To get good insightful answers, how the question is framed matters. I missed an opportunity on Thursday
“Annoyed with student politicians earnestly trying to convince you that the world will descend into anarchy if they aren’t elected? Does anarchy sound worth a try?” If you agree, you might have wanted to vote last month for the student politician who authored of those words: Fire Hydrant. The Hydrant, an actual cast iron fire hydrant weighing 87 kg and mounted on a rolling platform, ran for vice-president academic on the University of British Columbia’s student council. The candidate proposed investing several hundred million dollars in the purchase of a brewery; building an on-campus facility to be known as the Kraft Dinner Emporium; and putting a student residence on wheels so that it could “be made into a pirate dorm, attacking and ransacking the luxury condos as it sails past.” Hydrant also promised to exploit a loophole in provincial law, changing the university’s legal status to that of a mountain resort municipality. “If you’ve ever wanted to go to university at a ski resort, this is your chance.”
Student elections have notoriously low voter turn-out, often in the single digit percentages. Most of the time, the campaign revolves around one issue—tuition—that student politicians don’t even have any control over. And most of elections are boring. You can only say “free tuition” so many ways.
But sometimes there are joke candidates to make things interesting.
Like all politicians, the more name recognition they have, the more successful they can be. It is not surprising that many of these candidates come from the pages of the student press.
Ryerson University’s most famous comic relief candidate came from a cage within the confines of the student newspaper, The Eyeopener: Scoop W. Gerbil. Running for president in 2001, he said he would “continue digging and being cute for the Ryerson community, refuse to patronize, dictate to, or otherwise annoy students [and] make you realize student government can’t create affordable education.” Scoop, said the paper’s endorsement editorial, “is the candidate who urges students to think outside the box. Or cage.”
Scoop did not win, and this may have been for the best: like so many professional politicians, he had not been entirely honest with the electorate. Scoop W. Gerbil was in fact a guinea pig.
Scoop was not the first rodent to run for office. McMaster University’s student newspaper The Silhouette ran the office’s pet guinea pig, Lou Grunt, for student union president in 1985. Grunt was “the Perfect Pig for Power and a Rodent for Reform.”
Space Moose, probably the most famous comic strip character in Canadian university history, ran for student council president at the University of Alberta in 1997. His popularity resulted in one unexpected challenge: his campaign posters kept disappearing, as people carried them off as collector’s items. The comic strip, created by medical sciences student Adam Thrasher, now a professor at the University of Houston, was deliberately provocative. The most controversial episode satirized the Take Back the Night march, with cartoon Space Moose arming himself to attack the marchers but winding up imprisoned in a Womyn’s Studies re-education camp, forced to watch endless re-runs of Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman. The panels sparked a multi-campus uproar and a university disciplinary hearing for the author.
Space Moose placed third in the election with 1,400 votes—more votes than most winners at other schools. The University of Alberta Students’ Union changed its bylaws soon after to prevent joke candidates from taking office.
“They add an entertainment factor, without a doubt,” says Steven Dollansky, vice-president external of the University of Alberta Student’s Union. “For better or worse, they draw attention to the election.”
Dollansky should know: last year, his opponent was a Transformer. Sarah Yusuf, then a fourth year microbiology major, dressed up as the Decepticon Soundwave and ran for the vice-president position.
“If elected VP external,” Soundwave told an audience of over 400 who attended its debate with Dollansky, “I will manipulate and intimidate lobbying groups to make the student agenda a priority item.” It also laid out an environmental program. “We do not inherit this Earth from our ancestors,” Soundwave reminded Alberta’s callow youth, “we borrow it from Megatron!”
The Transformer also challenged Dollansky’s ability to serve students. “Look at him, he’s a doughy, fleshy, fragile human being … Can he transform into anything?” asked Soundwave, “No. But time will eventually transform Dollansky into a slobbering old man.” Dollansky won the election, but Soundwave captured over 1,600 votes. A video of the debate on YouTube has been viewed nearly 50,000 times.
“Joke candidates draw a certain number of people to the polls,” says Dollansky, who took the Soundwave challenge with good humour. “Twenty-seven percent of the student body voted in our election.”
At UBC, the school has not only had joke candidates; it once had a joke party. Formed in 1991, the Radical Beer Faction was UBC’s longest running political party. Over the years, the RBF ran many non-humans including Toby the Amazing Fighting Fish, a zombie and a traffic pylon. Positions taken over the years by the RBF included renaming UBC “University Beer Capital,” installing beer vending machines on campus and promising to “make up reasons to look for WMDs (weapons of mass destruction) at UVic.” The RBF was popular, especially during an era that saw UBC student politics divided between a radical left party and a more centre-left party. It disbanded in 2005, after party slates were banned.
The Fire Hydrant first rolled onto the scene in 2004 when it ran as an RBF candidate for a seat on the UBC board of governors, accompanied by “translator” (i.e. creator) Darren Peets.
“I felt something needed to be done to draw attention to the campaign,” says Peets. “Many people did not realize how important the position is.”
Peets, a physics Ph.D. candidate, has also been active on the “respectable” side of student politics. “I did not run the Hydrant to protest or discredit the process,” he says. “I basically thought ‘how can I draw attention to this race?’” The initial Hydrant platform included a call for a university closure policy in the event of an invasion: UBC has a snow closure policy; the Hydrant believed an alien invasion was slightly more likely than a Vancouver snow storm.
The Hydrant performed poorly in that election. But in 2005, the Hydrant returned with an improved platform. The wooden platform the Hydrant is bolted to was upgraded with a racing stripe, and the wheels were oiled to increase speed. That year, Fire Hydrant pulled in 900 votes, and missed winning a seat on the Board of Governors by only six votes. The next year it increased its vote count, but still missed a seat.
In 2007, Peets took a serious run for a seat on the Board of Governors—running as himself. He won. However, many people called begging Peets to roll the Hydrant one last time. “I am in my final year, my thesis is underway, I really don’t know if I have time,” Peets told Maclean’s last December.
Earlier this year, he gave in to the pressure. Hydrant entered the race for vice-president academic on UBC student council. Among other things, it proposed that the university expropriate some of the land that UBC has recently sold off to developers. “How many times do you think we can sell condos and expropriate them back before people realize what we’re up to?” asked Hydrant. “I figure about three or four.”
Despite its personal popularity, Fire Hydrant went down to defeat again last month. The new VP academic, Alex Lougheed, received 723 votes; Fire Hydrant finished fourth, backed by 559 voters.