"The Machine today: Part two" Ryan Hickman Dateline Alabama April 3, 2006
April 3 | The second installment examining the Machine today at the University of Alabama looks at outbound SGA president Mary Margaret Carroll and possible alternatives from a former SGA president.
No stranger to discussion of the University of Alabama's Machine is Mary Margaret Carroll. The outbound SGA president made headlines in The Crimson White on Feb. 16 when she disclosed her membership in the Machine during a University Student and Campus Life Committee meeting.
Carroll's admittance of a Machine and her personal involvement set off a chain reaction of news stories in the state including a column by John Archibald in The Birmingham News and a story on the Associated Press wire. She explained in an interview that she doesn't like the attention that has come with the stories, but Carroll is not shy to discuss the issue. "I've talked about the Machine a lot this year," Carroll said. "There just happened to be a reporter in the room."
"It would be extremely dishonest to say I don't know what it is," Carroll continued. "People talk about this big bad monster on this campus and whether it may or may not have aided me, when it is just not there."
Carroll said she is also tired of defending herself for incidents that occurred at the university well before her tenure.
"I don't know what happened here when I wasn't here," she said. "Why do people keep bringing up stuff that happened in the '70s?"
"It's sad that people are still bringing up this Machine that has taken on this identity," Carroll continued. "I guess that some people always want to create that shadow to protest."
When confronted about the prospects that the Machine has been responsible for malicious acts during SGA campaigns in the past, Carroll insisted that any acts of intimidation or threats would be a detriment to her campaign or any student politician whose political ambitions extended beyond UA.
"People here are going to run for higher office," Carroll acknowledged. "I know the importance of holding a good reputation, so why would you want to compromise all those morals?"
Head Start or Uphill Climb?
Carroll went on to say that the mere perception as the Machine candidate is a hindrance because the tag comes with heaps of negative baggage. Her ultimate annoyance stems from the assumptions that once someone is pegged as the Machine candidate, it is assumed that they start on a different footing with a large number of greek votes automatically behind them.
"It's not fair, year after year, to label someone as if they are starting out ahead," Carroll explained. "It sends the message that they're cheating. I didn't get three hours of sleep a night during my campaign because I had a free ride."
The current SGA president explained that a senate race might allow a candidate to just target a specific demographic like the greeks, but in a presidential election the reach has to be much wider.
"You are trying to appeal to as many people as you can," Carroll said. "You shouldn't have ideas that favor one group or another."
"Even with my pledge sisters I had to sit down and experience my platform because I wanted to give them something to vote for," Carroll, a member of Chi Omega sorority, continued.
Carroll recalled hustling down sorority row and throughout the fraternities to spread her word while her main competition in the presidential race, Zac Riddle, also in a fraternity, was employing the identical strategy.
Like any organized campaign, Carroll said she pinpointed specific people and mapped out a structured strategy that included going after the greek vote.
"Regardless [of] if there was a strategy in place or not, you would be an idiot not to take advantage of it," Carroll said about targeting the greek houses.
With less than a quarter of the campus actually going to the polls, greeks have traditionally been the ones that go to the polls in mass numbers, and not putting in work to lure that bloc would be political suicide in UA's SGA race. Carroll sees her tactics as identical to any other shrewd campus politician-greek or not.
"If people slow down to think about it, they are running their campaign in the same way," Carroll said about campaigns organized to target specific sects.
Carroll uses the same nonchalance to define the Machine.
"It's just fraternities and sororities that work together," Carroll said matter-of-factly. "I hate calling it that, but it's just easier to say the Machine."
"I worked with people on campaigns," Carroll continued innocently. "It's fun. It's handing out flyers and calling up friends, but you want to make sure they get elected."
The friends and structures that make up the Machine Carroll describes are motivated to succeed. That ideal has stood the test of time with greeks. They have carved out a historical legacy because of the ideal of organization and its consistent success at the polls.
"The Machine takes advantage of a very organized infrastructure in the Greek system where you do have organized people that meet and share information and can exert informal and formal control over the members," said Margaret King, the University's vice president of student affairs. "The fact that the sororities and fraternities are already organized does make it very easy then for a bloc to permeate the groups and to be sustained by those groups."
Simply organizing a political group with the intent of promoting certain individuals into SGA office is not an infringement of University policy.
"They can do it informally and gather together in somebody's apartment and decide who is going to run for what and that's fine," King said. "They can do it informally or formally. If they actually wanted to create an organization or an alliance and call themselves that and go out for recognition they can do that."
It is the informal, closed-door proceedings that have many dissenters of the Machine up in arms. But the secrecy and unwillingness to discuss the specifics of the Machine in public does not appear as the same straightforward group that Carroll describes.
To the Machine's own disservice, the reticence of the group only prolongs the negative press, undermines their image and continues the lore of ill perception that dogs them.
SGA politics at UA have been described as "sandbox" stuff. Although the executive and senate of the SGA do wield power within the Ferguson Center and handling important student issues, the association is more a mock government experience than hard line politics.
"I don't think people care enough," Carroll affirmed. "I don't think it's a life or death situation."
Once the dirt of the past is washed off the lens with which people perceive the SGA, the Machine today becomes nothing more than a collection of fraternities and sororities that have the ultimate organization and ambition to succeed in campus politics.
"All it is is a big voting bloc," explained Robert Steiner, one of this year's presidential candidates.
When You Need a Friend
Carroll has been criticized for her reference to the Machine being a bunch of friends, but just ask students on the way out of polling stations on election day their reasons for voting.
"One of my best friends is running for senate," said Holly Putnam, a senior majoring in history, at the Ferguson Center on the March 7. "Other than that, I picked everyone who was at the top of the list."
The same sentiments continued at the Gorgas Library polling booth.
"One of my friends was running," explained Ashley Pierce, a freshman majoring in psychology.
Friendship as impetus for voting also echoed at Reese Phifer Hall on March 8, the last day of voting for this year's election.
"I promised someone I would," Kevin Rainey, a senior majoring in journalism said. "I think it's the responsibility for students to have a voice at the university. There really wasn't a specific issue, I just came out and supported a specific candidate."
SGA elections are a hair above a popularity contest as far as political competitions go, and what more organized and structured group of friends than the Greek system at UA? Witnessing Justice Smyth walk to the podium at any of this election's debates, with shrills from sorority members and hollers of fraternity guys, was evidence of the structural amassment of friends.
Solution Past the Past
If students are truly upset with the Machine as it operates presently, dwelling on the past will continually impede progress of the future. Specific remedies, not suggestively worded public attacks, should be placed into campus discourse and put into action.
The 1976 SGA president plainly pinpointed the determinant behind the perennial success of the Greek voting bloc, the essential ingredient in determining true strategic alternative.
"The Machine preys on the apathy of everybody else," said Cleo Thomas, the only black SGA president and one of only seven non-Machine candidates to win the SGA presidency. "There is no institutional mechanism to groom competitors."
The history and shady past of the Machine is a much more appealing story than apathy, but lower student turnout is the deciding factor in the electoral process at the University of Alabama.
According to the wniversity's Web site, in fall 2005, 23% of undergraduates were in the greek system. Therefore, a quarter of the campus runs the SGA simply because they are organized and motivated enough to do so. There is no dark-hooded, axe-wielding, frat-shirt-wearing Grim Reaper reigning over students' political decisions. Nearly 16,000 students just don't vote.
Skeptics will automatically attribute Thomas's win in '76 to the fact that the sororities were not in the greek voting bloc at the time of his candidacy-something Thomas openly admits--and that he took advantage of that. But he and his election team that year were supremely efficient, and he was unquestionably qualified when the time came for him to run.
"The challenge that independent candidates often have is that they have not had the experience or on paper been as qualified as the other candidates," said Thomas at a Capstone PAC-sponsored speech in Alston Hall on Feb. 27. "The other candidates are from the Machine … which has an infrastructure. Their students get on campus as freshmen and get them involved in activities that permit resume-building."
Thomas ran as a residence hall senator as a freshman and served as sophomore, and progressed to school senator his junior year before running for SGA president the following spring. During his time in the SGA before running for president, Thomas also served on a number of committees that were not deemed high profile, but let him work with a wide array of students, lending to his reaching support base.
With the notches on his political belt enough to warrant a run for the SGA's highest office, Thomas just needed the strategic backing that came from the sororities, with whom he had worked extensively in SGA committees, to beat the Machine at its own game.
"One of the challenges that the Capstone PAC has is not just being concerned electing an SGA president," Thomas explained at the same speech. "but being concerned with having a pipeline where people have the experiences to be qualified, viable, impressive candidates for SGA-having a strategy."
Critics will say that creating an institutionalized alternative to the greek political structure might cause an even bigger strife between the already polarized greeks and non-greeks in the institution's political realm. Organizing against the greeks might also prompt the old Machine ills of the past to rear their ugly heads.
The Capstone PAC, the only viable option as a political alternative to the greek voting bloc on campus, does not strive for political office, rather political decency.
"The purpose of our group is not to place candidates," said Matt Dover, the president of the Capstone PAC, after Thomas's speech. "We try not to support them explicitly."
Mythology Mars the SGA
However easy it is to look over one's shoulder to explain the greek voting bloc, the malignant past of the politics at the UA is undercutting the current SGA. Granted there is still some semblance of a network that resides in the Old Row fraternities and sororities and preside over the interests of greek SGA candidates and there have been, without dispute, incidents in the past that have impaired the proceedings of SGA elections.
Carroll sketches the Machine out as a gang of pals banding together for political success, while conspiracy theorists and campus mythologists construct an image of dark secrets and deep-rooted racist control systems that resembles excerpts from the "Da Vinci Code" rather than UA politics. But with every myth lies a kernel of truth, and defining the Machine today probably lies between the two accounts, although Carroll's version is probably not far off.
Stoking the flames of folklore and passing them off as contemporary problems only accelerates the hyper apathy that plagues the politics of the university. History haunts this campus, and the Machine is part of what the university was and has become and won't be forgotten.
"They are the biggest dynasty at Alabama other than football," Nick Beadle, the Crimson White's managing editor says. "Actually, they are bigger and longer than that."
But as much as Alabamians acknowledge the accomplished past on the football field with near mythical reflection, there is lucid insistence on future success. Machine politics should be viewed with the same level headedness and taken for what it is now-a greek voting bloc-and not for what it used to be.