ONLINE ONLY: The Real Chris Stewart
Ever since the day before the election, when he was fingered as the author of an obscure and scabrous satiric website about 5th District US House candidate Tammy Lee, Chris Stewart has been listening to people call for his head. Call it a perfect storm of special circumstances: Stewart was not just any blogger, but part of a slate of candidates that won election to the Minneapolis School Board on the same day that Tammy Lee lost her race. And though the writing at "his" site, American Hot Sausage, was done by a small (and mostly white) collective, he was nonetheless a black man called out in public for some extremely nasty comments that made a popular and pretty white woman out to be a racist.
Stewart apologized for the website, even writing an entire op-ed column to that effect in the Star Tribune last weekend. But his contrition scarcely seemed to put a dent in the juggernaut. Two weeks later, he is still regular fodder for local right-wing blogs, and he is still beset by callers and emailers who want him to go and ones who want him to stay. Numerous organizations, ranging from the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers to the Strib editorial board, have called for him to resign. As of Tuesday afternoon, he was still weighing the possibility.
Meanwhile, though, one of the more striking aspects of the whole spectacle has been how little anyone has had to say about Chris Stewart beyond the matter of his much-flogged blogging sins. The 38-year-old New Orleans native—a self-described evangelical Christian and classical conservative who sounds nothing like the popular 2006 images of evangelicals or conservatives—came down to the City Pages office on Tuesday morning, November 21, for an interview.
City Pages: Were you surprised by the magnitude of the response the Tammy Lee spoof web page elicited when it came to light?
Chris Stewart: 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.
CP: You've faced attacks from a lot of different quarters. Where do things stand now between you and your critics—the Teachers Federation, for instance?
Stewart: They've asked me to step down. I have the support of some teachers who have supported me all along, but those are individuals. The union wants me to step down. The attacks are coming from the Anti-Strib [blog], which is a small collective that's really mad at me because I went after their blog and I kind of shut 'em down a couple of times. So now that they have a face to put with American Hot Sausage, I'm their biggest nemesis. Now they have a place to channel their energy. So they're shopping around a little package on me. Tonight they intend to be at the school board meeting with friends and family and signs, and they're going to pass out selected quotes from my blog. And I don't think the public knows the extent to which their site could be considered a hate site. I don't think the public knows that they have an ongoing thing with the Muslims and Keith Ellison.
The thing that latched me onto them in the first place was the Katrina stuff. They were writing stuff about Katrina people, and my family had just gotten here from Katrina, from New Orleans. The Anti-Strib was writing about what big whiners those people were, and how blaming Bush was dumb. And how you don't hear anybody anywhere else whining, and basically it was because they were black and poor and they want to blame their lot in life on somebody else.
So I went after them particularly hard. But I did with them what I do with a lot of right-wing blogs—and again, I see a difference between conservatives and this new right wing, the new-fangled Hannity and Bill O'Reilly types who are all ideology and no good sense. They don't understand historically what it means to be a conservative. They've probably never read a single thing by Barry Goldwater, for instance. They're into this young punk Republican thing that they think is conservative. They want a sense of identity; they want to reaffirm their sort of truck-driving suburban identity and make it okay without having to do a lot of thinking. Their type of conservatism is a shortcut past thinking. So I go after that on a regular basis—their positions on the war and so forth. The libertarians have it more right than they do. I'd put myself more in the category of libertarian than with those types of guys. "Pre-emptive war" is not a conservative concept. It's a ridiculous concept that flies in the face of everything about traditional US conservative politics. But these guys just suck it down: It's Bush, it's got to be good. Anybody who's against it has to be a "liberal."
What people don't know is that my trouble in Minneapolis started before this Tammy Lee thing. My real trouble started a couple of months ago when there was that incident at the Inter-district downtown school where parents were having trouble with that "Heather has two mommies" curriculum. I was at a forum in north Minneapolis, and a young black family came and said to us as school board candidates that they were supposed to be able to opt out of that, but the school said they couldn't opt out, and if they didn't like it they could leave the district. My response to that was that schools are doing a really lousy job right now with core curriculum—with math, science, reading, social studies—and the governor has passed some very aggressive standards. Minneapolis is doing lousy with those things, and they're doing particularly lousy with minority kids, who now happen to be the majority of the district. So we need, in my opinion, to strip down a lot of that stuff in the schools. A lot of the DARE programs, the patriotism programs, the Boy Scout-type programs, and this to me was just another example of that. But what I said was not well-received in the gay community.
There's just a lot of extra stuff built into curricula. We've got kids who have maybe an hour and a half in their school schedule of actual core subjects. And those are exactly the things we get judged on by the government. We don't get judged on this other fluff we put in. None of our high schools made adequate yearly progress last year. Not a single high school in Minneapolis. To me, that means we need a longer school day, a longer school year, or more time spent on the actual subjects we're being judged by. If the kids aren't doing really well in core curricula, we lose money. And we're going to lose schools, see them shut down or see them privatized.
This gets to be a matter of nuance. I'm saying "core curriculum" because we have to sharpen up in these areas, especially with minority students. People see that as, you're trying to take away the thing that liberalizes public education. But this liberalizing of public education is what's losing us money in the long run. African-American kids, specifically, need more time reading. If they read 45 minutes more each day, their test scores would go up dramatically. And they're not getting that at home in a lot of cases. School's the only place and time we have with them to get them up to speed.
So my real trouble started with that comment about curriculum. It's called the MAZE curriculum, and it's got more than one function. It's got religion, sociology, socioeconomic status, gay families, and maybe a couple of more units. It's like a total diversity curriculum. By no means was I pushing the idea that we don't need diversity, or that our kids don't need to learn about it. I was pushing the idea that you have to have a laser-like focus on what's important when you're losing so badly. That was my whole notion as I was getting into the race—the schools are just so scattered and unfocused, and we're getting bad test results, and people see them and say, see? There they go again. They can't teach math, they can't teach reading.
Black families are now the ones that are leaving the system fastest. It was white flight before. But nowadays our Latino population is exploding, and our African-American population is starting to shrink. What's happening there is that African-Americans who become middle class are abandoning Minneapolis public schools. And one of the reasons is, they want the same things for their kids that white people want for theirs. So they think they'll put their kids into a sharper school.
When I said what I said in that forum, it made it into Insight News and the phone started ringing instantly. A couple of people called and said they were pulling my signs out of their yards. A couple of members of the City Council and a member of the library board started trading phone calls around town, and I became persona non grata to a lot of people right then. That part of the story's been missing in what's been written about me.
CP: What was it that bugged you and your friends at AHS enough about the Tammy Lee candidacy that it was worth going to the trouble of building this spoof page?
Stewart: Let me give the John Kerry answer: I was for Tammy Lee before I was against Tammy Lee. I liked Tammy Lee. I was a former Independence Party candidate, I was very supportive of Peter Hutchinson every time I saw him—he was the first person I talked to when I decided to run for Minneapolis school board. And then I had a sit-down with people from the Independence Party. And every time I'd see Tammy Lee, I'd thank her, because she was running a really clean campaign and it was something I was glad to see. I was a Keith Ellison supporter, but I really appreciated what she was doing.
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 that quote came out, it deflated me. It's perplexing in part because it's saying that all the liberals in CD5 are racist—that they have no minds beyond seeing a black candidate and thinking, let's send him! Keith Ellison was more than that. So that bothered me, and it bothered people around me.
My spoof was, to me, not a spoof of Tammy Lee—it was a spoof of the idea that we shouldn't vote for this guy because he was chosen for his race. That was the subtext of the spoof in my mind: Vote for me, because I'm not the guy who got chosen because he was black. It's not attacking her whiteness. We didn't call her any derogatory names, none of that type of stuff.
CP: Do you think in retrospect the point of the satire would have been clearer if you'd cast it in the voice of a Tammy Lee/IP supporter rather than the candidate herself?
Stewart: I would say it was wrong either way. It was just wrong.
CP: Because you were entering the public eye by running for office, or because it was "bad speech"?
Stewart: No, just in general it's probably wrong. I mean, you look at the visceral response and the division in the community, and—I should back up and tell you, I'm an evangelical, I'm a Christian, and this is a colossal moral failure for a Christian. This is something that shouldn't have gotten out there. Most of the time when I get too biting, it's something I give myself permission to do in the realm of letters. But not all those [writings] are really for public consumption. In high school, I had a journalism teacher who taught me to channel a lot of what I was mad about into letters. And it's something I've done since I was a teenager.
There's a line you cross when you write stuff for yourself, as a writer, versus the stuff you sharpen up to show to other people.
CP: And the blog, being a collective of people writing mainly for each other, kind of blurred that line.
Stewart: It blurred that line greatly. I was accepting of people writing stuff that was sharper than what I would write. If I wrote something that was too sharp, I would wind up pulling punches if I thought it was going to be something others might see. If you ever saw the blog, you'd see that a lot of the stuff was just meant to be funny, and not in a savage sense. The Tammy Lee thing was savage. It was a spontaneous response to something. Most of what I write is better thought-out than that.
CP: Do you think part of the energy attaching to this stems from the fact that most white Americans don't know, and don't really want to know, what most black Americans think about the country, about politics, about white people?
Stewart: Well... I mean, it's funny. I like to think that I've studied human behavior enough to understand people pretty well. Here I have to admit that I don't. I've had white people say to me, I don't know what it's like to be black, and I never will. What I have to say in return is, I don't know what it's like to be white either. I'm listening to the responses I've gotten and trying to feel my way through them.
But, you know, white people participated in this [Tammy Lee parody]. It's not a "black thing." It was a collaborative thing, and a majority of the writers I know are white people who have very strong opinions about white people. And they feel better, more sure, about lampooning white people than I would. And I'd probably feel better lampooning someone in my own community than they would. That's just a given.
CP: So some of the folks who worked on the Lee parody were white? I hadn't heard that.
Stewart: Yeah. The majority of them were white. Nobody's pointed that out, including me. But I've had white people say to me, I can't even believe you have friends who think like that! And my thought is, well, they're kind of closer to you than they are to me... [laughs]
CP: Do you think part of this hubbub is specific to Minneapolis? I have a hard time imagining that something like this would become such a source of broad indignation in most other large cities.
Stewart: I've lived in 13 cities. Minneapolis is the 13th. And all cities are different. I do think something like this would play differently in other cities. I grew up in New Orleans, and there's a southern sensibility I brought with me here. And I'll say this: In almost 20 years of being here, it still hasn't been long enough for me to completely understand the landscape, the do's and don'ts. In the South, the racial signposts are very clear. In Minneapolis, they're less clear. As I told another reporter, I went and sat down with my dad and brothers and sisters last Friday night. They're still learning to navigate Minnesota. Their southern thing is fully intact. My son was born and raised here, so visiting New Orleans was total culture shock for him.
So on the couch, you had me, my dad, and my son, all interpreting Minnesota very differently. I'm interpreting as someone who's been here for a time but still has a residual southern mentality. My dad's still fully southern, and a lot of things here are new to him: how you interact with white folks, how you look at them, how they look at you, how sociable you can be, what lines you don't cross—like going to people's houses, maybe—and where you can and can't go. And my son's a born Yankee, and this is what he knows. But I've got a sister who's only two years older than my son, and it's very different for her here.
CP: Can you say more about what the difference in being here is?
Stewart: In my experience, it's that you don't exactly know where people are coming from a lot of the time. You see people with really good intentions, and they behave sometimes in ways that you find perplexing. The values and the actions, the rhetoric and the reality, don't always match each other. People do really nice things for you here that I never would have expected when I first moved here. My first apartment was entirely furnished by people who said, hey, I've got a couch you can have, hey, I've got this or that. People just gave me stuff. And the first two places I rented here were from really nice people who didn't ask me for a first and last month's deposit. As somebody here with new eyes, I kind of wondered at first, what do you want from me?
So you think, initially, that this is like the land of milk and honey. It's really enlightened here. And then I think you bump into things where you have to really re-interpret your place in the world. Because what you've been thinking is not exactly true. In my situation right now, I think, people would prefer me to be more contrite than I am—to completely disavow previous thoughts and attitudes that I've had, to disavow them in writing and in speech. That would be the ticket to my membership.
CP: "Tell us we're okay."
Stewart: Yeah. Make us feel okay. Make us feel good about investing in you. Which—I feel two ways about that. In one sense, it can cause you to become bitter and to think, who really are my friends? Do these people really have my best interests at heart? And the other part of it is, well, if I'm going to live here, I have to know the territory, and how to get along in it. And if I'm going to be an office-holder in Minneapolis, then I'm certainly not qualified if I can't navigate effectively. I won't get anything done. The power base of Minneapolis is such that you have to know who's who, and you have to stay in their good graces. That might be the same everywhere, but here you feel like you have to lose certain parts of yourself for admittance.
I would prefer that we really meant diversity when we said it. Not "diversity" in the sense that once you become a Huxtable, hey, you're one of us. And look, aren't we diverse? I live next door to the Huxtables, and we share barbecues. I'd prefer that diversity mean it's okay to speak Spanish on Lake Street. It's okay to celebrate Kwanzaa—and for white people to attend the celebration. It's okay for Mexicans and Asians and white people to attend Juneteenth. That would be diversity. My son's grown up in a very diverse environment. We attend the Hmong festival they have every year. We might be the only black folks who have ever gone. [laughs]
My son has had those experiences his whole life. My son has been around Jewish folks, white folks, Hispanics, Somalis. I always found opportunities to put him in places where he was the minority and he had to look around and to be, at first, uncomfortable. It's that lack of comfort that I think can train people to operate in different worlds.
So I think Minneapolis—well, I'm having an education right now that I didn't have before in 19 years of being here.
CP: Do you feel like you've weathered the worst of it, or no?
Stewart: No. There's no saying that I'm going to get through this. There's not. Matter of fact, there's a good chance that I'm not. I get support from folks writing to me, and sending letters on my behalf to the Star Tribune. Charlie Underwood is a good example. He's a local anti-war activist, white guy, who's been writing about this stuff. Lynell Mikkelson has been writing on my behalf. And I've gotten support from a lot of black folks and union folks. But there are also forces lining up on the other side. The district has been inundated with calls. The Anti-Strib site has been very effective. It's made it to right-wing radio. And it's been on KQ. I was on KSTP a couple of days ago. The story's been shopped to Fox9 News.
So you've got people calling the district, calling the superintendent, sending emails. The anti-Strib folks have sent packets to parents, teachers, and district personnel, to radio and TV stations. Former supporters have called and basically said, you know, you're a liability now. Whatever you do, it'll be more distracting than helpful.
CP: What's the split of the response been? How much of it is going against you?
Stewart: I'd say maybe 50/50 as far as the issue of resign or don't resign is concerned. But the really nasty letters—I'd say this is about 20 percent of the "resign" letters—get into irrational territory.
CP: Threats, you mean?
Stewart: Yeah. And trying to investigate where my wife works. The Anti-Strib has posted stuff like, they know where my wife works, and they're going to get more information on that and pass it around. It's starting to creep us out that people are taking this past saying I made a mistake—which I admit. It was a colossal moral failure, not just for a politician.
CP:I'm done. Anything else you'd care to add?
Stewart: From what folks have written, they've made it sound like I'm this cocky, arrogant guy who will do anything to stay in power. It's not so. To resign would be the easiest thing for my family right now.
I worked in MFIP [the state's welfare department] for years. And prior to that I worked in staffing, but I also helped people find work on a volunteer basis. I run a thing called Work for People through my church, which helps people find jobs. My main focus all along has been on jobs, finding out where the opportunities are and finding ways to link those jobs to kids who normally would never find out about them—which happen to be our African-American, Asian, and Latino kids here in the district.
Every company in downtown Minneapolis now is saying, how can we diversify, and why can't you get more of those guys over to us? There are completely non-diverse industries like advertising and marketing where you see very few minorities, but yet they have a national push to diversify. My coming to the school board was saying two things: One, I'm aware that we're on the cusp of an economic shift in Minnesota, and Minneapolis is on the losing end of that shift. There are 30,000 acres of JOBZ right now, but they're all rural. There's 30,000 acres of rural development happening right now. Businesses are getting 12 years of free taxes, and they're bringing with them hundreds of jobs to each location. And they all pay pretty well. So the rural areas are being set up so that if you live there, and you're not going to go to college, you will still be able to get a Polaris job that pays you enough to get a house, a car, a truck, a wife, a kid—a life—without going to college.
Minneapolis is exempted from that. We're not getting that opportunity. Minneapolis needs to fight for opportunities, particularly for the kids who are missing out the worst now. None of the companies will be able to diversify if we allow to continue what we have going on now. That's what brought me to the school board: seeing jobs as a way out of poverty. My entire time with MFIP was as a vocational counselor, helping people find jobs and housing and keep their kids in school. So I learned a lot about poverty over the years. And the schools are so disconnected from the systems that are meant to help people in poverty, and the state is disconnected from those services. So you've got the state, the county, and the schools, all of whom I've worked for, and I thought I could bridge the gap between those three. People think poverty is such a mysterious problem. But it's really no mystery when you look at the systems people go through. When you look at the school systems, at MFIP and the county systems, and then the job services at the state level, it's no great mystery. You see a disconnected, silo mentality, and nobody's linking them all together.
What happens with those kids—how effective I think I can be in helping them—will determine whether I hold on to my seat or get out of it. Because if I don't think I can be effective in getting done what I want to get done, I will leave. And if I think I can be effective, I'll stay regardless of how many barbs I take. At the end of the day, it's about the fact that as a district, as a city—as a segregated city with pockets of deep poverty—we're about to miss a major opportunity to get those kids off the launching pad.
The other thing is, Minneapolis is in a battle right now with San Antonio, Portland, Seattle, and what-not for a larger share of brain-power in the work force. Getting those people to move here is part of the trick now. I don't know if you've read Richard Florida's stuff, but he wrote a book called Rise of the Creative Class which a lot of businesspeople and politicians are reading now. It presents an index for how well you'll do economically in the future based on how tolerant your society is. Boston is ahead of the curve on this. There have been companies that moved to places like Boston and saw their expenses go through the roof, and they didn't care, because the social capital that they needed was available to them there. It's not just housing prices, it's cultural values. And Minneapolis is on the wrong end of that curve now. If we strip all the race stuff aside, we'd still have the same issues. We have to get all those kids on the on-ramp right now.
We have to become less socially stoic, and more culturally competent and accepting to draw the type of brain-power that we need. And Minneapolis right now is in the fight of its life. Where we're going now isn't really good—deeper segregation, deeper poverty, housing prices out of control in some parts of the city while others are blighted. The demographics for us are all wrong now.
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