"Messing with the campus Machine"
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
December 07, 1992
Candidate: Secretive group uses intimidation
Tuscaloosa, Ala. - Minda Riley, a political science major who admires Margaret Thatcher and Elizabeth Dole, is running for student body president at the University of Alabama. Her credentials seem impeccable: High grades, honor clubs, previous political experience. There's only one thing missing, and it could cost her the election - the endorsement of the Machine, a clandestine society of several dozen people that has controlled campus politics at the university since World War I.
Usually, the Machine ignores independent candidates. But when Ms. Riley returned from Thanksgiving break last week, she found an X burned into her front yard and threatening notes pinned to her door: "Tonight Crossbones Burn, Next Time Your Skeleton Head Will Burn," and "Machine Rules..."
No one knows who was responsible, just as no one outside the Machine knows its full membership, but the message to Ms. Riley was clear: Don't challenge the Machine. She isn't listening.
"I've made it clear from the first that I'm running with or without them," Ms. Riley said. "It makes no difference to me. I'm the most qualified, I have the most experience and I think I'm the best choice. If the Machine doesn't think so, that's their problem, but the students should have a choice."
If Ms. Riley's candidacy makes the Machine nervous, it's because she plans to restructure student government in a way that could break the secret group's longstanding monopoly on political power. It's also because she stands a good chance to win.
"Potentially, this could be a pivotal year," said Harry Knopke, vice president for student affairs. "Minda's candidacy is attracting a sizable number of people. Whether or not the Machine was behind this incident, the fact that people assume it was the Machine is a sad commentary on them. People assume that's how they do business."
`An excellent school of hard knocks'
If the intrigues of student elections seem irrelevant to an outsider, they are taken very seriously on campus and across the state.
"If someone wants an education in politics, the University of Alabama is the best education you can get," said Chuck Hess, a student senator who regularly tangled with the Machine before graduating from law school in May. "It's not so much the classes or the instructors, but they've got an excellent school of hard knocks."
The Machine, or Theta Nu Epsilon, dominates student life through its ability to manipulate elections and in turn control political appointees. It consists of secretly selected representatives from 27 of the university's "old row" fraternities and sororities, who reportedly meet once a week. The group endorses a slate of candidates for president, vice president and Senate every year, then buses campus fraternity and sorority members to the polls to vote for the selected candidates. Greeks who don't vote are fined.
In the past, numerous campuses around the nation had Theta Nu Epsilon chapters, but with the liberal tide of the 1960s, all were swept away except the Machine at Alabama.
Fraternity and sorority members make up only 25 percent of Alabama's 19,000 students, but the Machine's tentacles are so widespread that they are said to control who is selected for honorary organizations.
The student Senate, which allocates a $500,000 budget, is also in the Machine's pocket, but that could change this year. The Machine controlled past Senate elections by taking advantage of arcane voting laws that encouraged bloc voting. This year, the system has been changed to the more traditional one-person, one-vote system.
The top prize is the student body presidency, which has served as a launching pad for several U.S. senators, congressmen and other elected officials. Traditionally, the Machine taps its choice for the February election the previous September, then throws in about $10,000 and its organizational muscle to ensure victory.
Only seven beat the odds in 70 years
When she ran for Senate last year, Ms. Riley, a member of a Machine sorority, received a Machine endorsement. But when the Machine tapped someone else as its presidential candidate this fall, Ms. Riley, whose brother served as president with a Machine endorsement, declared herself an independent and announced her candidacy. The Machine candidate has not yet been announced. Ms. Riley, for the most part, has been ostracized by her sorority.
John Merrill, who in 1986 was the last independent presidential candidate to beat the Machine, said his office was burglarized and his campaign workers' cars vandalized during and after the election. Another independent president, John Bolus, discovered after his victory that his telephone had been tapped. Only seven independents have beaten the Machine in 70 years.
"They'd call my home and cuss me out, and call my wife and tell her they'd find her and rape her," Mr. Merrill said. "Minda's going to be facing some things - and I told her this - that nobody before her has ever faced."
Scott Deaton, an Alabama senior identified by Mr. Knopke as the president of the Machine, said the group would not be stupid enough to burn the X in Ms. Riley's yard. He believes Ms. Riley did it herself to gain publicity, and he accuses her of putting the school's Greek system in a bad light.
"She's gonna come off trying to look like some kind of victim or sweetheart, but I wouldn't put it past her for one second," said Mr. Deaton, who would not say whether he is in the Machine. "Every little job she's gotten up to this point, she's had a Machine endorsement. Now she's trying to say she did it without their help. I think it's a selfish thing on her part."
Ms. Riley, who is a finalist for a national Truman Scholarship, disagrees.
"This happens a lot in society," she said. "All of a sudden the victim turns into the accused. I was prepared for things like this, but I don't look forward to them, and I absolutely would not initiate them. It is one group's opinion that they don't think I'm the best candidate. There are a lot more students who should have a choice."