Op-Ed: Gov. Christie, You Haven’t Heard the Last of Newark – Or My Daughter

City’s residents, not the governor, will be the ‘deciders’ when it comes to future of public schools

Heather Stewart, at right, with two of her children.
I live in Newark and I’m the mother of three children. I’m also a member of the Newark Parents Union, a growing base of parents dedicated to our children, their schools and their future.

Each of my children is very special to me, but my oldest, Kristin, has become a well-known student activist in Newark. Along with other student leaders, parents and community groups, she’s helped build a movement in our city to protect our public schools.

Recently, Chris Christie attended a panel at the Aspen Institute where he bragged that he was “the decider” of what happens in Newark public schools. Last year he answered a press question by responding, “I don’t care about the community criticism. We run the school district in Newark, not them.” So we made plans to challenge him.

Along with other members of the Newark Parents Union, NJ Communities United and the Newark Students Union, I went to Belmar to attend one of Christie’s public town hall forums. We wanted to confront Christie about the fact that none of his more than 125 public town hall events in New Jersey have ever been held in Newark. We were there with one mission: Ask Christie to hold a public town hall forum in Newark, the largest city in New Jersey and Christie’s home town.

Christie needed to be confronted by Newark residents because he has a bad habit of talking about Newark, but he hasn’t talked to Newark. This, despite the fact that parents and students have publicly demanded the removal of Cami Anderson, a community process for choosing her replacement, and replacing the “One Newark” plan with the community’s “Newark Promise” plan.

We arrived early in Belmar to get good seats. Christie arrived late. But it wasn’t long before our moment came to confront Christie directly.

The fourth person that Christie called on to ask a question happened to be my daughter Kristin. They had never met face-to-face before, but as soon as she introduced herself he knew exactly who she was. Kristin Towkaniuk: the president of the Newark Students Union, a board member of NJ Communities United and the Youth Council member for the East Ward of Newark. Her reputation precedes her, and for that reason, Christie got his hackles up quickly.

My daughter posed her question in an intelligent, straightforward and professional manner. She wanted to know why he hadn’t held a town hall meeting in Newark and whether he would schedule one. His response was typical Christie: rude and condescending.

He told her that he would schedule a town hall in Newark “when and if” “he and his staff” see fit. Then he told her that when he does hold a town hall in Newark that she should come and ask a question…one that was better than the question she just asked him.

I was livid.

I was angry, as a resident of Newark, that our governor thinks so little of the people here that he could dismiss us so callously and ignore the issues we face as a city.

I was angry that the governor of New Jersey spoke to my daughter the way he did. I wonder how he would feel and what he would do if an elected leader spoke to any of his four children in public the way he spoke to my daughter.

I have two things to say to Chris Christie.

First, my daughter’s question to you was fair…and it was a good question. Just because you didn’t like it doesn’t mean you can dismiss it so easily. Instead of dodging a valid question, why don’t you work on giving us a better answer?

Secondly, when and if you and your staff decide the people of Newark are worthy of a venue with you, be prepared.

You may feel strong and in charge at your orchestrated and scripted town halls, but the entire city of Newark — especially the parents of the Newark Parents Union — is waiting to speak to you…and we’re all very tough and outspoken…you know, the Brick City kind of tough and outspoken.