Three SGA executive president candidates compete to lead organization into a new era

Left+to+right%3A+Jehan+Ayesha%2C+Claire+Rodenbush%2C+and+Diego+Torres+are+the+three+candidates+competing+for+the+executive+presidency.

Left to right: Jehan Ayesha, Claire Rodenbush, and Diego Torres are the three candidates competing for the executive presidency.

Ahighly contested race for the Student Government Association’s executive presidency has taken shape this week, with three candidates vying to be the first to lead the organization under its newly established legislative model.

Voting is set to take place Monday through Wednesday, less than a week after a portion of the student body overwhelmingly voted to ratify a new constitution that will drastically overhaul SGA’s basic framework—the most significant change to student government at the college in over 20 years.

The organization’s next group of leaders will inherit a completely reformed SGA and will likely set the tone for the organization moving forward, potentially making this the most important election in recent years. The elections come on the heels of a tumultuous year for SGA, as the group at times struggled with efficiency, failing to push several proposals through Joint Session and leaving senate and commissioner seats unfilled for the duration of the year.

The candidates, Diego Torres and Claire Rodenbush, who will both appear on the ballot, and Jehan Ayesha, who is organizing a write-in campaign, are all running on diametrically opposed platforms, each honing in on one major focus.

Torres, a junior transfer student, has centralized his platform around an issue he believes has plagued SGA for years—communication.

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“I want to focus a lot on streamlining and centralizing communication,” Torres said in a Zoom interview with The Beacon Saturday. “So making sure that communication is easy to understand, efficient, and that when you’re talking to one SGA member, that what they’re telling you is the same thing another person will tell you. That we are all on the same page regarding what resources are available to students, student organizations, and we can maximize efficiency from the get go.”

Torres’ campaign essentially promises an executive president who will be easily accessible to students. He doesn’t want issues to be brought to his attention indirectly; he wants to speak with students personally.

“I want people to understand that I [would be] both SGA President and a member of the student body,” he said. “I want to be someone you can come and talk to about SGA, about the struggles of your organization or about the successes of your organizations—or just a casual conversation from one Emerson student to another.”

Torres is also advocating for a bolstered SGA social media presence, which he said will allow the organization to communicate with students in real time.

“I think the SGA platform, especially social media, could do a better job of highlighting what resources are available to students,” he said.

Rodenbush, a self-described LGBTQ+ activist, is running her campaign as an advocate, branding herself as the radical candidate who will create far-reaching change at the college.

“I have this general mindset towards politics, on both the student level and the national level, which is [that] I, on my end, will never compromise my beliefs,” she said in a Zoom interview with The Beacon. “I believe what I believe and I’m going to believe it. I have a lot of progressive policies that I fight for that I recognize the administration might want me to compromise on, but I’m not willing to do that.”

A major plank of Rodenbush’s campaign is a proposal to overhaul the college’s Title IX policies, a venture that may prove challenging to see through as SGA lacks the influence to change college policy themselves.

“I recognize as the president of SGA, I can’t directly change [Title IX policies],” she said. “I don’t have the power to rewrite it. But I do have the power to tell the people who can to do it. I have the power to tell the people who can meet with Students Supporting Survivors that they need to, and they needed to have done it a year ago.”

Rodenbush is an outspoken supporter of the Emerson College Student Union, and has adopted some of their proposals for her campaign, including a freeze on tuition increases. 

Ayesha, who identifies herself in her campaign bio as a Malaysian Muslim international student and is an insider candidate, is focusing her bid for the executive presidency on utilizing the new legislative model to make the organization more representative of the student body and responsive to their needs. Ayesha is the only current member of SGA in the race for executive president. 

“I care about sustainability and inclusivity in terms of race, ethnicity, nationality, and academics,” she said in an interview with The Beacon. “But I can’t be the only one representing all of those students. On my very first day on the job, I would try to immediately reach out to whoever I feel has shown interest in the vacant senate positions, be it in the student experience [senate] or the academic [senate].” 

Ayesha’s campaign is relatively broad, trading specific policy proposals for a far-reaching, general approach that she hopes will appeal to a larger base. She is also campaigning on increasing responsibility for members and leaders within SGA.

“I would advocate for accountability and making sure we’re not just meeting with department chairs and saying ‘Hey, so this is what’s happening in our department,’ and not actually doing something about it,” Ayesha said. “That’s something that can be resolved with the new legislative model.” 

All three candidates have expressed avid support for the newly ratified legislative model, saying the shift will allow SGA to be more responsive to the needs of students.

Torres and Rodenbush, who have never served in SGA, are both embracing the label of the outsider, arguing that a new era of SGA should be accompanied by new management.

 “The new model is not enough,” Torres said. “You need new leadership. If you have old leadership and the new model, you cannot guarantee that the new model will be guided in a direction that is different from what has come before.”

Ayesha, who has spent this year—her freshman year—working in SGA first as a co-executive assistant and then as journalism senator, adamantly rejected the notion that less experience would benefit her opponents. 

“People forget to put SGA in the context of Emerson,” she said. “SGA is a student organization. To be a president of an organization, you typically have to have been a member for a given amount of time. We’re all going to have to learn some new things. This will be a position new to me as well, but I wouldn’t have to learn nearly as much as the other candidates in any aspect of SGA.”

Ayesha said  her role in the process of drafting the new constitution has provided her with a thorough knowledge of the nuances of the new legislative model, at least on paper, which will allow her to hit the ground running as the 2020-2021 academic year kicks off.

The differences in the candidates’ standpoints is most clearly encapsulated by their vision for SGA’s treasury policy, which has been the subject of controversy this year and is often labeled as overcomplicated for student organizations.

Rodenbush, aligning with her push for radical change, has proposed scrapping the position of executive treasurer, which handles a notoriously overwhelming workload, and replacing it with a treasury board. While it is not clear what exactly her proposed board would look like, enacting the proposal may be an uphill battle as SGA just reformed its treasury work under the new constitution. If Rodenbush were to successfully push her proposal through, the new board would collectively oversee both the Financial Advisory Board and the new Financial Equity Committee. 

“I would basically remove that executive hierarchy, sort of equalizing the [treasury] responsibilities among separate members,” Rodenbush said. “That both decreases the overall amount of stress on each on the executive and it also kind of removes the ability to scapegoat because now you don’t have one person in charge.”

Torres agreed that some aspects of the current treasury structure are flawed and need to be reformed, but rejected the basic premise of Rodenbush’s proposal, saying that the work would be done more efficiently with one leader instead of three. Torres said he sees the student organization funding process as the most significant flaw in SGA’s treasury, calling for its simplification. 

“I don’t need and I don’t expect every single member of an organization to read a 40-page Treasury handbook,” he said. “That’s the job of the [executive] president and all the SGA members, especially the executive treasurer, to read that information and condense it in a way that is informative, accurate, but also easy to understand.”

Ayesha also disavowed Rodenbush’s proposal and instead suggested employing existing resources that the executive treasurer has at their disposal, specifically referring to the treasury team, which has been underutilized in the past. 

“We should invest in filling the existing or new positions in the Treasury Board,” she said. “The treasurer already has the option to have the resources they need, they just have to use them. I think the problem in past years is that there is not enough focus on filling out those positions. And I understand because it is a lot of work, it’s daunting. It’s hard to pull students in, but I know there must be students who are interested if we can just get them on board.”