In an election marked by a close vote, a run-off, and a campaign finance controversy—many tropes Kennedy School graduates may encounter again in real-world politics—Harvard’s graduate school of government elected its new student body president.
Five candidates, including two international students and one former military serviceman, ran for president.
After the initial election, Rohit Malhotra, a second-year Masters in Public Policy student, held 37 percent of the vote. Behind him was Mariana Filgueira Risso, the only female candidate, with 32 percent.
Because no candidate won a majority, the two went head-to-head in a run-off election. Malhotra won, with 59 percent of the 631 votes cast in the run-off election, slightly fewer than the number of students who initially voted.
A minor scandal broke out when Filgueira Risso’s campaign spent more than the $100 allotted to each candidate for the election.
“In a voluntary disclosure form, which we had everyone fill out, she admitted to overspending her budget,” said Daniel J. Hatem, a Kennedy School student and chairman of the Electoral Politics Professional Interest Council that administered the election. “She admitted to $111, I think, but it had to have been more than that because she didn’t include her domain name. So it was in excess of $111, but it wasn’t a huge amount,” said Hatem.
Filgueira Risso said, “We spent a little more on the campaign. It was completely in good faith; we didn’t think that it would matter, that it was affecting our campaign or benefitting us, really. So we declared it very innocently.”
Hatem considered disqualifying Filgueira Risso for the violation. Instead, the election committee decided to take away everything she had bought while campaigning for the first vote and to strip her of the additional $50 she would have received for a run-off budget.
“I understood that I had to have a penalty, no matter how much good faith I had done this in. But I thought it was excessive. And I thought they should have given me more of an opportunity to speak with and have a meeting with the election committee,” Filgueira Risso said.
After Filgeira Risso’s penalty was announced, Malhotra decided not to use campaign materials as well.
“We weren’t in real world politics. We’re a small community. If our community experiences any sort of disruption, it will hurt the rest of the year. So my decision, which I’m proud of, was to also not use my old materials and also to forfeit my run-off budget,” Malhotra said. “I think it was the right thing to do. I did it not out of any sort of political intention.”
Both candidates said they thought Filgueira Risso’s overspending and her subsequent reprimand did not affect the outcome of the election.
Malhotra, who served as the vice president of student activities in his first year at the Kennedy School, already has experience holding the presidential position that he just won. Over the summer, he worked as interim president of the student body. While holding down a full-time job at the White House, he said, he worked on student government projects on his lunch hour.
“It’s not politics so much as it someone who is going to represent you and will be very real with you as to what the problems are,” he said. “From day one, I’ve decided not to put on a front and to be someone I’m not. I’ll be who I am and I’ll work very hard, and I think the students saw that.”
—Staff writer Charles W. Sorensen can be reached at email@example.com.