By Katie Mettler / The Washington Post
Bobby Brooks, a junior at Texas A&M, made history this month when he was elected as the university’s first openly gay student body president.
Nearly two decades prior, Rick Perry, also an A&M alumnus, made his own bit of university history when he became the first Aggie to serve as governor of Texas.
But for their shared school pride, these men and their accomplishments had nothing to do with each other.
That changed Wednesday, when Perry, the country’s energy secretary, chose to plunge into campus politics, claiming publicly that Brooks stole the election from another student.
That student, Robert McIntosh, is the son of a prominent Republican fundraiser in Dallas who campaigned for Donald Trump during his presidential election.
Perry’s accusation drew astounded responses from the university, Texas lawmakers and a professor, who said it was “extraordinary” that a federal official would involve himself in an issue as hyperlocal as student government elections.
“Honestly, we were just surprised to see that the secretary of energy would take the time to weigh in in detail,” Amy Smith, the school’s senior vice president of marketing and communications, told the Texas Tribune, “and we respectfully disagree with his assessment of what happened.”
Perry wrote in a lengthy commentary for the Houston Chronicle that he was “deeply troubled” by the actions of A&M’s administration and Student Government Association for overseeing what he viewed as an engineered election that awarded victory to Brooks in a “quest for ‘diversity.’”
Brooks spoke with reporters about his sexuality after the election, but did not make it part of his platform, reported A&M’s student newspaper, the Battalion. Perry wrote in his commentary that his problem was not with the sexual orientation of the victorious student, but the way in which he won.
“When I first read that our student body had elected an openly gay man, Bobby Brooks, for president of the student body, I viewed it as a testament to the Aggie character,” Perry wrote. “I was proud of our students because the election appeared to demonstrate a commitment to treating every student equally, judging on character rather than on personal characteristics.”
“Unfortunately,” Perry added, “a closer review appears to prove the opposite; and the Aggie administration and SGA owe us answers.”
McIntosh clinched the popular vote by 750 votes but was disqualified by the student election commissioner after accusations of voter intimidation surfaced, reported the Battalion.
A&M’s judicial court — the university’s version of a student supreme court — overturned McIntosh’s disqualification, ruling there wasn’t sufficient evidence to prove he intimidated voters. But another charge, that he failed to disclose financial information for glow sticks briefly featured in a campaign video, was unanimously upheld, so his disqualified status did not change.
Brooks, who came in second place in the election, was named the victor.
The drama of the election results and the subsequent dispute played out over several weeks in the pages of the student newspaper, revealing a passionate debate among students about democratic ideals.
The administration, it seems, gave the students room to resolve their disagreements without interference.
It wasn’t until Wednesday, after several Texas newspapers published profiles of Brooks discussing his historic feat, that Perry weighed in with his commentary. Even McIntosh was surprised by the energy secretary’s words, he told the student newspaper:
“I did not at all expect his editorial and I’m humbled to have his support. He made a compelling case which I fully support and continue to fight for. Our campaign team won the election and was subsequently disqualified unfairly. Diversity, at its heart, is equal treatment of all, and we hope this situation is resolved in a way that ensures a fair and more transparent process now and in future elections.”
Perry said the election commission and judicial court, both composed entirely of students, disqualified McIntosh “through a process that — at best — made a mockery of due process and transparency.”
“At worst,” Perry wrote, “the SGA allowed an election to be stolen outright.”
The energy secretary called out, by first and last name, the student election commissioner and student chief justice of the A&M judicial court. Perry implored them to explain why they chose to “overturn a fairly won election” and treat “these cases as annoyances rather than with respect.”
“The administration must explain why it stood passive while equal treatment was mocked in the name of diversity, and why officials did not brief the Board of Regents,” he continued.
Smith, the university’s senior communications vice president, told the Texas Tribune that student government elections are run by the students, not administrators, and that Perry’s “understanding of the election rules of student body president elections doesn’t reflect the facts.”
Reached late Wednesday night, the student election commissioner declined to comment. Brooks and the student chief justice did not respond to a similar request from The Washington Post.
With a tone that resembled the same fury over “political correctness” that boosted Trump, Perry insinuated in his commentary that McIntosh was unfairly disqualified because his opponent was gay.
“Brooks’ presidency is being treated as a victory for ‘diversity,’” he wrote. “It is difficult to escape the perception that this quest for ‘diversity’ is the real reason the election outcome was overturned. Does the principle of ‘diversity’ override and supersede all other values of our Aggie Honor Code?”
Perry said “every Aggie ought to ask themselves” if they would allow a black, gay or nonwhite male to be disqualified from an election on the same grounds as McIntosh.
Smith offered a sharp rebuke to that claim, too: “To suggest that the same decision of disqualification would not have been made if the roles were reversed is to deny the Texas A&M of today where accountability applies to all,” she told the Battalion.
Experts on Texas politics described Perry’s actions as “astounding,” “extraordinary” and “strange.”
“He’s written it as a call for fairness, not that he’s come out against the first gay student body president at A&M,” Cal Jillson, a political-science professor at Southern Methodist University, told the Houston Chronicle, “but the extraordinary part is that he took the time to do this when he should have so many bigger fish to fry in his current job.”
Perry was confirmed as energy secretary after a contentious hearing that called into question his knowledge and respect for the department. Perry, a former presidential candidate, was the longest-serving Texas governor and has not been shy about his Aggie pride.
This, said Rice University professor Mark Jones, could explain his unusually aggressive response to his alma mater’s current student body.
“This must be his inner Aggie speaking, because this is certainly not something you expect a cabinet secretary to weigh in on — actually, probably not even a governor,” Jones told the Houston Chronicle. “It’s strange. Of all the things he could have an opinion on, this is probably not the smartest move for a cabinet secretary. He must really be upset about it.”