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Byrd-Mani Work the Grassroots

By Elena Sorokin and Nicole B. Urken, Contributing Writerss

A big, gawky bird with a bright “Byrd is the Word” poster affixed to its belly has spent much of the last week running in circles outside the Science Center.

The students who have worn the costume have served as the spirited mascot of the Byrd-Mani campaign.

While Aaron S. Byrd ’05 and Divya A. Mani ’05 recognize they have less experience as Undergraduate Council representatives than other candidates running for president and vice president of Harvard’s student government, Byrd says “it all comes down to face time.”

He spent hours standing outside the Science Center last week, chatting with students as they hurried by on their way to class. People responded to his charisma, laughing as he cracked jokes or as his mascot made circles on a bicycle.

“Everyone thinks we’re a joke. We’re not a joke,” Byrd says as he stands with each arm around friends who have helped his campaign throughout the week despite fierce wind and busy schedules.

The two candidates have worked hard to foster these friendships that have now become the lifeblood of their campaign.

Mani, who is also a Crimson editor, says her position as Currier House Committee vice president has enabled her to reach out to Quadlings and to add new names to her personal e-mail list of over 600 students.

“Divya knows people from many circles: math and science guys, musicians, artists and football players. She’s made it a point to meet all the new sophomores in Currier,” Currier HoCo President Lacey R. Whitmire ’05 says.

Byrd has carved out his own large group of buddies as a friendly and respected member of the football team.

While Byrd and Mani can count on large support from their friends, they say they realize they must reach out to the people who do not know them.

“Our campaign is about the people,” Byrd shouts earnestly to his band of supporters. “We’re talking literally from the grass up.”

Byrd and Mani have focused their campaign strategy on reaching out to students of all walks, reflecting their ability to relate to people of diverse backgrounds. Mani, a woman of Indian descent, says she hopes to increase support for different cultural groups around campus. She and Byrd had also touted their plan to visit every room in Harvard Yard this past weekend, though the duo ultimately abandoned the idea and instead “took it easy.”

Byrd has earned the esteem of some council members for his amiable personality and his sense of humor, which lightens the tone of meetings that sometimes get very boring.

During the candidates’ debate last Thursday, Byrd fielded question after question on his relative lack of concrete accomplishment.

“I don’t deny that I haven’t been involved in the legislation process,” Byrd said during the debate, adding that he was trying to set out a vision of a president who would be a new face in dealing with the administration.

Mani said a debate was not the best format to illustrate Byrd’s leadership qualities. Later, Byrd himself admitted that he “felt out of his arena.”

But Byrd has demonstrated school spirit and energy in a way that other members have not. Council member Michael S. Gerrity ’05 characterizes him as a “cheerleader” who could motivate council members to get things done.

“Byrd brings a great deal of life to the council because he’s not worried about his own agenda, and would rather see to it that other people’s ideas get passed,” Gerrity says.

Council member Yi-An Ko ’07 says Byrd is helping to push through a diversity week bill, while Mani is working on “Loker nights” to bring performances and activities to Loker Commons as an alternative to the council $1 movie nights.

Last spring, Mani helped to organize a karaoke night during reading period. She also showed the flair of spontaneity when going on stage to sing a Sonny and Cher song.

Whitmire says Mani is an “amazing organizer” who is deeply committed to her work on HoCo, doing everything from taking a central role in organizing this year’s Heaven and Hell dance to getting people’s ID numbers so that the Harvard-Yale tailgate would be well-stocked.

In addition to the high demands of football practice, Byrd attends church weekly and volunteers regularly at the University Lutheran Church homeless shelter.

Although Byrd and Mani have very different interests, they have collaborated in council decisions and say they also “bonded” in their “Athletes in Action” Christian Fellowship.

“Divya and Aaron complement each other really well,” says Ashley N. Fochtman ’05, who is serving as the campaign manager. “Aaron is the dreamer and Divya is more about the fine details.”

Campaign in the Works

On the wall of the entrance to Byrd’s campaign headquarters—that is, his large pad in DeWolfe—hangs a flattened cardboard box mapping out the week’s strategy meetings in Sharpie marker.

In addition to a smorgasbord of rallies and events, Byrd has one or two classes listed on the schedule. He and Mani both admitted that the campaign has left little time for studying. Mani’s recent initiation into the Sabliere final club and Byrd’s membership in the Spee have also consumed much of their time.

Fochtman says that getting organized has been a struggle for the Byrd-Mani campaign.

“The first couple of days, I felt like I was running around like a chicken with my head cut off,” Fochtman says. “Now that we’ve gotten a lot of people to help with the campaign, it’s gotten a lot smoother.”

But it remains to be seen whether recent strides in improving organization can outweigh last-minute campaign planning and even the finalization of their platform points, which occurred the night before campaigning began.

Byrd and Mani have both suffered penalties for violating council campaign regulations, including campaigning in classrooms and computer labs. One such violation occurred on Thursday when the infamous bird snuck into a Physics 11a lecture and embraced Professor of Physics Melissa Franklin. Byrd has accumulated 33 violation points and Mani 23 points, while no other candidate has surpassed one point. The financial penalties imposed for these violations mean the campaign has negative spending money—in fact, Byrd and Mani have to take down some posters and ads just to remain within council spending limits.

School Spirit

The bird’s recklessness reflects the campaign’s commitment to enlivening students’ experiences, some Byrd-Mani supporters say.

The pair say they want to see the campus revolve more around the students.

Sporting a Red Sox cap, Byrd says a sports night should be implemented in Sanders Theatre, bringing students together to watch the team play.

The candidates say they also want to bring more popular music bands to the campus, encouraging them to perform for a lower price by hosting charity drives for AIDS and other causes.

Byrd’s eyes grow wide as he cites U2 as one group who might be willing to play before an audience of Harvard students.

“The last time a big group came to Harvard was the Rolling Stones in 1976. We need a touchstone event to bring that sort of thing back,” he says.

In order to defray some of the cost of bringing a prominent group to Harvard, he says that placing the event under the banner of a larger cause, such as “support for a cure for AIDS,” would attract the interest of these groups and make them willing to perform at a lower cost.

Mani, who took time out of the campaign to tutor young students in the area, proposes another public-service idea: donate unsold Harvard sports-events tickets to children who would not otherwise be able to attend. This would not only support community service programs, but also raise the meager attendance at football and basketball games.

The “Common Man” Platform

Byrd’s southern drawl reveals his Texan heritage, and he readily admits that his background has not been the most privileged.

“I have $200 in my bank account,” he says proudly.

He insists members of the student body cannot actually afford what Harvard says they can afford. In order to decrease school-year expenses, Byrd proposes not only increasing the $50 of Board Plus money given to each student per semester, but also enabling students to use the money as Crimson Cash.

He says he also hopes to extend dining hall hours in at least one River and Quad House. But while catering to student needs, Byrd says it is important to respect the dining hall staff.

“We don’t want these workers to be forced to stay extra hours,” he said. “So we should add another shift.”

Some of Byrd’s long-term goals include decreasing student spending on sourcebooks, which often exceeds several hundred dollars.

“If the sourcebooks were free, Byrd would be more likely to read them,” Mani says, placing special emphasis on “more likely,” as Byrd nods in agreement.

Both Byrd and Mani say they have spoken with librarians about instituting an online venue for reading sourcebooks. They acknowledge that this project would take a while to be completed, so in the meantime, Byrd proposes placing several copies of each sourcebook in the house libraries.

While Byrd says the price of such a proposal will extend to seven-digit figures, he says it is a worthwhile investment.

“Putting the sourcebooks online would cost about the same amount that Harvard spends on getting the Yard prepared for Commencement,” says Byrd. “We should make Harvard perfect before making it look perfect.”

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