Schooled in Intimidation

updated 03/15/1993 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/15/1993 AT 01:00 AM EST

ON THE LAST SUNDAY NIGHT JANUARY, Minda Riley, a political-science student at the University of Alabama, returned to her off-campus house in Tuscaloosa. She had just come from a strategy session to plan the final 10 days of her campaign for president of the university's Student Government Association. Tired, hungry and alone in the house, she was slipping on a pair of shoes to go out for a burger when she heard the unlocked front door close behind her. She turned to see a man moving quickly toward her, panty hose stretched over his face and a baseball cap on his head. Before she could react, he began punching her in the face and head. Then he scraped her cheek with a knife. "You f—- with the wrong people, you get f—- ed," he said, before she whacked him with the base of a table lamp, sending him running off into the night.

Though the attack on Riley, 21, outraged a university still basking in the glow of a national football championship, it could hardly have come as a shock. The assault was only the latest example of just how ugly and vicious campus politics at the University of Alabama can be. In fact it was the second attempt to intimidate Riley. Over Thanksgiving a cross had been burned into her front lawn, accompanied by two notes left in her mailbox. "Tonight crossbones burn, the next time your skeleton head will burn," the identical notes read on one side. "Machine rules, bitch," they said on the other. The meaning of the cryptic notes was painfully clear to Riley. "I knew it was a message from somebody," she says. "Somebody who didn't want me in that race."

That somebody is actually a clandestine campus organization known as the Machine. For more than 70 years now, campus independents like Minda Riley have had to fight the Machine's nearly unbreakable grip on campus elections and on the $300,000 student activity budget. Many believe the Machine's reach extends to slate politics. At the very least, it plugs a few Alabama graduates directly into the state's good-ol'-boy network—enough incentive for student government presidential candidates often to spend as much as $12,000 on their campaigns.

A close-knit organization whose members once swore their allegiance by dipping their hands into buckets of Mercurochrome (a substitute for blood), the Machine comprises delegates from 27 all-white fraternities and sororities, which make up 20 percent of the student body; it has been able to dominate campus politics partly because of apathy among students. Less than 15 percent of the student body routinely turns out for the election. "The Machine achieves its power simply by being able to get out votes," says Robert Halli, an English professor, current president of the faculty senate and a critic of the Machine. "If the students voted, and voted against the Machine candidate, that candidate would be overwhelmed.

Still, when confronted by strong independent opposition, the Machine can play rough. Attorney Jim Zeigler of Mobile had his dormitory room set afire and all his possessions burned when he ran afoul of the Machine in 1971. John Merrill, now an assistant director of the Tuscaloosa County Industrial Development Authority, says during his 1986 campaign he received phone threats against his life. His wife was threatened with rape. And Joey Viselli, an independent who lost a close race in 1989, watched a post-election Machine-led student boycott force his father's restaurant, Bama-Bino's Pizza, out of business.

Riley is not about to be scared off. "I was raised a Southern woman," says the candidate who, ironically, got her taste for student politics when her older brother, Robert, was elected Student Government Association president with the Machine's backing in 1987. "We may be feminine, but we can also be very strong."

Reared in the town of Ashland, surrounded by the pine forests and gently rolling hills of the Talladega National Forest, Riley is the third of four children. Her father, Robert, who owns the local Ford dealership, is a 'Bama alumnus. Her mother, Patsy, is a housewife. In high school, Minda had always seemed more interested in cheerleading than politics. But at the university, her focus changed. With the endorsement of the Machine, she chaired the homecoming committees, served a term in the student senate and joined one of the old-line sororities, Phi Mu. Her problems began when she decided to run for president against the wishes of tin; Machine, which had endorsed a male candidate. Even some of her sorority sisters turned on her. "I'll tell you one thing," she says. "When you do something like this, you find out who your friends are—who's going to stand behind you no matter what."

After the attack on Riley, the school administration acted quickly. University President Roger Sayers indefinitely postponed the Feb. 10 election, dissolved the student government charier until a more representative system can be devised and offered a $5,000 reward for information leading to an arrest in the Riley case. "We've got a sick system here," he said, "and it has got to be fixed." Campus sentiment has also begun to turn against the Machine. Clearly shaken by her experience, Riley is still determined to go to law school. As for politics, that's another matter. She is remaining in the race but, she says, "All this has left a lasting impression. I don't know if I'll ever be as idealistic as I once was."

CRAIG HOROWITZ
SCOTT NORVELL in Tuscaloosa

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