Minneapolis school board member Chris Stewart is bowing out

Chris Stewart City Pages Cover.jpg
Chris Stewart, a self-described evangelical Christian and reformer won a seat on the Minneapolis school board in 2006, has announced on his Web site and Facebook that he's not seeking re-election "after a great deal of soul searching."

"I ran for this office in 2006 because I was deeply frustrated by the countless news stories about chaos in Minneapolis Public Schools," he said. "Having worked with families in poverty I was aware of how systems meant to help are often unsuccessful. Instead of complaining about the failing schools I decided to launch an unlikely campaign for a school board seat. The short story is that I won."

The longer story is that he's ruffled a lot of feathers, before and after his tenure in public office. Two incidents stand out.

First, he set up a satirical Web site to attack Tammy Lee, the IP candidate running against Keith Ellison in the 5th District race in 2006. Drawing on some public comments she made about Ellison's race and its impact on the campaign, the site portrayed Lee as a racist.

Stewart told us why he said he did it:

When the quote came out with her saying to Sarah Janecek [of the Politics in Minnesota newsletter] that liberals in the district were just a little bit too eager to elect a Minnesota black to Congress, I thought about that. I thought about the fact that what I know about Keith Ellison--people talk about the troubles in his life and reduce him to that. But when I thought about it, I saw a guy with an advanced education who's a dad, who's married, who's given a lot back to the community. In terms of what we're taught growing up as African-Americans, that's kind of the Valhalla. If you do that, you're successful.

So he's passed all the signposts you're supposed to have to pass to be successful, but it comes down to people claiming he was chosen because he was black. And that's very insulting. And it was doubly insulting coming from someone I'd placed so much faith in. I'd written good things about Tammy Lee, and I had faith in her.

When Stewart's name surfaced as the author of the site -- after he had won his seat on the board but before he'd taken office, her supporters went for blood. We named her Best Victim of the Year for the way she carried on. And we asked Stewart if he was surprised by the calls for his head:

Yes. I was surprised for more than one reason. I was surprised it reached the number of people that it reached. Before it was email-blasted by Tammy Lee, I bet it had reached about 70 people tops. That email blast went out to five or six thousand people and became a big deal really quickly. That was Monday the 6th, the day before the election. And I was part of the get-out-the-vote effort, so I was out working around the city when I heard that this was being sent to a lot of people. Somebody else in the get-out-the-vote effort said to me, have you seen this Tammy Lee thing that's going around? It's really funny. I was like, uh, no--what does it look like, exactly? Talk about terror. I never expected such a wide group of people to see it and discuss it. And here we are two weeks later still discussing it. Never in a million years would I have thought that would happen.

Last year, angry Burroughs Elementary School parents targeted him after he suggested that some of them didn't want "diverse" kids from poorer neighborhoods in their largely white and more affluent neighborhood school, and their principal, Tim Cadotte, got the caught in the crossfire and was suspended for a time.

For the record, I am one of two school board members that passionately advocated for Burroughs to keep their Native Language Literacy program intact. However, the phasing out of the NLL program was acceptable to many when it meant more "neighborhood" kids would gain entrance to Burroughs. When MPS proposed a "mini-Choice is Yours" program, one that would open Burroughs to a diverse mix of low income children, there was a miraculous recommitment to the Native Language Literacy program.

Today, Stewart admitted he's ticked some folks off, and that it's time to move on.

I admit my transition from private citizen to public official could have been smoother. I'm pleased with the work I've done, but I regret the fact that I've sold a few more newspapers than I needed to. Frankly, I could have been more edited. Passion for a noble cause need not be impolitic. I spend my days thinking of ways to build bridges, find common ground, and provide help to those that need it. I'm saddened by any other impression my approach has fostered.

Stewart's full statement is here, including his own self-assessment of changes he says he helped bring to Minneapolis schools.

When the Star Tribune asked him if he planned to run for any other elected office, he said no.

"I never wanted to be a politician," he said. "I saw this job as being a non-partisan board made up of citizens. As it turns out, it actually is a political office, and I have not been a very good politician."


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