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For almost three weeks in 1989, the dispute spilled across the front pages of the Daily Aztec. Multiple female, black and Hispanic students claimed San Diego State University’s student government, led by president Kevin Faulconer, discriminated against them.
The leader of the group, a senior named Brenda Means, filed a complaint with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission saying Faulconer and a student government panel denied her an appointed position because she was a black woman.
“Ultimately it was Kevin Faulconer’s responsibility as president,” Means told the Daily Aztec at the time. The student government “is responsible for his actions. I’m going to make him take responsibility.”
Candidates for the position were re-interviewed. But eventually, things fizzled out. Means didn’t get the job and nothing came of the complaint.
Faulconer, a leading candidate in San Diego’s special mayoral election, brought up the incident in a survey of the major candidates’ history with sexual harassment and discrimination. Faulconer was the only candidate to disclose that any complaint had been filed against him.
A closer look at the situation sheds some light on how race mattered in SDSU student politics at the time. Means, the woman who filed the complaint, said she still feels aggrieved by Faulconer. But the student who ran against Faulconer and lost said there was no discrimination at work.
In 1988, SDSU elected its second black student government president in its history, the first in 14 years. Students also had voted in a black vice president, Sophia Nelson.
“Blacks had broken through in student government in ways they hadn’t before,” Nelson said in an interview. “It changed, it shifted and there were some issues from that.”
Nelson was the main candidate against Faulconer in the 1989 presidential election, and Means served as her campaign manager. White fraternities backed Faulconer in the campaign – he was a member of Kappa Sigma – and racial and ethnic groups supported Nelson.
Tensions came to a head after Faulconer gave a speech to a group of fraternities. Means was there, and she reported at a later debate that Faulconer had said he wanted to return student government to fraternities because, “they have had it too long.” Means interpreted the remark as racist, and made it into a campaign issue.
Faulconer denied saying it at the time, but others who attended the fraternity event confirmed to the Daily Aztec that he made the statement. Nelson said she was there when Faulconer gave the speech and remembered him saying it.
“It was unfortunate,” she said.
Faulconer won the presidency, and in the fall began filling student government posts. Means wanted an administrative aide position, but a panel led by Faulconer hired a white fraternity member for the job without following its interviewing guidelines.
Scandals like these, including ones without any racial components, were common for SDSU’s student government at the time. The Daily Aztec’s pages are littered with allegations against student elected officials for breaking various campaign and administrative rules. Faulconer won his first election after the student vice president for finance resigned over a lie about the source of wood for his campaign signs.
After Means’ complaint was filed, Faulconer held a new round of interviews for the student government post. The same person got the job. The EEO took no action. The issue disappeared from the newspaper.
Still, the situation has stuck with Means. She became a lawyer in the Seattle area and dealt with discrimination cases.
“I thought of Kevin every time I thought about discrimination,” Means said in an interview. “It really is a pain that doesn’t go away.”
But Nelson, who lost the presidential election to Faulconer, doesn’t believe he discriminated against anyone. Nelson said Means shouldn’t have expected a job from Faulconer. Means had not only run Nelson’s campaign, but also repeatedly attacked Faulconer with the remarks from the fraternity speech.
Nelson also remembered how Faulconer consoled her after he won, saying that she made things better on campus for black women. She and Faulconer remain friends.
“Kevin Faulconer has no racial issues,” she said. “He’s not a racist. He’s not a sexist. He’s not any of that.”
Faulconer didn’t recall much about the situation during an interview. He remembered that Means didn’t like him and had filed a complaint against him.
“My recollection was that it was dismissed without merit,” Faulconer said. “That probably tells you what you need to know about that.”