As Penn’s fall election season came to a close on Friday, dozens of freshmen scrambled to shake hands, plaster bulletin boards with campaign posters and chalk the Quadrangle with their names. But markedly missing from the election shenanigans was the 6’3” Dominican New Yorker who dominated the campus political scene for the past four years — the godfather of Penn politics, Gabe Delaney.
Before he graduated in May 2015 with a letter of acceptance from Oxford University, Delaney was a fixture on Locust Walk, where his celebrity status rivaled Penn President Amy Gutmann’s, his friends said. In 1920 Commons and the Quadrangle, nearly every staff member from janitor to dean knew his name. And in the gym, locker number 2040 — the year he will most probably run for United States president — was used every morning.
As vice president of the Undergraduate Assembly, founding speaker of the Penn Political Union — which has since become the go-to political club on campus — and a chair for conferences held by the International Affairs Association, he transformed political life on Penn’s campus and mentored dozens of political leaders from class presidents to UA representatives to Wharton bigwigs.
Before Delaney became the de facto leader of the Penn political community, he was just another wide-eyed, newly minted freshman scrambling to win the spot as freshman class president. From traveling worldwide to China, Israel and the United Kingdom as a student ambassador to his UA election scandal, Delaney’s journey has shaped his character and mission and, he hopes, made a lasting impact on the next generation of Penn leaders.
Learning from failure
Classes were just gearing up, and the first fall midterm season was on the horizon. The grass was just as green as the admissions brochures had promised and the castle-like Quad, where he lived, just as magnificent. His classmates had moved past the awkward phase of the four questions — what’s your name, where are you from, what are you studying and where do you live — and onto roommate bashing and hookup drama.
But girls were the last thing on Delaney’s mind. Even at parties, where Delaney was an infrequent visitor, friends clapped him on the back and asked him about the upcoming elections. Yes, he was running for class president and UA. Yes, all was going well.
But things weren’t really going as well as Delaney thought. Students were whispering about his overly formal demeanor — “He must have been born an adult,” one student later jeered. In an editorial for the Daily Pennsylvanian in 2014, Xavier Flory wrote that “in his unsuccessful bid to be the 2015 class president, he addressed his voters in a suit, grandiosely proclaiming in his campaign video that ‘Our moment is here; our moment is now.’”
His loss to the vibrant Ariel Koren, however, was not as devastating as it was for some of her other opponents, who eventually dropped out of Penn politics for good — Delaney had learned about tackling failure long ago, as a middle school student with a bullying problem.
“I had a very, very bad stuttering problem when I was a kid. Ever seen ‘The King’s Speech’? Imagine a kid about the age of 11 speaking that way and getting made fun of all the time because I couldn’t get the words out of my mouth,” Delaney said. When enrolling in acting classes at nearby Fordham University failed, Delaney turned to rehearsing speeches — which he admits was “kind of a weird thing” — and it worked like magic.
Martin Luther King Jr., who “sang everything he said,” Margaret Thatcher, Winston Churchill and John F. Kennedy were among “the greats” who taught Delaney the art of public speaking. But these early years did more than shape Delaney’s vaguely southern drawl — they shaped his character. “I was able to make up my own tone, in terms of how I spoke,” Delaney recalls.
“Not only do these people have a voice, but they use their voice for some positive good,” Delaney said. “And maybe I can do that ... maybe I can do something for other kids who are not as privileged ... and wouldn’t this be a really great profession.”
Learning from failure is a theme for Delaney, who Class of 2017 President and College junior Darren Tomasso says even his detractors respect. When he lost his race for class president, Delaney became a tireless advocate for minority communities and mental health, first serving on the academic affairs committee of the UA, and later as its vice president. But the process was anything but an easy one.
Leading in a time of crisis
For Delaney, things changed when the string of student suicides became personal. “I knew one of the guys who ended up taking his own life. One of my hallmates had gone to [high] school with him ... and she lost it,” he said. “It hit home for me really, really hard.”
But as a student leader, it was even more difficult to watch the Penn administration’s response to the seven student suicides in two years. “Until you get seven, eight, nine or 10 people, god forbid, they don’t react with a mindset that this is an endemic problem,” he said. “It bothered me that they didn’t see it that way, not just Amy Gutmann, but the people around her.”
Delaney, along with his peers on the UA, successfully pushed for the creation of a mental health task force. Their request, to have a student representative serve on the task force, however, was ultimately denied.
“For those trying to make their own mark on the UA, they have to have empathy. Doesn’t matter who you are, who you think you are: if you don’t have empathy, you shouldn’t be in politics. The stakes are literally too high with people who might injure themselves,” Delaney said.
But Delaney’s number one piece of advice to future Penn politicos is not about character. Delaney says that ultimately, students must realize that Penn operates in a corporate way. Although that might be counterintuitive for an academic setting, he admits, “this is Penn, a very big school, a very prestigious school, with a lot of money. Everything is done rather businesslike.”
During his tenure on the UA, Delaney said, the Gutmann administration did not adequately respond to mental health concerns until the UA received about 300 mental health-related emails following the death of Penn freshman Madison Holleran. “Only after we literally told this to Amy Gutmann did it elicit the kind of reaction that you’d have hoped from the very beginning,” he said. “They need to see the numbers, they need to see the reaction [and] they need to start being worried about things ... that’s probably the number thing I learned as VP,” Delaney said.
Leading one of Penn’s most controversial conversations taught him much more than just politics. Delaney says students should be true to themselves instead of trying to fit in either because it is politically profitable in groups like the UA or socially profitable in fraternities and other social groups.
“The uniqueness and the diversity that comes from people being themselves, and having different shades of a color or personality, makes Penn more livable,” Delaney said. “It’s more humanizing. When you try to fake it, people can see through it.”
The jury is still out on whether Delaney himself lived by this last piece of advice. One Penn political leader said that Delaney used to approach students in a very rehearsed way, starting off a conversation and then touching them on the shoulder two minutes into the conversation. Delaney never had a girlfriend at Penn and stayed away from campus parties, the leader said.
A Patriot at heart
Every morning his senior year, Delaney’s schedule was the same: At 7:00 a.m., his alarm rings. By 7:45 a.m., he strolls into 1920 Commons, where he says good morning to nearly every staff member, many of whom he’s developed relationships with over the past three years, and picks up a Caramel Macchiato Double Shot, which is usually waiting for him at the Starbucks below. By 8 a.m., he finds his way to the Pottruck Health and Fitness Center, where Tomasso is waiting — except for on leg days, of course, which Tomasso jokes Delaney is always conveniently late for.
Workouts are important to Delaney, whose second love is sports and whose “biceps bulge”, according to Flory’s editorial. A diehard Patriots fan, Tomasso recalls that Delaney wore his Patriots shirts everyday to the gym throughout the Deflategate controversy and College senior Varun Menon says he followed the controversy non-stop, watching television shows and reading articles online. “He had a very severe jealousy of Tom Brady,” Menon said, Delaney’s roommate last year.
Delaney’s favorite show isn’t on ESPN — Menon says that every morning when Delaney got home from the gym, he’d sit down on their couch and watch Cupcake Wars on the Food Network. “He’s very much a kid at heart ... he makes idiotic Dad jokes ... his glasses make him look like an old man ... he’s just a fun-loving and goofy person.”
Delaney used to blast heavy orchestra music or play soundtracks, like “Jurassic Park.” But he was better known as a mentor to hundreds of freshmen. In fact, Delaney met both Tomasso and Menon, who are one year younger, when they lived together in the Quad and both credit him for their political successes at Penn.
“He enjoyed bringing people over ... he’d have dinners and make something,” Menon said, and Tomasso brought him to a few wild parties. “He’s very willing to step out of his comfort zone,” Tomasso said.
One of the reasons he went to those parties was to try to understand what his peers were experiencing and enjoying, even if they weren’t his scene. “He’s very interested in seeing how other people are in their own shoes,” Menon said.
His openness to new experiences introduced him to a wide variety of Penn students. Even Tomasso, who is himself a class president, said that walking down Locust with Delaney could take a long time because of how many people he knew. Usually the interactions were positive — everyone wanted to know his thoughts on political debates, and UA life — that is, until Delaney’s failed run for UA President, for which he became notorious.
A scandal in the UA
Dark boding music plays as Delaney assumes the Southern accent of Frank Underwood, the fictional evil politico and protagonist of the Netflix original series House of Cards. “There’s nothing wrong with seeking power, as long as it’s for the right reasons,” Delaney says in his campaign video for UA president, which at publication time had over 2,600 views on Youtube.
The video wasn’t well received.
“With the UA rocked by the near impeachment of its current president and student apathy towards student government at a peak, what is Gabe Delaney trying to achieve by basing his entire campaign off the TV show, ‘House of Cards?’ The TV show epitomizes everything people hate about politics in general and the UA in particular: corruption, self-serving members and inefficiency,” Flory wrote.
Flory’s column was nothing short of prescient. Just a few weeks later, Delaney was charged with four campaign violations, two of which stuck. Delaney was found guilty by the Nominations and Elections Committee for not fully reporting the costs of buying Facebook likes and showing his campaign website to the Penn Political Coalition.
The loss was devastating for Delaney’s reputation. Combined with his controversial support for the impeachment of UA President Abe Sutton while he was vice president, Delaney’s election scandal made many question his ethics.
But even from this seemingly critical setback, Delaney recovered. On an IAA trip after his election loss, he, Menon and Louis Cappozzi, another one of Delaney’s protege’s, agreed to found a Penn Political Union on campus. As the founding Speaker, Delaney found a new outlet for his love of politics. PPU is now one of the largest political groups on campus and regularly gets 80-100 attendees at its debates, he says.
The way Delaney tells the story, his senior year was much more reserved than previous ones. “It was a moment of using his final year in college to intellectually explore all of the opportunities he had. A year of introspection,” Venon said. “After three years of a very public profile, he withdrew, and everyone was like, ‘Where’s Gabe Delaney?’”
Withdrawing worked out for Delaney, who wrote a senior thesis on the Presidency and was accepted to Oxford, where he will be studying comparative politics in the fall. But Delaney will be back in policy making, he and his friends agree — it’s just a matter of time.
The Obama doppelganger
It was his first time at the White House. He was still in high school, but already a student leader and was invited to meet the President in the West Wing. He was expecting a quick handshake and friendly banter, but what the President said to him took him by surprise.
“I ought to get you out on the campaign trail — you’re my doppelganger,” President Obama said. “Well, thank you, Mr. President. I think you’re a good looking man, so I’ll take that as a compliment,” Delaney remembers saying.
While Delaney’s friends say he doesn’t like being called “Little Obama,” this was precisely what some freshmen called him during his time in the Quad. During the 2012 elections, Delaney did in fact work for the Obama campaign and in 2014, had the chance to visit the White House a second time.
It was the summer after Delaney graduated and his friend Uchechi Iteogu, who had graduated from Columbia University, met him at 1:30 a.m. at Penn Station. Once they arrived in Washington D.C., she blindfolded him as they rode a bus toward their destination. “What is 4 p.m. in military time?” Iteogu asked. “16:00,” Delaney responded as they pulled up to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. “Visiting The People’s House,” he posted on Facebook, afterward. Delaney hopes this is not the last time he visits the White House.
“He doesn’t believe in the idea of a career politician. He wants to serve — either in sports business, which he thinks engages communities, or in the military because he has a high regard for service before he’ll get involved in politics,” Menon says. “But I could see him running for Massachusetts State Legislature ... and then Governor and eventually President of the United States.”
To Delaney, who spent hundreds of hours researching the presidency for his thesis and even more hours listening to the speeches of presidents in the shower, the President and White House are much more than just a person and a building.
“The President is a mirror to the American people. You can get a good sense of how Americans were feeling by the characters they elected ... the White House is the jewel of America and I think everyone should take a pilgrimage to White House,” Delaney said.
“I’m going to go back, hopefully.”
Correction: A previous version of this article stated that Delaney was chair of the IAA, when in fact he was a chair for conferences held by the IAA. The DP regrets the error.Comments powered by Disqus
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