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Monday, November 13, 2006

Star Tribune Editorial Calls for Chris Stewart's Resignation

Editorial: Stewart should not sit on Mpls. school board
With website, he crossed an important line.

A relative unknown in school or other political spheres, 38-year-old Chris Stewart made believers out of many during his campaign for Minneapolis school board. A bright, articulate, self-described conservative Democrat, he earned DFL endorsement over other strong contenders and became part of a promising team of four DFL candidates.

Yet after he was elected last week, the public learned that while campaigning hard for himself and other DFL candidates, the African-American candidate also helped concoct one of the most racially charged political attacks since Willie Horton. Stewart and some friends designed a website that mimicked Fifth District Independence Party House candidate Tammy Lee's real website. The quotes and links to the Ku Klux Klan and David Duke made it appear as though Lee was running on a "white power" platform.

The site is so offensive that Stewart should not take his seat on the school board in January. This is not a call we make lightly; we had high hopes and expectations for the board member-elect. We believed he had the potential to bring a fresh, independent-minded approach to school governance. That's why the Star Tribune endorsed his candidacy in mid-October.

Now that he has admitted responsibility for the website, it is difficult to see how he can effectively lead in a district that already has serious problems with race issues. The departure of two superintendents in recent years had racial overtones. Academic disparities between white students and children of color are an ongoing challenge. And both white and black parents have questioned whether race has driven decisions about resource allocations and school closings. That laundry list of concerns means the new board and permanent superintendent must do a lot of listening and healing to move the district forward. A board member who thinks it's funny to make another candidate look like a racist can't help.

A number of politicians have been caught uttering an inappropriate word or remark when they thought the microphones were turned off. Many have made the mistake of making a racist, sexist, xenophobic or homophobic comment.

But this was not a teenage prank done 20 years ago or a single, offhanded made-strictly-in-private remark. This was an entire website with multiple links and photos that required a considerable amount of work to create. And even the most novice computer user knows that putting something on the Internet is the same as announcing it to the world; far from a private joke among friends, a website is there for all to see -- and that's usually the point.

The whole episode raises serious questions about Stewart's judgment. Doing such a thing sets a terrible example for students, and offends adults. In addition, it could have been horribly damaging for the candidate he wanted to support as early reports about the site tied it, mistakenly, to Rep.-elect Keith Ellison.

After his connection to the offensive website was discovered, a "political satire" label was slapped on it, and Stewart issued an apology. But both actions were too little, too late. Voters are sick to death of negative campaigning and dirty tricks, and this website was a big offender.

The ball is in Stewart's court as to whether he takes his seat or declines to do so; he cannot be removed by his fellow board members. He says his apology should be enough and that he intends to serve.

But the Minneapolis school system already has enough challenges without a problem of this nature hanging over its head. Stewart should step down