Senatorial Trouble: A Conversation with Kiah Abbey

Last year, the Procrastinator’s annual End-of-the-Year Porno event was canceled amidst uproar in a unilateral decision made by ASMSU President and Vice President, Kiah Abbey and Lindsay Murdock.

I e-mailed senators, as well as Abbey, to explain my distaste, not at canceling the porn but for missing an opportunity for broad discourse about a volatile subject.

Back then, only Abbey and Murdock were generous enough to respond. This month, I talked to Abbey about her stance on campus leadership as the end to her presidential tenure loomed.

“It’s an incredibly surprising job every day,” she told me, after sharing a laundry list of big-picture items she’s been working on. These surprises are born between balancing blocks of policymaking with the more public role of, in her words, “making communication as open as possible”.

“I think this position is inherently flawed, no matter your preparation,” Abbey told me. “You are inherently ignorant as to what this job entails.” The Procrastinator Porno fallout is a prime example: Efforts this year to hold the promised open house about the decision failed due to insufficient advertisement. “You just get busy,” Abbey told me. “You go, ‘Shit, that’s tomorrow!’”

The presidential office is one where the possible time management problems only mount after day one — a burden that applies to anyone involved in ASMSU. The responsibilities that are forgotten can be chalked up to either miscommunication or something more troubling.

Too often, the ignored email from a constituent implies that outreach measures such as senators’ office hours are merely a formality, no matter how eager each elected official may seem. Senator Erica McKay’s tactic that may or may not have secured her the 2012 election is telling of a tally-counting perspective that views the office as a contest or an accolade: Over Facebook, she urged voters in uncontested colleges to falsely identify under the College of Business in order to vote for her (“A Matter of Elections,” 9/27/12).

To her credit, Abbey seems genuinely aware and active about these complaints. She told me she’s “encouraging the rest of the office to be proactive about getting student opinion,” rather than merely talking about student opinion.

The issue at hand, as I interpret it, is training students how to handle bureaucratic empathy, with all the allowances for error that an education involves, while still providing quality control over leadership. I asked Abbey if the candidates for the upcoming ASMSU presidential elections have talked with her about her own struggles and transformations within the demands of her office.

She looked as though she had just been reminded of something, then said, “These candidates have a lot of big promises, some of which are impractical.” After some thought, she remarked, “I need to have more conversations with the candidates.”

That’s one more line on her checklist for a pen to hover over, maybe to cross out, maybe to pass over for another day.

It’s an easy trick to characterize mistakes committed by professionals as a sign of either maliciousness or incompetency — but the insertion of the student leader introduces an uneasy middle ground within, or even without, that template. As Abbey said, the office of the student politician is one of perpetual and imperceptible surprises. Suddenly being ushered into a place of both apparent entitlement and heightened responsibilities can be confusing, although that isn’t an excuse for poor performance when responding to constituents.

“[Many students] really don’t care about your senate meetings,” I wrote in an email to a prominent senator about a year ago, “because they’ve never been given a reason to care about them.” I also wrote, “The last senate presidential debate looked like some mumbly people sitting at a bunch of tables thrown together in the middle of a food court, because that’s what it was.” This strikes me as particularly relevant, having walked through the SUB last week. Those emails I sent were part of a conversation that suddenly dried up.

The problem of civic inertia, Abbey told me, is a “fundamentally systematic” one. America is a land of entitlement, of titles that prove nothing but seemingly allow for a wide range of behaviors, most without justification. She told me, “I really don’t think we can change that … although the task is worth attempting.”

The destruction of this inertia — of the inherently uncaring monolith that university politicians enter and shut the door to — is a task that is perhaps impossible. However, if ASMSU wishes to remain relevant through this election season and the next, this task must be wholeheartedly pursued.