Civics and Satire
Definitely not coordinating, but definitely coordinated: UT Student startsColbert Super PAC student chapter
Last week Stephen Colbert received his second Peabody Award for excellence in broadcasting for his Colbert Super PAC segments. Continuing to push the bounds of political satire beyond his show The Colbert Report, the segments — along with the actual Political Action Committee filed in federal court — have made the farce that is our federal election law into an even larger joke.
Now it seems that college students are finally in on it, too. A student at the University of Texas is finally making national headlines for something other than racism. Sophomore Chemical Engineering student (yes, you read that right) Paul Benefiel has started the nation’s first Colbert Super PAC student organization right here at UT.
Benefiel says he got the idea after taking a class from UT Government professor Dr. Samuel Workman. Benefiel's proposal was featured on the March 29 episode of The Report and, since then, he's been bombarded with with requests to help from civic minded fans at UT and in Austin at large.
In the spirit Colbert's "Better Know a Lobbyist" segment I recently sat down to learn more about Benefiel’s unique approach to civic participation at his UT headquarters: a food court outside of the Student Activities Center.
Where did you come up with this idea, and what happened?
I was taking Government with Dr. Samuel Workman last fall, and he got me thinking in a way that I have never had to think about government before. He gave me theories about how bureaucracy, lobbying groups and the media work together to form this thing that we call Washington. I was interested in Citizens United — about how corporations interacted with politicians.
I know I wanted to get involved with it, and I didn’t want to get involved with Occupy because [I felt] they were disorganized, didn’t have a figurehead, didn’t have a clear message. So I thought to myself "How can I do this?" I decided to email the treasurer of Colbert’s Super PAC and she forwarded it to the producer. The producer asked me for a pitch with goals, mission statement, that kind of thing. I sent that to her and then heard back on Thursday saying I would be mentioned.
And so you turn on The Colbert Report Thursday night and see him talking about this. What was that like?
At first he mentioned college students getting involved, and that set me off the wall. Then he actually mentioned my name, pulled out my email and I just lost it. I thought they were going to get sued for using the UT logo. It took me about 30 minutes to watch it all the way through. I actually sent the producer of The Colbert Report an email that said "Thanks for the mental breakdown. Best, Paul." And then I went ahead and got started on this.
It’s been a crazy few days for you then. What’s the reaction been like?
Immediately my Facebook blew up. The next day I got on local news. I was at Hopdoddy and had a bunch of people come up to me and ask how they could help. This guy offered to do our pro bono legal counsel. It was great to see that it wasn’t just the UT community, it was Austin as a whole.
You’ve mentioned that this is a very bi-partisan thing for you. What do you mean by that?
You generally think of campaign finance reform as a liberal issue. But the thing about Citizens United is that it creates a system where corporations that would rather be spending their money on lobbying Congress for regulation reform or environmental issues instead have to spend their money on candidates campaigns. Whenever corporations are required to spend their money a certain way that is definitely not a conservative viewpoint.
How has the reaction been from the University and people you have to talked to to that part? It is not a position you hear about a lot.
Yeah it’s not. I’ve bounced the idea off a couple of people and no one has really thought about it like that. They’ve always thought of it as, "This is a liberal issue and the Democratic Party will take care of this." But people have told me when you put it like that you can have people of both sides of the aisle coming together and seeing something that needs to be fixed.
And what has the reaction been at the University to the Super PAC?
It’s been unbelievable. I am going to speak to University Democrats tomorrow and then Libertarian Longhorns next week, along with the College Republicans. I’m meeting with the Communications Council before the University Democrats to see if there is anybody involved with ad campaigns who can help me with this.
Everybody that I’ve talked to who has a connection or a skill in need has been more than willing to go with it. People that had skills that I didn’t even know I needed have come forward to offer their help.
You mentioned that you are not a government or political science major but a chemical engineering major instead. So what’s that been like taking on this new role?
Whenever I tell them that I’m a chemical engineering major, they don’t believe it. People don’t realize that civic participation has to come from all walks of life for a functioning democracy. I could have been any major. But whatever I am the issue that I think is important to me I have to act on it to be a good member within a democratic society.
It is your duty to participate civically and you can do that any number of ways. I chose this way.
What sort of contact have you had with Colbert and his people since this happened?
I emailed the producer at The Colbert Report and asked what sort of coordination can we do. She said I can invoke his name in speech but I cannot formally put “Stephen Colbert’s Official UT Super PAC.” So there is a fine line that you have to walk legally between honing the message of Stephen Colbert and showing you are on the same page as him without officially being a subsidiary.
So you can verbally say you are working with Stephen Colbert but you can’t in writing. That kind of goes along with the point of their satire.
Yeah. I can say Stephen Colbert supports me, but I can’t say Stephen Colbert supports my political action committee.
Have you thought of naming it “The Definitely Not Coordinating With Colbert Super PAC- University of Texas”?
That was exactly my name. I sent them a name “Definitely and completely grassroots organization but not coordinating with Stephen Colbert’s Super PAC Super PAC.” To keep it on the same page as Colbert’s without being official [it was renamed] “Texans for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow.”
Are you hoping to meet Stephen?
As soon as we get that box with that treasure map there are going to be 20 people with magnifying glasses tearing that thing apart. Yeah I want to bring him here. I can’t think of a better place for him to do a rally and get this started than in Austin.
To learn more about Texans for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow, including how to help, check out their Facebook page.