Editor’s note: This is one installment in a five-part series on this year’s candidates for ASUC president. Read about the other candidates here.
UC Berkeley senior Michael Cortez-Mejia has been here before.
Last year, Cortez-Mejia ran for ASUC president with the Defend Affirmative Action Party. This year, he is running for the same position but as an independent, because the party failed to file an online endorsement form and party filing fee.
Sitting on the steps of the Martin Luther King Jr. Student Union, watching the energy of campaign activities fade on Sproul Plaza at the end of the day, Cortez-Mejia recounted how much he learned in his first election season and how much he is learning from the complications this year that have impacted his current campaign.
The issue of his party affiliation represents discrimination on the part of the ASUC, Cortez-Mejia alleged. He noted that the ASUC favors a “certain kind of student” and that the structure of ASUC elections inhibits third parties from running successful campaigns.
“The ASUC should not be putting these restrictions on any of these parties,” Cortez-Mejia said. “It’s undemocratic.”
Cortez-Mejia admitted that he would make an unconventional ASUC president, differentiating himself from other candidates who, he said, use their positions to further career goals. Instead, at the ASUC election forum Tuesday night, Cortez-Mejia said he is not interested in being a bureaucrat but in challenging the campus administration.
If elected ASUC president, Cortez-Mejia said his platforms would include supporting victims of sexual assault, fighting racism and sexism on campus and organizing a student movement to demand a return to the California Master Plan for Higher Education, a 1960 government report that affirmed the state’s commitment to tuition-free education for residents.
For Cortez-Mejia, supporting victims of sexual assault means reforming the hearing process to limit the power of complainants’ respondents, who, he alleges, are allowed to determine which evidence is introduced and to choose their sanctions. He added that he also wants to support survivors in publicly identifying their assailants.
Opposition from the student body mostly centers on DAAP’s perceived radicalism, Cortez-Mejia said, though many agree with the party’s ultimate goals. Cortez-Mejia, however, does not consider the party too radical.
“It’s not radical to hold administration accountable,” Cortez-Mejia said. “That’s just logic. That’s just rational.”
To double underrepresented-minority enrollment, Cortez-Mejia is calling for the campus to adopt a plan that would guarantee admittance of the top 10 percent of Oakland and Berkeley students.
Cortez-Mejia said that while building a student movement is necessary for achieving other goals, increasing underrepresented-minority enrollment is particularly important to him as a Latino student.
UC Berkeley sophomore and DAAP-affiliated candidate for student advocate Stephanie Nicole Garcia said she respects and admires Cortez-Mejia’s work, especially his perseverance in spite of challenges.
“One of the things that I appreciate about him the most is that he has so much endurance and stamina in the face of adversity,” Garcia said. “It’s super empowering to see him powering through.”
Having lived almost his entire life in Redwood City, California, Cortez-Mejia said he experienced discrimination in school and from police. He recalled U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement raids conducted by the Department of Homeland Security in 2007.
The department led raids of elementary and charter schools in his city, Cortez-Mejia said, and demanded that the students present identification. After participating in a march to Redwood City’s city hall to protest the raids, he added, they eventually stopped, though the memory has remained with him.
In 2009, UC President Janet Napolitano became the U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security, who oversees the Department of Homeland Security. It was shocking for him, therefore, to discover that Napolitano became president of the UC system in 2013, when he came to UC Berkeley. He said he imagined the school as a place of human rights advocacy but instead found division and opposition.
“I found that groups are very divided,” Cortez-Mejia said. “It’s hard to push for equality and truth.”
At a young age, Cortez-Mejia encountered opinions that differed from his own and his family’s. Though he said he is the only member of his family who is politically active, he recalled how some family members, such as his aunt, would tell him that racism was not real. His mother, he said, was conservative but has become more liberal.
“Now they’re very proud,” Cortez-Mejia said. “(My mother) knows we’re doing something and trying to make a change.”
Looking forward, Cortez-Mejia said he wants to continue fighting for social justice and civil rights causes. While he is focusing on building a student movement, he said he really hopes to make a change, despite resistance from those who see his party as too extreme.
“He’s just so optimistic and has so much confidence in the strength of students and repressed minority communities,” said Yvette Felarca, one of the DAAP campaign managers.
By overcoming ideological divisions, Cortez-Mejia said, he hopes to build a student movement capable of effecting significant change.
“Only by building the movement can we address any of the other issues,” Cortez-Mejia said.