Out today, Ryan Murphy’s The Politician takes us into the cutthroat world of high-school politics. Ben Platt plays aspiring POTUS Payton Hobart, whose path to the White House begins with him sealing his class president spot — and cutting down the classmates who get in his way, like icy mean-girl Astrid (Lucy Boynton).
We talked to eight former high-school politicians (including the Cobrasnake, who ran against millennial Trump advisor Stephen Miller) about their own stories of drama, deceit, and ruthless ambition — and the upsets that still haunt them to this day.
The Aspiring AOC in a Republican School
Isabella, 14, ran for secretary in 2019:
I chose secretary because all the greats have started there: Hillary Clinton, my mom. And I was like: maybe I’ll get into Wharton, my dream school, and become super successful. I also love Dolly Madison because she was really glamorous, and then during the War of 1812 she kind of saved all of American history by preserving everything, so I was like: hey maybe I can save our school by actually doing my job as secretary and presenting new ideas so we don’t go to Six Flags every year. I was also thinking we could get soundproof walls in the chorus room. And we can take more interesting field trips, like do private tours of museums.
I looked up to AOC throughout her whole campaign and I loved how she did her posters, so I got my friend to mock up a version of them, but with me on it. But my school is really Republican. I put them up everywhere, and one day, I was walking down the hallway, and I saw that one of my posters was missing. I kind of felt uncomfortable because it had my face on it. A lot of people were like: did you really like, put your face on it? And I was like, Yeah, I did, because I look good in it. I didn’t think people would be so upset by it.
Ultimately I lost, and I don’t think I’ll run again. I’m not cut out for politics. I get upset too easily and I honestly don’t want to deal with the negativity that comes with it. And also, as a woman, I feel like it’s even harder. Especially with people like AOC — see how she’s been treated? She’s doing amazing stuff, and nobody recognizes it. So I don’t want to put myself through that.
The Class Clown (Who Ran Against Stephen Miller)
Mark Hunter a.k.a. “The Cobrasnake,” photographer, 34, vice-president in 2002–2003:
I was always this kind of goofy kid growing up. I dressed funny and was sort of the underdog, but at the same time, everyone loved me. I would get teased, but people also wanted to hang out with me. I thought it would be so funny to run for student body. At the time I was obsessed with ‘Obey,’ founded by Shepard Fairey (the guy who eventually did the Obama “Hope” poster). And I basically had carte blanche opportunity to put posters all around the school, which was sort of like my dream. I created a whole “vote Mark” campaign with stenciled posters, all photocopied in a sort of punk-rock style.
At the time, I was also doing a lot of bike riding, and I got a terrible sunburn. I did a stunt where I ran around the whole campus in my Speedos with a cardboard sign that said “vote mark.” I paraded around the whole campus with the worst sunburn in my life. Long story short, I ended up winning.
I went to high school with Stephen Miller, who now works for Trump. It got dug up that I ran against him, but this wasn’t actually the truth. I ran for vice-president which was sort of not that important. He was running for, like speaker of the House or something. But he was just so evil even back in high school, and he basically got booed when he was giving his speech. And I got applauded because I dressed in a used-car salesman suit, in a really terrible jacket I got from a thrift store. And I had a sweatband, and quite an amazing Afro.
Editor’s note: Hunter also sent us the comment Stephen Miller left in his yearbook, and the photo he attached with it. Let the Bush dynasty live on, I guess?
The Tracy Flick Who Went Overboard With Prom Planning
Kelsey, 31, journalist, prom coordinator in 2003–2004:
I’ve always been very type A. I definitely had a bit of Tracy Flick in me. The role I ran for was prom coordinator, because you had your own actual job. A lot of times in student government, nobody knows what anyone actually does. Prom coordinator has a committee and plans a fashion show and the prom. It felt like an experience where I could actually do work and not just have the title.
We picked the theme “viva Las Vegas” for our prom night. I ended up having to coordinate so many things that I went to zero parties after, I just went home to fall asleep. There was a lot of budgeting stuff that I was completely unprepared for as a 15-year-old girl. I had this vision that everyone would get a rose at the end of the night, which just meant we ended up with a lot of boxes of roses. My poor parents’ garage was filled with these fresh flowers. It was a real lesson in grand vision versus actual execution. I remember I was annoyed because I wanted more Elvis impersonators walking around, because of the theme. I think we did get one in the end. It cancelled me on event planning like that for forever.
The Dejected College Striver Thwarted by a Teacher
Louise, 23, class president in 2013–2014:
I was absolutely manic about getting into a decent college. It was just another notch on the résumé that I wanted so badly. It’s kind of embarrassing to admit that I really didn’t care about class spirit or school spirit, I just wanted to put “class president” on my résumé, which would have been one of a million other things I did.
I ended up running against one other candidate my junior year. It was highly stressful because we were friends, but this marked a big divide in our friendship. People sort of fell on two sides. We had a teacher adviser who helped run the class counsel. She was one of the younger teachers in our school. She really liked to have student friends, and she was friends with the girl I was running against. When I won, she was openly upset. She would go on students’ Twitters and like tweets opposing me. She would also talk to her favorite students about how I wasn’t doing a great job, or she’d comment that I didn’t have my head in the game, even though we weren’t really working toward anything other than making our cafeteria look amazing for spirit week. I felt bad all the time, I felt inadequate, I felt like people were talking behind my back, I felt like everybody wanted this other girl to lead. And then I felt like maybe I should have stepped down since I had all these other things going on.
In the end I didn’t get into anywhere I was really thrilled about. If you ever do another story about college application disappointment, talk to me about it.
The Emo Brat Running on the Pettiness Platform
Leslie, 23, works in UX, ran for school president 2012–2013:
I would say pettiness and spite were my primary motivating factors for running. The race wasn’t super competitive. There was one guy running and he was sort of the Boy Scout, a goody two shoes type. I just didn’t want him to have an easy victory in what I perceived to be a relatively influential role. I wanted to throw a wrench in his plan. My slogan was ‘Give Apathy a Chance.’ I was very apathetic, grungy, sort of emo and dissatisfied with the status quo. I was the student who couldn’t wait to get out of my small suburban town. And so that was sort of my joke platform. It was being a brat and trying to be disruptive and sort of cheeky. My brother and I were both artists and we made a bunch of posters that were like communist propaganda, Chairman Mao and Soviet Union type posters. Now I’m like, why did I put in so much effort for something that I wasn’t like, really keen about to begin with? I guess it’s sort of snow balled and once I was in it I was sort of in over my head. I didn’t win, which was kind of a relief.
The Council Member in It for the Weed-Filled, Hookup Lair
Jacob, 29, works in finance, student council president in 2007–2008:
I mainly ran for fun and for the prestigious ego-driven aspect of it. At my school, student council seemed like just a way of entertaining people. It was about being fun and popular. Other student councils before me had become these kind of comedy troupes, and they made these humorous videos, and my year we just really blew it out. My campaign video was this video of me and my friend murdering our friend’s little brother, who played a zombie. We also went went running around the city getting strangers to hold up a sign that said “vote for Jacob.”
The best perk came when we got elected. I became boys with the principal of the school, and talked him into giving us this old darkroom that hadn’t been used in years. The student council members were the only people with keys to this room — not even the teachers and staff. It was this amazing sanctuary in the middle of the school. We went in there and we spray-painted a mural and we had a fridge with freezies in it that we’d give out, and N64. There was an industrial chemical vent from the photo development days so sometimes we’d smoke weed in there. And I would go there with my girlfriend on our spare periods to hook up. It was great because I’d gotten suspended a few years prior for the insinuation that I was hooking up with a girl on campus, so I finally rose through the ranks.
The Aggressive Virgin With a Massive Crush
Lizzie, 27, writer, student body co-president in 2009–2010:
The school I went to was a little bit nontraditional. We didn’t have letter grades and we called all our teachers by their first names. It was not cutthroat at all. Ever year you elected a male and female student, which was their way of enforcing gender equality in student government, and then they would pair you up. I was like, so aggressively a virgin in high school. And I was like, oh, I’ve been paired up with a guy, this is a sign from the universe that like we should be together. So I just like got this massive crush on him. I was just like: I’ve never had attention from a boy my age before, so I’m just I’m just going to be obsessed with you. And that’ll be my narrative for senior year. We ended up making out a few times. At the time I felt like: this the most exciting thing that’s ever happened, that the co-presidents are hooking up! It’s unprecedented and scandalous and amazing! I was a bundle of hormones the whole time. I will say, I think we did a good job of keeping things separate. We didn’t let it affect the very serious and important work of being student body co-presidents.
The Strategist Ascending the Government Ladder
Sopan Deb, 31, reporter for the New York Times, held multiple positions through 2006:
I held several positions in student government. I started off as corresponding secretary, then treasurer, then vice-president. I climbed the ladder. I was really strategic about it. I kept running for positions where I knew I’d be unopposed. Senior year I ran against someone for vice-president, but I remember she was really upset about it, and her mom was really upset about me running against her and complained to the principal about it — on what grounds don’t know. I guess it was like, it was the elites trying to keep their entrenched power. I never got to hang out with like, the varsity athletes, or the cheerleaders. I was never in with the cool crowd.
I wasn’t very popular but I was a good government official. I ran several fundraisers that brought in a lot of money. The No. 1e cause that the student body was concerned with was keeping prom bids low. I did one at Cold Stone Creamery, the ice cream store, where I had our teachers come in and work the stone and sing. That brought in hundreds of dollars. I wanted a line for my college résumé. I mean, I’m going to be honest, I didn’t even want to go to prom. I remember when I gave my speech to become vice-president, I got booed.
I was unusually shocked by it for like, a couple days. It was pretty jarring. But by the end of the day, you just point to the scoreboard and go Yeah, well, I’m still vice-president.