To those who believe college campuses have become hotbeds of political apathy, the University of Utah's student government replies: "Who Cares?"
"We're very committed to apathy," said Mike Kaly, the student president and leader of the "Who Cares?" Party, which took power in September. The group is known around campus, affectionately and otherwise, as "Hookies."Kaly and his vice president, Grant Sperry, a former Mormon missionary who now wears shoulder-length hair dyed in an orange hue, hailed their election as a triumph of apathy over common sense. They noted proudly that more than 90 percent of the student body did not vote.
The University of Utah is far from the first place where college students have registered a rather scornful view of serious student politics. Nearly 10 years ago, for example, the University of Wisconsin elected the Pail and Shovel Party, which promised to steal and waste as much money as possible.
In their campaign here, the Hookie candidates had promised to raise money by "panhandling, pruning strip bars, raffles and prostitution." Their most dramatic campaign rally was the public blowtorching of pieces of metal and plastic.
"There was absolutely no symbolism at all," said Sperry, a senior majoring in English and philosophy.
After the election, the Hookies distributed questionnaires to students interested in serving as cabinet members in their new government. Applicants were asked: "What's your favorite color?" "What's your favorite insect?" "Do you believe in UFOs?"
Such silliness might not be so surprising at some colleges. But the University of Utah, with a student body that is about half Mormon, has a reputation for being a bit more sensible, even straight-laced.
"Ha!" say the Hookies.
Even Chase Peterson, the university's president, agrees with them on that score.
"Utah is an interesting balance of people," Peterson said. "On the one hand, it's a tidy place of clean streets, a clean environment, with efficient, happy people. But it's also a place settled by a pioneer spirit. And that pioneer spirit was radical."
In the Vietnam War, when other college campuses erupted in anti-war protests, he noted, the University of Utah was anything but placid itself. In fact, a campus building was burned to the ground in one protest.
But the Hookies do not like to be regarded as '60s types.
"I've been to Berkeley," said Kaly, referring to the University of California at Berkeley. "They might seem radical, but they've got their own credo, their own convention. We're not rebelling against anything."
The Hookies even noted similarities between some of their practices and the current occupants of the White House. "We consult an astrologist, too," Sperry said.
At the University of Utah, the student government carries a good deal of power. The student budget exceeds $500,000. The president and vice president each get free tuition and a stipend of $250 a month.
Some candidates spent more than $1,000 on the campaign. The Hookies spent $6, for colored chalk, to scrawl campaign slogans on sidewalks.
Despite their campaign promises, the Hookies have turned out to be fiscal conservatives. To save the university money, they have refused to accept the monthly stipend. And they rejected the traditional inaugural ball, which costs thousands of dollars, in favor of a modest Indian ritual for their inauguration.
Their first act in office was to remove the doors from student government offices as a symbol of openness.
"They're strange, for sure," said Brad Smith Jr., a student who voted for another party. "But they're not quite on the lunatic fringe, like everybody thought."
Most students who were interviewed about the Hookies said, naturally enough, that they did not care about the party, one way or the other.
"What are they called?" asked one student, who acknowledged she hadn't been following student politics. "They're here? On this campus?"
That's the way the Hookies like it.
As a gesture of good will, they Hookies are considering giving some of the money back to the students.
"We're thinking of giving out about $300 - just handing out a dollar to everybody," Sperry said.
But there are nearly 25,000 students here. How would they determine which 300 students got a dollar bill?
"Oh," Sperry said, with a yawn, "whoever happens to be around."