Duke Student Government elections are usually fought friendly. But this year, backchannel efforts to get candidates to support the 40 Percent Plan on the March 4 ballot hint of shady politics.
Nearly all of this year's candidates have likened their experience of dealing with the leaders of the 40 Percent Plan—senior Daniel Strunk, the architect of the plan, and co-developer, senior Ajeet Hansra—to dealing with a Super PAC, complete with a long list of supporters aggregated by a petition, aggressive canvassing, private funds and the potential for attack campaigns.
The plan, which would allow students to allocate 40 percent of their student activities fee to student groups of their choosing, has been a hot-button issue among student leaders this semester—as highlighted by open opposition from DSG President Stefani Jones, a senior, and Student Organization Finance Committee Chair Joyce Lau, a junior. So Strunk and Hansra have approached almost every candidate in the upcoming DSG election to talk them through the specifics of the policy—and to play politics.
If a candidate comes out in favor of the 40 Percent Plan, Strunk, Hansra and his supporters would consider backing them, several candidates said. But if a candidate actively campaigns against it, they run the risk of igniting a counter-campaign from Strunk and his team in the form of negative fliers, Chronicle content or messages to the 1,100-person 40 Percent Plan listserv.
Strunk has also expressed to candidates that the 40 Percent Plan team can use unlimited financial resources because they are not limited by DSG campaign finance restrictions.
“He has made it clear to all the candidates that he will support candidates who come out in favor of the 40 Percent Plan and will campaign against candidates who oppose it,” said junior and DSG Executive Vice President Nikolai Doytchinov, who dropped out of the presidential race Friday.
Strunk said these warnings were not meant as a threat or an ultimatum, comparing his tactics to any other student group's endorsement in The Chronicle.
“We want to make sure that we educate people before they make up their mind, and we want to make sure, frankly, that they know what we’ll do,” Strunk said. “We thought we should at least let them know so they can factor that into their campaign strategy."
Of the current candidates, the 40 Percent Plan leaders have had meetings with presidential candidates sophomore Lavanya Sunder, vice president for services, and junior Lawrence Nemeh, as well as sophomore Davis Treybig, current DSG treasurer and the sole candidate for Student Organizations Finance Committee chair. Sophomore Abhi Sanka, senator for residential life and the sole candidate for executive vice president, has been discussing student allocation policy with Strunk since the Fall.
Junior Will Giles, a current associate justice on the DSG Judiciary, is the only presidential candidate that Strunk and Hansra have yet to approach for an official meeting. In his platform, Giles notes that he "supports the aim of the 40 Percent Plan."
As of now, Strunk said he and the other 40 Percent Plan leaders have no intentions to endorse or denounce any particular candidate because no one, as of yet, is actively against the plan. Nearly every candidate is supportive of some form of student allocation or have pledged to carry out the plan if it passes.
Additionally, the only personal funds that have been spent on the 40 Percent Plan were FLEX points used to print color signs.
At this point, the 40 Percent Plan campaign centers solely around rallying people to vote "yes" on the plan. Strunk has campaigned aggressively by reaching out to individuals via Facebook and hosting information sessions, as well as speaking to classes and student groups. This week, there will be an information session and a debate Tuesday and Thursday evenings, respectively.
In January, Strunk brought a case to the DSG Judiciary—while he was still judiciary chair—arguing that DSG should accept petitions with electronic signatures, whereas they previously only accepted paper signatures. The judiciary ruled in his favor.
With that ruling, the 40 Percent Plan—with around 1,100 signatures, including NetIDs that formed the plan’s listserv—became the first petition-based referendum to make it to a DSG election ballot in recent memory.
In early February, a modified version of the plan—one that would allow students to allocate 25 percent rather than 40 of their activities fees—came to a vote in DSG, Strunk recorded which senators voted against the plan. At the time, he was encouraging senators to vote for the 25 Percent Plan.
“We knew that if [the 25 Percent Plan] failed, then we would be campaigning for the 40 Percent Plan,” he said. “It would be good to know who voted for and against the 25 percent compromise."
The 25 Percent Plan was voted down, after which Strunk dropped his position as chair of the DSG Judiciary because he thought his involvement in the 40 Percent Plan campaign would be a conflict of interest.
It was then that he began soliciting candidates for their support.
Sophomore Dylan Newman approached Strunk saying he was considering running for SOFC chair on a pro-40 Percent Plan platform. After talking with him, Strunk said he was strongly considering endorsing Newman, who has no prior SOFC experience.
Strunk messaged Treybig, also running for SOFC chair, suggesting that he remove a post on Facebook that showed his uncertainties about the 40 Percent Plan.
In a meeting that followed, Strunk told Treybig that if he did not come out at least as neutral on the 40 Percent Plan, Strunk would likely campaign for Newman. Newman later decided not to run.
Treybig, who said he was motivated by Strunk's arguments about the policy, came out of that meeting with a more favorable attitude toward a student allocation plan.
Junior Tre' Scott, who briefly considered running for DSG president, said he felt like Strunk pitched the 40 Percent Plan team as a grassroots organization—students taking on the establishment via this one issue.
"The idea was if I ran and supported the 40 Percent Plan, the grassroot movement he created could transform to my campaign, and that was what he could bring to the table," Scott said.
Doytchinov said he wanted students to vote "no" on the plan so the DSG Senate could later discuss a 15 percent plan compromise, but he would not outwardly say that during his campaign because he did not want to attract negative campaigning from the 40 Percent Plan leaders.
“So I just said I would put up with the 40 Percent Plan if it passes,” he said.
Sunder said her meeting was amicable, but it left a similar impression as it did on most of the other candidates—that Strunk would determine which candidate to support based on her position regarding the 40 Percent Plan. She eventually chose neutrality.
Even if she had publicly denounced the plan, she said she was skeptical that an opposition campaign would have had much impact.
“I don’t think it’s insurmountable,” she said, referring to Strunk’s political clout.
DSG members often try to model their behavior after actual government practices, but this usually ends at aggressive politicking. Although the 40 Percent Plan campaign tactics are unprecedented in DSG elections, many of those involved think it brings flavor to Duke’s election scene.
Treybig said the 40 Percent Plan campaign has altered the political environment by making the race based more on a single issue rather than which candidate would do the best job.
“It sucks that this single issue that ultimately is not such a big deal in the grand scheme of things is becoming so pivotal to all these campaigns,” he said.
Having a force outside the system of candidates spend money and endorse candidates feels “more political and dirtier” than elections in years past, Doytchinov said. He added, though, that the 40 Percent team is within its rights to back candidates they agree with and denounce candidates they do not.
“It gives the political climate more legitimacy, in a way,” Sunder said, noting that Strunk’s efforts are comparable to a Super PAC because of the way they look to use private resources and efforts to affect the election.
Strunk said comparing the 40 Percent Plan to a Super PAC is “ludicrous,” especially because the team has spent hardly any money. He said, though, that the campaign excites an otherwise boring election cycle.
“It’s an invigorating and healthy thing for Duke democracy that we have a real issue that students are running on,” he said. “We should want more of this sort of civic engagement."
He said people should not be questioning why the 40 Percent Plan leaders are so aggressive, but rather why that until now, no one has paid attention to the $700,000 doled out by SOFC.
“There are always political factors at play in any campaign you run, but I think people were convinced by the policy," Strunk said.
Scott jokingly said the unprecedented politicking might have to do with pop culture.
“The worst thing that could have happened is that House of Cards came out a couple weeks before DSG elections,” Scott said.