Undergraduate Council presidential candidate Benjamin P. Schwartz ’10 is not afraid to dart across incoming traffic. He bounds down stairs full of energy after door-knocking for his campaign. He can stay relaxed even during a frantic campaign season. And he seemingly never walks into a room at Harvard without greeting an old acquaintance.
The junior from Harrisburg, Pa. has the experience—he has served in leadership positions on the UC and the College Events Board, and has been continually involved in the Office of Sexual Assault Prevention and Response and the Crimson Key Society. He has the knowledge—he’s full of Harvard lore and claims to know what makes administrators tick.
In short, he has many of the ingredients of a successful campus politician. But if historical precedent and student sentiment are any indication, he has some challenges yet to overcome.
Both Schwartz and his running mate, Alneada D. Biggers ’10, are members of Final Clubs, the exclusive student groups which have a history of complicating political careers at Harvard.
And the two, in their capacity as College Events Board planners, were prominently involved in organizing an aborted Girl Talk concert earlier this winter that by their own admission went awry, drawing vitriolic comments on House e-mail lists campus-wide and creating a public relations problem that may put even Schwartz’s considerable political acumen to the test.
BRIDGING THE DIVIDE?
Historically, the road to electoral success has been difficult for UC presidential and vice-presidential candidates with male final club affiliations. Tickets boasting final club ties have had their ambitions dashed in each of the last five years, falling to opponents with no such affiliation.
And in the last two years alone, vice-presidential candidates S. Adam Goldenberg ’08 and Nicholas B. Snow ’09—members of the Fox club and the A.D. respectively—were forced to answer pointed questions about their final club commitments during the campaign process before losing on election day.
Schwartz’s own affiliation with the Fly club has not gone unnoticed by students this year.
“As a member of the Fly club, it’s interesting that he’s advocating for alternative social spaces,” said fellow UC presidential candidate Andrea R. Flores ’10 with a note of sarcasm.
Asked to comment on her running mate’s Final Club ties, Biggers, who is herself a member of the female club Isis, suggests the issue is overplayed.
“It kind of annoys me when people bring it up,” Biggers said. “His social club does not define him any way.”
Schwartz himself is less quick to dismiss the question, stressing his extensive involvement in other organizations outside the Fly, but also framing his membership in the club as an opportunity to “bridge divides” within the student body and reach out to a wide range of student groups. It’s a stance that his friends in the Fly readily endorse.
“[Final clubs are] another group of people that need representation that he knows,” said Fly member Jay R. Lundy ’09.
But Schwartz’s desire to downplay the affiliation is unmistakable. When asked to disclose his acquaintance with a group of students greeting him one morning in the Yard, his slowness to answer foreshadows the inevitable response.
The students are members of the Fly, he says.
TALK THE (GIRL) TALK
Schwartz cannot walk into Lamont Library or into a dining hall without striking up a conversation, high-fiving someone, or at the very least saying hello to two or three people—all of which is interspersed with seemingly endless Blackberry correspondence.
Whether he is going door-to-door campaigning or just going through his daily interactions, he is quick to call shared acquaintances “ballers,” especially if they have been advocating for his campaign.
Schwartz’s supporters insist that despite his political ambitions, such friendliness is a part of his personality, not a strategy to win more votes. And Schwartz himself is not shy about defending his motives.
“It’s kind of rude not to say ‘hi’ to people to begin with,” he said. “It makes your life a lot more pleasant [if you do].”
“This is who I’ve been since 13—precocious,” he said.
But after a CEB-organized Pep Rally featuring the popular remix-artist Girl Talk came to a premature end due to crowd control issues this November, no amount of precocity could forestall the backlash from frustrated concert-goers.
Gossip Geek, an anonymous Harvard blog, declared Schwartz’s political campaign over after the debacle, in a headline reading: “Girl Talk Rocks Campus for Five Minutes, Tells Us that Everything ‘Fucking Sucks,’ Sinks Ben Schwartz’s Political Career.”
While the Schwartz-Biggers ticket has not collapsed, it has had to deal with the Girl Talk issue. And they don’t run away from it.
“I ran Girl Talk,” Biggers said.
It was the last event Biggers and Schwartz would organize as members of the CEB. She admitted that there were problems with the event and that improvements would need to be made for future events.
But Biggers emphasized it was the “first time we did something this big.”
Still, some students said the event’s shortcomings reflected more than simply an oversight on the part of inexperienced planners.
“I just find it hard to believe,” said Allison L. Sikora ’11, a member of the Dems. “It’s something that he was working on for so long, he wasn’t able to realize that the set-up wasn’t going to work based on the entertainer’s performance style.”
Biggers said that the event was still able to galvanize the campus.
While Biggers emphasized the importance of events that bring the campus together, she said she didn’t go to the Harvard-Yale football game. She said that she thought to herself, “This is too cold, why would someone go to this?” In her defense, she is from Alabama.
Despite Final Club membership and a Pep Rally that was problematic at best, Schwartz’s established relationships with administrators and students, garnered through his previous leadership roles, are hardly in doubt.
“Ben does so much for this campus. It’s sad that one thing gets so much [play],” Lundy says of the Final Club tie. “Ben doesn’t take a ‘no’ answer when he’s trying to improve student life.”
Schwartz says he has dedicated his extracurricular life to attempting to “understand what students wanted” and that he brings the “advocacy experience” necessary to hit the ground running should he take office. He has shied away from addressing neither his Club affiliation nor the Girl Talk debacle.
In his rapid-fire manner, he is able to outline members of the College administration, University administration, and the student body who will be able to bring his plans to fruition.
But the question of which facets of his track record will stand out to voters remains to be answered this weekend.