There’s a political scandal swirling at one of the country’s most competitive schools, and at its center are a bunch of 17-year-olds. Chief among them is rising Stuyvesant High School senior Jack Cahn — a trilingual twin, debate star, entrepreneur, and Huffington Post blogger — who won the student council presidency for next year by a count of 447 votes to 329 but was disqualified after the fact for three seemingly minor infractions: (1) leaving campaign materials in the student union office (Cahn says they were promptly thrown out), (2) putting too many posters in one place (anyone could have hung them, he says), and (3) slander against his opponent, as revealed in private Facebook messages (hardly, and the other side did it, too, Cahn claims).
After two weeks of vigorously appealing the administration and coverage on education blogs, Cahn’s cause made it all the way to the New York Times, which decided the battle was “not Bush v. Gore,” but highlighted Cahn’s “full-scale mission” nonetheless. Why does this kid — never mind the paper of record — care so much? After his last day of junior classes, Cahn, articulate and spirited in a yarmulke and salmon polo, sat down with Daily Intelligencer to explain his youthful idealism and its potential effect on his Google results.
So, how was school today?
It was an even more intense version of the past few weeks, where students just come up to me and say, “Keep fighting it!” The issue is that the entire student body is on my side. My opponents — three of the four of us [including vice-presidential candidates] agree that I should’ve been elected president of the school. The only one opposing it is [president-elect Eddie Zilverbrand]. It was mentioned in the New York Times article that the petition on Change.org [started by Jack’s brother David] has more votes than Eddie had.
The only candidates that this board of elections has ever disqualified are myself and my twin brother. And it’s not a coincidence. My twin brother was disqualified two years ago under the same circumstances, same board of elections, and same opponent.
That’s a good question. We never have strong candidates. It’s a weak candidate or a weaker candidate. My brother and I, our reputation isn’t that we are the smartest kids, and we’re not the funnest kids — we’re the hardest workers. That’s what we’re known for. My campaign issue was toilet paper in the bathrooms — it’s a huge issue at Stuy. The student body felt there was a candidate who’d stand up for them. The administration felt threatened. It was an outspoken campaign. They shut us down because they don’t want change.
But the board of elections is made up of nineteen students and one faculty adviser.
They’re seniors. I was their former vice chairman of the board of elections, so there’s some animosity between us because of a poor working relationship. The day before they disqualified me, an article was published [in the school paper] where I was quoted coming out against the board. Those are my three best guesses: because they felt threatened, because I was their former vice chairman, and because I came out against them saying they were an arbitrary organization. So they arbitrarily disqualified me.
What was it like to see your story in the New York Times? Did you go out and buy it?
I didn’t have any money to buy one, but I opened one up and saw it. There’s been a lot of reaction that this isn’t important enough for the New York Times, but I think this symbolizes a lot more for our society. In many ways, it’s a bigger issue of free speech. It’s about how our society is following the letter of the law instead of the spirit of the law, and it’s a much bigger issue.
Is it still important to you to be president, or do you just want to win?
It’s clear that the only way we’re going to make sure that justice is served and that this corruption ends is by getting elected. We have proposed the idea of co-presidents and working together — the title isn’t the important thing. The important thing is getting the change done, and to get the change done I have to be president of the school. That’s the reason I’m still fighting this.
But this is high school: At some level, this has to affect your social standing. There are kids who, when put in your position, would rather be considered cool than right. Have you considered letting it go?
Half [of the school] is happy I’m fighting and pushing beyond, and they want me to be elected so I can make a change. There’s another faction who just wants the issue to go away. We had a fifteen-plank platform — the most important thing isn’t the election, it’s the fifteen things we were fighting for.
Are you scared this is going to ruin your Google results?
No. I mean, as I said, the most important thing is the fifteen platforms.
But five years from now, when you’re looking for a job or a date?
Right now my main concern is fixing the school. I’m not willing to let people stand in between the Stuyvesant that exists today and the Stuyvesant that could exist. In terms of the future, this is what I stand for. It’s what I hope to stand for my entire life. Standing up for what’s right even if there could be some negative backlash. I’m going to fight this all the way.
People have compared this to Election. Are you a Tracy Flick? Do people see your work ethic as overly ambitious?
I haven’t seen it, but I know about it. I do think the election was a clear divide. I didn’t stand for someone smart or popular. It was the hardworking campaign versus the popular campaign. For the first time in a long time, the hardworking won, and the popular campaign didn’t. Most people saw my [work ethic] as a positive, which is why they voted for me. But Stuyvesant is very competitive.
Are you looking forward to a career in politics?
This is kind of a turnoff. You do everything you can; you have 150 people behind you, standing in the cold, standing in the rain, campaigning morning and day and night, working so that we can better the school, and then three kids in a room make a decision and everyone’s hands off — the administration is hands off because it’s in their political best interest to pretend it never happened. That’s disenchanting, so we’ll see.
What does this do for your college applications?
I don’t know. I’m not going to obsess over college applications. If every day I live my life saying I want to make sure that tomorrow people like me, then tomorrow I’m going to face a similar situation. I’d rather live my life where I’m always living in the present and taking actions to improve my community.
What does your family think?
My mom’s telling me to be skeptical of reporters. [Laughs.]
The Times said three people asked you to prom.
The entire Facebook community is just focusing on the prom thing! The reporter asked us about our love life. My running mate said, “Oh yeah, three girls asked him to prom.” Which is true. But it seemed from the article that it was a quote from me, bragging, which it wasn’t.
So who’d you go with?
I didn’t go with any of them because I had SATs the next day. [Laughs.] You know how kids get during prom.
This interview has been condensed and edited.