We are Chad Stephens
Photo by Kristen Smith, relays editor
The name and face of the self-proclaimed “Dark Knight” of Drake University could be seen all around campus during the weeks leading up to the Student Senate elections. Write-in candidate Chad Stephens ran a campaign based on leadership, promoting diversity and encouraging students to “Live every week like it’s shark week.”
Students and faculty alike thought this candidate sounded like a well-rounded potential representative. The only catch: he isn’t real.
Three students — senior Nate Baggett, junior Casey Erixon and junior Bryan Hays — created Chad Stephens as their final project for their modern political satire class.
Erixon came up with the idea on the first day of class back in January. The three friends, who are all politics and rhetoric double majors, began planning right away. They gave Stephens an online presence through social media, created a persona for him and developed a strategy for his campaign.
“Initially our message was to sort of poke fun at Senate while talking about things that our peers have said about Senate,” Erixon said, “like about how Senate doesn’t represent them, they don’t care about Senate and how it doesn’t affect their daily lives.”
So the trio conceived Chad Stephens, a first-year, business-management and marketing major who lives in Jewett Hall. On the first day that Stephens’ Facebook was created, about 70 Drake students accepted his friend request.
Within a couple of days, Drake’s campus was filled with the chatter of Chad Stephens. No one on the tight-knit campus knew who he was. Even alumni saw the buzz via Facebook and Twitter and were asking who the phantom candidate was and why he was running a fake campaign.
Erixon said they wanted people who normally don’t talk about the election to have conversations about it. He said the apathy of voters on Drake’s campus was a huge motivator for the project and a target problem the group wanted to address.
“We wanted to get people’s attention and try to get them to think about why they really haven’t paid attention to Senate in the past,” Erixon said. “We thought about what we could do to change that.”
The three students approached Associate Professor of Politics Rachel Paine Caufield, who is the professor of the satire class, to discuss their idea two months before campaigning for elections even began.
“They had a clear message that they wanted to convey,” Caufield said. “Satire is unexpected. It is clever, it is engaging. It takes something that we know, and it turns it upside down for us. It makes us stop and look more closely.”
Baggett said that when the Student Senate elections come around every year, students would vote for the Drake Squirrel or would complain about how dissatisfied they are with Senate, but they won’t take action to make change.
“We hoped that Chad would highlight the fact that the students aren’t necessarily engaged in the whole process,” Baggett said, “so we brought this fake, non-existent student into the realm of the elections to get students and faculty to realize that they don’t ever talk about the real candidates or the real issues.”
Senior finance major Greg Larson, the student body president, said that message was not apparent to Student Senate, but they did understand that the campaign was all in good fun.
“It’s tough to obtain any kind of message when you don’t know where it’s coming from,” Larson said. “As the campaign went on, it became more clear that it was a light-hearted endeavor, but it was difficult to decipher what was trying to be communicated simply because there was no face to it.”
Not everyone on Drake’s campus found the Chad Stephens campaign humorous. Some members of Student Senate and other candidates were upset because they felt that attention was being taken away from their objectives.
“On the one hand, it was taking the spotlight away form the legitimate candidates, but at the same time, it brought attention to the election in general,” Larson said. “But I can definitely understand the frustration of some of the candidates about what this additional production did to their campaigns.”
Caufield said that one of points of the satire project was to get people riled up and asking questions.
“I think there’s a belief that satire should not be offensive when, in fact, when satire is done well, it will always offend somebody,” Caufield said. “If it’s done well, it will offend those people who probably need to hear the message the most.”
Caufield said she believes to her core that it is easy for people to criticize or to praise satire, but it is very difficult to create good satire. She said the main goal of the Chad Stephens project was to take something familiar, de-familiarize it and draw attention to a problem that is worthy of investigation.
“If nothing else, even if people didn’t perceive the totality of the message, people did ask questions,” Caufield said. “Satire prompts conversation. If it can make us laugh along the way, that’s good. It’s easier to accept criticism of yourself and to reflect on what our own weaknesses are when we do it in laughter.”
Baggett, Erixon and Hays said that they respect Student Senate and all of the work the candidates put into the campaigns. The trio even considered stopping the campaign because they knew they were offending their friends and peers.
“We entertained the notion of calling it off,” Erixon said. “But even though people were upset, we just reassured ourselves that what we had to say with this was important, and it needed to be said.”
All three agreed that the project would not have worked if one of them had simply run for Student Senate.
“Satire works by being an outsider, and one of the biggest issues is that Student Senate is the epitome of ‘the inside,’” Baggett said. “Senate does a lot work and a lot of good things, but since certain people are constantly involved in Senate, they’re not going to see all of the same problems, being on the inside, that we do. That’s where satire comes in.”
Baggett said that by Chad Stephens being non-existent, he was the very definition of an outsider and became an effective vehicle for creating a dialogue about the elections and about who is truly representing the student body.
Even though approximately 1,300 people voted during the elections this year, the top three executive-office positions, as well as many other senator positions, ran unopposed. As a fake, write-in candidate, Chad Stephens garnered 206 votes.
Baggett, Erixon and Hays worked hard to capture the campus’ attention. They each put over 100 hours of effort into the creation of Chad Stephens. The group even made a fake version of The Times-Delphic called “The Times-Stephens.”
They did extensive research to make sure that the man in the picture had no ties to Drake whatsoever. The man who posed for all of the cheesy posters and who was the face of the campaign was a family friend of Hays who goes to Iowa State University.
All three students said they knew they would create a stir on campus, but they kept their secret for months. Only 11 people, including Caufield, knew the true identities of Chad Stephens.
Caufield said she had never before seen students put as much time into the project as Baggett, Erixon and Hays did. She said they told her they genuinely enjoyed the process and learned a lot more than they expected.
“Chad Stephens helped us learn about our students and our community on campus,” Caufield said. “They (Baggett, Erixon and Hays) are doing innovative, engaging (and) sometimes controversial things, and they are taking an active interest in their campus. And I think these three were troublemakers in all the right ways.”