $20 refund check from the well-hidden dues buried in their tuition payments each year?

Senator Baker: It would be awesome. However, I'm not sure it's legal; SG gets to spend A&S fees, but we don't directly set them, so we can't directly give students a tuition cut. I don't know if we could just write a check to every student -- it's an interesting proposal.

Personally, I think the state of student services at UF is such that if we had extra money, we would be better off using it to increase services rather than returning it to students. For instance, an extra $50,000 would only be about a dollar for each student, but would be enough to bring another high-profile speaker to campus via Accent.

Earlier this summer, I did something very rude in Senate: when another senator suggested that SG was the most efficient organization he'd ever seen, I scoffed aloud. It was a mistake, and I apologized. It's ironic, though: SG is certainly not as efficient as it could be, but in truth, it is very cost-effective at improving the student experience at UF. When you consider all the organizations funded by SG, all the leadership opportunities it creates, the gyms and recreational facilities, the services in the Reitz Union, all the student jobs created in the Reitz Union and RecSports -- it's a much better use than each of us individually would probably put to the roughly $250 we each pay annually in A&S fees.

The Radikal: How would you rate the Boyles administration? Since you’ve only been in senate with Goldberg and Boyles, how would you say their administrations differ, if at all. Lastly, have you ever had a private meeting with either of the Student Body Presidents or the Student Senate President to discuss your concerns or offer ideas for the future? If you haven’t, is this something you might do down the road?

Senator Baker: It's a tough call. I was only a senator with the Goldberg administration for about a month; the Boyles administration is just learning the ropes, and in the case of cabinet, will be starting over nearly from scratch.

I think John and Ryan have made real efforts to address problems. The budget request just presented by the administration is, on the whole, very fiscally responsible, in my opinion. The Supervisor of Elections did a solid job leading a review of the election codes, and though some key issues have yet to be addressed, he's very clearly indicated his willingness to have an honest and public discussion of sensitive concerns. While I don't think he's overturned it, President Boyles appears not to be following Goldberg's executive order banning advertising in the Alligator, an order which I consider vindictive and an attack on freedom of the press. Senate leadership have taken steps to improve public relations, working with media (rather than against them) to try to present an honest image of SG. All these are improvements.

At the same time, the budget is not as responsible as it should be, many executive appointments were fumbled, we're still not doing enough to communicate with students, and most of the Senate is more concerned with watching their friends' backs than in sticking up for students.

I haven't worked much with the Senate Presidents I've served under. I've expressed concerns and shared ideas with President Boyles on many occasions: some times he's been receptive and helpful, which I appreciated; other times, less so. None of the SG leadership has ever specifically sought out my opinion -- neither on behalf of myself, my party, nor my constituents.

The Radikal: In what condition is the state of internet voting in senate? Do you see internet voting for this upcoming Spring’s election and/or do you believe that the Greek/FBK players will somehow hold on against student wishes and once again offer only campus-wide intranet “electronic” voting?

Senator Baker: If there was once a Blue Key conspiracy against online voting, there isn't any longer: in my opinion, almost all the Senate supports intranet voting, even Impact and Unite senators who campaigned for online voting.

I voted for the initiative this Spring: I think that online voting should be considered as an option, and I think it deserves a thorough analysis. However, at the end of the day, I have reserves about implementing it.

Secure-site online voting has made it very convenient to vote, much more so than using paper ballots. There are very few students who won't pass by one of the polling locations on campus on at least one day of the election; the largest group of those who won't are likely students at satellite campuses or studying abroad. We have the absentee ballot process to serve those students: a process recently improved thanks to the work of former Sen. Rosemarie Clouston, and a process that will hopefully be well-publicized by our Supervisor of Elections. I think the gain in convenience that online voting would bring would be marginal.

While secure-site still lacks key provisions to ensure accuracy (i.e. independent audit, disclosure of source code, voter-verified receipts), those provisions will hopefully be implemented; at least one of those provisions, voter-verified receipts, could not be properly implemented with Internet voting, and there are several other major concerns.

I don't think turnout would increase much with online voting; I do think the likelihood of foul play would skyrocket.

I hope that Internet voting will get a fair shake, but I think it's probably not the right choice, and I think ultimately the Supervisor of Elections will agree.

The Radikal: What predictions do you have for the mid-term elections?Despite the fact that “winning” isn’t usually in the cards, what are your thoughts on using a political campaign otherwise aimed at winning office, as a vehicle to get across a message? Would you consider an independent run for the SB Vice Presidency (without retiring from Senate) as a way to publicly outline the ills of Student Government and use whatever time you had in the spotlight to rally students to arms?

Senator Baker: It looks like there will be an opposition party this Fall: that's good news for students. I think the indies have a shot at picking up a decent chunk of the Senate: it's not too much to hope for up to half of the Fall seats; around a quarter is more likely. Anything more than Impact's 6 from last Fall is growth. Though the numbers will probably leave the indies with no more than 20-30 seats after the election, numbers can be deceiving: there's a constant defection of those unwilling to toe the FBK party line, as well as the possibility of switching on particular votes, and there are always incoming replacement senators whose loyalties may be unknown -- plus the variable of who simply shows up for a meeting. Plus, each seat we win is a chance for someone to gain experience and make contacts, strengthening us for the future.

Though it's too early to tell, I think there will probably be two parties -- Swamp and ??? -- and each will have a candidate for VP. I hope I'll be able to throw my full support behind the ??? Party and their VP candidate. If so, there'll be no need for me to be a candidate: I'll be glad to do what I can to communicate our vision for UF's students and why I support our candidate for VP.

(For the record: Yes, I know what the name of the opposition party will probably be and the key figures who will probably be involved. Yes, I will probably be involved. No, I have no idea who their VP candidate will be. As with everything else in SG, all this is subject to change).

The Radikal: What’s more important to Gavin Baker in a not-so-fictitious-like hypothetical situation…burning social bridges in SG or being the lone senator that champions the fight for representing the student body?

Senator Baker: These are not always mutually exclusive. In fact, I try to maximize the situations where they aren't. I would like to think, as a recent Alligator story stated, that my opponents respect me. They may not agree with me, they may not like me, but hopefully they respect me: as a person, as a fellow student, and as someone trying to do the best he can to serve his constituents and make UF, and the world, a better place.

That said, I didn't run for Senate because I wanted to make friends. I ran because I saw problems and I wanted to try to help solve them. I ran because I know that UF can be better than it is, that we can do more for our students than we do. I ran because I wanted to tackle the challenge of leadership, to use public office to benefit the greater good. If the pursuit of those goals means I won't be invited to someone's birthday party, well, I'll survive.

The Radikal: Match thoughts to phrases. Only rule is, it has to be in a Senate context:

Senator Baker:

Proudest Moment: Being recognized by people I respect for doing something positive.

Favorite Bill: I've only been permitted to pass one bill so far, a resolution in support of the Federal Research Public Access Act, an important piece of legislation that would improve students' access to research. I was very proud to work on the resolution, and proud of the bipartisan support it enjoyed. I've also been honored to work on lobbying efforts beyond the resolution. A few weeks ago, our resolution was referenced in a meeting of major NGOs and advocacy groups in D.C. I've been very happen to make a difference in this way.

With that said, my favorite bill that I didn't write, and doesn't actually exist yet, but hopefully will, is a resolution that a fellow senator (who shall remain unnamed) promised to introduce: a resolution advocating for the legalization of marijuana. I'm very much looking forward to the debate on this resolution. It's a major issue that faces students -- I think SG ought to be at least discussing it. Should be fun. (I don't smoke, but I support your right to. To each his own.)

Did that Just Pass: I sometimes forget about the difference between the vote to close debate / call the previous question and the vote to pass a bill.[Our President Pro Tempore has the same problem.] When President Mierley resigned, and Pro Temp Weiss was trying to avoid having to assume the presidency, he offered a bill to elect a new Senate President upon resignation. I think that's a fine idea, but it shouldn't allow him to get out of the responsibilities to which he was elected, so I offered an amendment: a rider that said the bill wouldn't take effect until after the Fall election. When the previous question was called, I thought my amendment had passed (much to my surprise); alas, I was wrong.

What is He/She Talking About: Every time a student gets up during public debate to talk about Israel, Lebanon, Iraq, etc. Sorry Christian, I know you like these guys, and I'm glad our students are paying attention to world affairs, but I usually fail to see the relevance of the topic to the business of SG.

C’mon….C’mon…Con Debate’s almost over, I gotta Pro This: Sen. Nelson's budget amendments at the same time I offered my amendment on awards. I didn't agree with all of them, but most of them were spot-on.

Did I just sell out? No one’s gonna remember I voted for this, I mean everyone else did, so it was just this one time, it’s late, I mean if I had the support….but I don’t, it was just this one time: Nope, I don't do that. I am frequently, if not usually, in the minority of a vote -- occasionally the sole nay, or one of a handful. I don't always have to make a federal case of an issue, but if I don't agree, I'm going to vote against it. It gets me some dirty looks, but hey, that's the beauty of being an independent.

1 comment:

Rob Heck said...

"Every time a student gets up during public debate to talk about Israel, Lebanon, Iraq, etc. Sorry Christian, I know you like these guys, and I'm glad our students are paying attention to world affairs, but I usually fail to see the relevance of the topic to the business of SG."

How about when "these guys" ask for your support in getting the UF administration to remove Islamophobic propaganda from the UF website (see http://nakba48.org/?p=142 for more info)? I guess the UF Muslim and Arab community "isn't relevant" to a racist.