This year's election for the presidency and vice-presidency of ASUM, the University of Montana's student government, is best described as:
A) A battle between a pair of genuine grassroots activists hardened by direct-action environmentalism and their slick opponents, pseudo-environmentalists hand-picked to preserve a conservative lock on student government; or
B) A race pitting two effective, pragmatic veterans of real-world politics against mudslinging extremists who've campaigned on slurs and emotional rhetoric rather than the issues.
If you're not sure, you're in good company. This year's ASUM election has been unusually bitter, with two tickets vying for environmentalists' votes. Each has trashed the other's authenticity and effectiveness. With the polls still open at press time, it remains to be seen whom the students believe. By the time you read this, a decision will have been made.
Presidential candidates Barrett Kaiser and Bryce Smedley both claim green histories. Both offer platforms heavy on recycling, bike racks, tuition and fee reduction, alternative transportation and cultural diversity.
The similarities end there. Kaiser and Smedley come from different, often sparring camps within the campus' liberal world, and each says the other's green vision is skewed.
Kaiser is a former chair of MontPIRG, a venerable fee-funded organization that campaigns for environmental causes and consumer protection through lobbying, petitions and research. A member of the College Democrats, he's lobbied Montana's congressional delegation on higher education and consumer issues.
Smedley, on the other hand, describes himself as part of the "Earth First! community on campus." He's a veteran of direct-action campaigns against logging in Idaho's Cove/Mallard region and against Montana's slaughter of bison wandering out of Yellowstone National Park.
Kaiser succinctly sums up the gulf between him and Smedley.
"It goes back to our different styles," Kaiser says. "Bryce is about blocking roads and locking yourself to the federal building downtown. I'm about putting my suit on, sitting down with decision-makers and trying to get things done."
This pragmatic style doesn't sit well with Smedley, who's called Kaiser a "pansy environmentalist."
"These are just the same old clowns," he says. "They're part what's always been the ASUM inner circle, the people that come to school to pad their resumes. They're the hand-picked successors of the current government and they've had its endorsement from the beginning.
"Where were they when we were fighting for Cove/Mallard last summer? Where were they when the buffalo were being killed? For them to call themselves activists is bullshit."
Smedley and his running mate, Meghan Fay, point to their work with groups ranging from the New Party to Buffalo Nations as proof of their credentials. They promise substantial changes in the way ASUM works, including active recruitment of Native Americans, gays, lesbians and other minorities.
These proposed changes, they say, have made them the underdog against Kaiser's well-organized campaign.
"We're about having personal contact, not about having the nicest sticker," Smedley says. "We are the underdogs, but, for sure, the Earth First! community on campus is going to be strengthened by our campaign win or lose."
Kaiser has called Smedley an extremist, and says he'd make an ineffective president.
"He's all about emotional rhetoric and a no-compromises attitude," Kaiser says. "How can he expect to sit down with administrators and get anything for students with that approach?"
Kaiser says he and his running mate, Patience Llewellyn, tried to stick with positive campaigning in the face of smears from the Smedley/Fay camp. He says Smedley courted groups on with whatever line they wanted to hear.
"Bryce emailed the College Republicans to tell them he was a life-long Republican," Kaiser says. "He went to talk to Native American students and the first thing out of his mouth was the number of Indian reservations in Montana. He went to the Lambda Alliance and said he'd work hard for queer issues.
"If he loses, it'll be in part because people have seen through him, seen that he was not being genuine."
Smedley acknowledges courting the Republicans and other groups, though he stresses that he now identifies with the New Party.
"He (Kaiser) is just being petty," Smedley says. "I come from the progressive community, but I'm running for ASUM president. I have to be as inclusive as possible."
To complicate matters, a five-member slate of candidates running under the party name Another View has emerged. Another View, which has taken out ads in the Montana Kaimin attacking Smedley's Progressive Party, has no aspirations to the top two ASUM seats, and is instead running its members for the Senate body. The group is made up entirely of forestry students, and has called for ASUM to drop politicized issues that reach beyond campus.
Kaiser and Llewellyn have no declared party affiliation, but Smedley intimates that his opponents are linked to Another View.
"If you ask them if they're connected to Another View, they'll probably say no," Smedley says. "But Another View is definitely right-wing, and definitely pro-Barrett and Patience."
Finally, even as students voted Tuesday, Smedley filed a grievance with the ASUM elections committee, accusing his rivals of campaign rules violations, including campaigning at polling places and improperly lobbying College Democrats. The committee will review the complaint before results are official.
Kaiser adamantly denies any right-wing affiliations or wrongdoing, and is plainly anguished about the beating his green credentials have taken. He firmly maintains that he is just as much an environmentalist as anyone in a race that's become all about who's for real and who's not.
"We haven't attacked Bryce and Meghan at all until now," he says Tuesday, even as the votes roll in. "But I'm fed up. I'm angry that they are attacking me personally, angry that they're attacking all the work that I've done. They are trying to ruin my name in the environmental community."