Published April 18, 2012, 10:33 a.m.:
In Maplewood and South Orange, we pride ourselves on being forward-thinking, progressive towns. We move here for the diversity. We embrace it. We brag about it. We use it to market ourselves.
This past election, we were tearing ourselves apart over it.
The issue came crashing into the forefront late in the campaign. On April 12 — less than five days before polls would open — an awkward audience question was the main takeaway for many from the Community Coalition on Race-hosted candidates forum.
The question was as follows (see video): "This question refers to the March 5 board meeting when a close supporter — this questioner says — a close supporter, Dr. Reeves — I'm not sure of this context — said the problem in the district is black culture. The person writing the question finds this offensive. Once again, I'm doing my best to translate this. Does this sound familiar? And the person is asking if this Dr. Reeves hosted a coffee for your campaign."
This publication decided not to report the question — which the moderator and candidates rejected ultimately as inappropriate — or post the video until it could perform further research on the accusation. Our judgment was that it would be unfair for either campaign to allow unsubstantiated accusations to air that could impact the outcome of the election.
This we now know: The citizen in question is not a member of the Pai-Eastman-Bennett campaign team. The Pai-Eastman-Bennett members have stated a platform of racial inclusiveness. Wayne Eastman has specifically rejecting the argument that "black culture" is reponsible for the achievement gap in an Op-Ed here on Patch. Jeff Bennett told Patch, "The comment had nothing to do with me nor do I agree with it." Neither Eastman, Bennett or Madhu Pai have made any comments or written any literature blaming the achievement gap on black culture.
Was there a coffee for Pai-Eastman-Bennett at the individual's house?
Patch received information on April 18 that Rusty Reeves and his wife invited friends to a coffee to meet Eastman, Pai and Bennett in their home on March 18.
Regarding the forum, the CCR followed up with an explanation on April 17 about how and why audience questions are selected.
Over the final weekend of the campaign, an email published by Lisa Davis, co-chair of Swanson/Payne Parrish, began circulating widely throughout the towns. The full content is as follows:
Next Tuesday, April 17th is Election Day for the South Orange/Maplewood Board of Education. It is vitally important that we turn out to vote in this election. I want to make sure that you are all aware of the stakes in our upcoming Board of Education elections. I am Co-Chair of the Payne Parrish/Swanson campaign. I also support candidate Amy Higer. Many of you know Jennifer and Tia. The Board of Ed recently voted to overhaul leveling in the high school and combine levels in the middle school. As many of you know, for over two decades fair minded folks in town have fought against a leveling system that relegated most Black students to lower levels where they received an unequal education and were unprepared for college or careers. In the March 5th vote on the proposal, Jennifer Payne Parrish was one of seven votes in favor. Wayne Eastman, who is running on a slate with Jeffrey Bennett and Madhu Pai, voted against the proposal. Let’s not forget that we all pay the same taxes, yet Black parents often have to fight to get their kids into college preparatory classes. That is manifestly unfair. Some of the most vocal supporters of the Eastman slate believe that Black kids can’t excel because of Black culture. Here is a link to the public comments of one of their prominent supporters from the March 5 Board meeting to that effect. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-rqtdT20530&feature=plcp&context=C466e228VDvjVQa1PpcFOzOSyRz_YOUpHq4vLQkrbJRh0y_5BNHps=
I believe that the other slate believes that any gains for Black students will come at the expense of high achieving White students. Nothing could be further from the truth. Please make calls to get all of your friends to come out and VOTE for Payne-Parrish, Swanson and Higer on Tuesday, APRIL 17.
Read the Patch transcription of Reeves' comments here.
Patch confirmed that the email was sent by Davis. Steve Latz, chairman of the Payne Parrish/Swanson and Higer campaigns provided an explanation for and defense of the email. Here is an excerpt:
On the afternoon of April 12, Lisa Davis, campaign co-chair for the Payne-Parrish and Swanson campaign, sent an email to 19 friends, urging them to vote in the upcoming April 17 BOE elections. Her email was drafted with my full knowledge, assistance and encouragement.
In particular, I suggested she mention the statement made by Dr. Rusty Reeves during the “Public Speaks” portion of the March 5 Board of Education meeting. No one else in the campaign, including the three candidates and Amy’s husband Michael Paris, had any prior knowledge of Lisa’s email, nor were they given the opportunity to review it. They have since indicated they would have refused approval had they been afforded the opportunity to do so.
I take sole responsibility for the email. I regret any adverse impact it may have had on their campaign, but I reject the notion that anything in the email is libelous and would point out it was sent to a list of Lisa's friends, not circulated publicly. If that is violation of ethical campaign practice, then I would urge both campaigns to produce ALL emails circulated on their behalf, by campaign leaders and others closely associated with each campaign. I am in receipt of many generated by both sides. It would, in my view, make a very interesting discussion. And one might further include in that discussion all of the posts on MOL, many of which, in contrast to Lisa’s email, have no basis in fact.
Patch has asked both campaigns for additional information about these questions as well as official statements addressing them. Wayne Eastman's current Op-Ed addresses the issue of "black culture" as well as broader issues about campaigning and debating. Here is an excerpt for Eastman's post:
I strongly disagree with the finger-pointing, judgmental, blaming quality of both the achievement gap as rooted in black culture position and the leveling as rooted in white supremacy position. I want to make that disagreement especially clear as it relates to the former position.
I am putting myself forward as a leader, and leaders have responsibilities. It is the planks in the eye of myself and my side that I am in the best position to do something about. I have tried to do that in my campaign, and I pledge to continue to work on that as a Board member with Madhu and Jeff and with my other Board colleagues.
I believe we need to respect individuals and their passions. Demonizing people who express passionate ideological sentiments is itself highly problematic.
Read Eastman's comments in full here.
Updated April 19 to include a link to another article by Steve Latz, chairman of the Payne Parrish, Swanson and Higer campaigns.
Updated April 18, 2012, 3 p.m. to link to a transcript of comments.
Updated April 18, 2012, 1:26 p.m. with information about an event hosted for the Pai Eastman Bennett campaign on March 18.