On Wednesday evening, candidates for president and executive vice president of the Student Assembly sat in Weill Hall joined by seven viewers, awaiting the moment they would be called up on stage for the official spring 2022 SA presidential debates.
In the debates, moderated by Cornell Speech and Debate Society President Ben Feldman and CUSDS Vice President of Internal Carson Taylor, candidates shared with the Cornell student body — who were present mostly via Zoom — why they were the strongest candidate to represent the voice of the Cornell community.
There were two candidates per position: Duncan Cady ’23 and Valeria Valencia ’23 for president and Amari Lampert ’24 and Benjamin Luckow ’24 for executive vice president.
Many issues were on the line for the four candidates, as students have long had frustrations with the seeming lack of Assembly ability to effectively implement change.
Executive vice presidential debate
Luckow began the 30-minute-long debate by stating that even though he has only been a member of the SA since November, the six months were enough to see that there was a need for new logistics.
Luckow said that the overarching flaw of the Assembly is that the organization can really only offer suggestions to the Cornell Administration, rendering it powerless. He concluded his opening remarks by advocating for a better pressure campaign by the Assembly on the University to bring student goals to fruition.
Lampert, a member of the Assembly for two years who is currently the women’s issues liaison at-large, focused on physical and mental health, listing policies that she would support as executive vice president of the Assembly.
Lampert pointed to the understaffing of Cornell Health and advocated for raising funds that would support off-campus therapists and dietitians, stressed the importance of equal access to mental health support regardless of financial status and emphasized the need for University-provided menstrual products throughout the debate.
When candidates were asked about their qualifications and strengths as a potential executive vice president, Lampert pointed to her two years of experience in the Assembly.
“… [I have] been the student assembly infrastructure fund commission chair for a few years,” said Lampert, noting how she worked with professors to fund the design for environmental sustainability projects, including a rain garden.
Luckow, with only six months on the SA, responded by stating how he has had plenty of experience outside of the Assembly that would qualify him for the role of executive vice president.
“I have worked on project teams, labs in engineering… I’m working on two campaigns externally right now, and I know how to work with [people],” Luckow said. “That’s what I’ve bought since high school and my entire life.”
Throughout the debate, Luckow repeatedly mentioned the flaws of the Assembly, citing the disjointed nature of committees over the last few years, and said he would unite the Student Assembly to accomplish goals as executive vice president.
Luckow explicitly pointed to the success the SA had with the natatorium, where the Assembly — combined with the adamant support of the student body — was able to secure enough funding to keep the swimming pool used by the Cornell Water Polo team. Future efforts should follow a similar student-led movement, Luckow said.
Lampert also agreed with her opponent on community organization being key to future SA successes.
During the debate, Lampert said committees should be held more accountable on whether they meet, as well as whether they are having substantive conversations, saying this would improve transparency between committees.
Although the two candidates had different focuses of their campaign, they did not actively disagree on any key issues, which Luckow noted.
Valencia, like Lampert, has also been on the SA for two years. Currently, she serves as the first-generation students representative, chair of the academic policy committee and vice president of finance.
In her opening statement, Valencia broke down her platform into six main principles: Transparency, health, accessibility, sustainability, advocacy and diversity.
In his opening statement, Cady, who has also served on the University Assembly, said that he came to the SA to advocate for disabled students who were not adequately supported by the Cornell administration.
Cady was quick to set himself apart from his opponent.
“I’m not running on a large list of principles…I’m running on honesty. I don’t think the Student Assembly has [a] place to really make all the impacts we… wish we could,” Cady said.
Cady expressed that candidates have made misleading promises in the past — such as free gym memberships — that the school administration has denied multiple times. Valencia is campaigning on the elimination of gym memberships, alongside increased dining hall sustainability and the number of gender-neutral restrooms.
Valencia spoke of her qualifications as vice president of finance to indicate her presidential ability. Under that role, she claimed to have worked with 30 campus organizations.
In an apparent response to Cady’s reference to cost-free gyms, Valencia argued how it would be hard to promise to complete so many goals in one year, but what she could promise was that she would try.
Cady challenged Valencia’s claims that she had worked with 30 different campus organizations during her time as vice president, seeing as she had taken the role midway through the Fall 2021 semester.
Cady also challenged Valencia on her record of initially voting to defund mental health organizations, such as Empathy, Assistance and Referral Service and Cornell Minds Matters. Notably, Valencia later changed her vote and worked with Cady to ensure that EARS would receive proper funding.
Valencia explained how she was merely the chair for the committee that decided to defund Minds Matter, and did not vote in that decision.
The candidates each offered several examples of tangible policies they hoped to enact. Valencia said she would work with the financial aid office to lower the student contribution fee, a flat fee charged to undergraduate students that cannot be significantly changed through financial aid.
“To some students, that’s nothing. To others… that’s a lot of money,” Valencia said.
Cady said that the most important issue facing Cornellians is mental health. He offered examples of how he had previously worked to help uphold pillars of mental health support while in the Assembly, including leading the coalition to hinder the defunding of EARS by the appropriations committee.
When prompted by the moderators, both candidates also admitted the perceived legitimacy crisis of the SA, illustrated by the mostly empty room in which the debate took place.
Valencia also noted how, during past elections, many seats were vacant for so long that elections had to be extended in order for them to be filled. Valencia said a lot of people do not know what the SA is. She said the solution is more partnerships.
“We should try to reach out to committees, clubs, students [and] departments, and collaborate with them more,” Valencia said.
When asked about what relations between the Assembly and the Cornell Administration would look like, the candidates did not shy away from the challenges that come with such negotiations.
“I am not going to take no for an answer on the things students care about,” Cady said.
However, Cady said he had difficult conversations with getting students their desires, such as extending the Veterans Day holiday to students.
Valencia echoed his response, citing her meetings with Vice President of Student and Campus Life Ryan Lombardi and President Martha Pollack and said she had found the administration difficult to approach and often unwilling to listen, as Cady nodded silently in agreement.
The student assembly election will be held on April 26 and 28. All students can find additional information on the election on the Student Assembly website.