Before they became known as RotMan on social media and before their own “attack ad” against themselves was viewed 17,000 times on YouTube, Xavier Rotnofsky and Rohit Mandalapu intended their campaign for, respectively, student body president and vice president at the University of Texas at Austin as a joke, an elaborate way to poke fun at the outsized ambitions and political jockeying that typically characterize student elections. Their platform included bringing a Chili’s to campus and mandating that representatives wear cellophane to increase “transparency.” At the race’s only debate, Rotnofsky presented the other candidates with roses and a campaign volunteer dressed as a butler served up Little Debbie Cosmic Brownies.
But to their own surprise, Rotnofsky and Mandalapu inspired—or at least entertained—enough voters to beat their more experienced opponents by eighteen points in a runoff on March 12. Now the duo, editors at the satirical student publication the Texas Travesty, are developing positions on issues they never expected to have to take seriously.
“Our original intention was never to win—our intention was to be funny,” Mandalapu says over Arnold Palmers at Chili’s (a restaurant that Rotnofsky, at least, doesn’t actually patronize much). The Travesty often fields prankster candidates for student government, and Rotnofsky, a Plan II and linguistics major from Laredo, and Mandalapu, a Plan II and economics major from Sugar Land, volunteered to carry the baton this year. Rotnofsky aspires to become a comedy writer, but the RotMan campaign cheekily emphasized that, like legions of candidates before them, the pair viewed student government as a stepping stone to law school.
The self-described “two good boys” had considered declining the offices if they won, but after talking to their mothers, they decided to honor their landslide mandate. They realized that some students had projected genuine hope and idealism onto them, though they had never encouraged that response. “In the last two weeks of the campaign, people called us mavericks and reformers, when we weren’t exactly expressing those things,” Rotnofsky says.
Now they’re considering how to serve the students who voted for them in jest as well as those who expect them to bring about actual change. Between laughs they’re focusing on substantive goals, such as strengthening campaign spending limits, removing the Jefferson Davis statue from the South Mall, and agitating against campus carry laws. “We’re going to take the roles seriously, but we’re not going to take ourselves seriously,” Rotnofsky explains.
RotMan, as it turns out, isn’t the first satirical ticket to be elected to UT’s student government. In 1976 the Art and Sausages Party, led by President Jay Adkins and Vice President Skip Slyfield, prevailed with similarly puckish campaign promises. They recommended that the inscription on the Tower change from “Ye shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free” to “Money talks.” A “publish or pear-ish” policy would have required professors without scholarly publications to dress as giant pears. (Remarkably, neither suggestion went anywhere.)
Adkins, now an Austin lawyer, says the best thing Rotnofsky and Mandalapu can do for their constituents is demonstrate that it’s okay to be a little strange. “Remind people that it isn’t just ‘Grind out four years, get the job, move to the burbs, keep your head down,’ ” he says. “And be funny while you do it, dammit, because anybody can be idealistic and dull. The challenge is to be idealistic and hilarious.”