One of the questions that generated a buzz amongst audience members at the October 3 Board of Education candidates forum hosted by South Orange Maplewood Cares About Schools was “Who if anyone is managing your campaign?”
“It’s irrelevant, an irrelevant question,” called out one voice from the audience.
“It’s absolutely relevant,” Elissa Malespina of SOMA Cares responded.
(See the question and responses at the 1:20:00 mark in the video below.)
The question elicited the following responses:
Michael Laskowski said that his joint campaign with Narda Chisholm-Greene was “100% grassroots.”
“Look at who supports me on line,” added Laskowski who asserted that he and Chisholm-Greene were not affiliated with any group or organization. Chisholm-Greene echoed his comments in her remarks. (Per New Jersey election filings, Frank Reiss is the Chairperson for Laskowski and Greene’s campaign.)
Marian Cutler said that she and running mate Christopher Trzaska were likewise grassroots and that they were running each other’s campaign. But she added that there was a need for “new voices, untethered voices” on the BOE and that she and Trzaska would not be repeating the “pedagogy” that had created what she characterized as the current situation — bonding for $131 M in facilities improvements and continuing to address the achievement gap.
Bruno Navarro indicated that he was running his own campaign and had been inspired to run as he worked to research information about the district for other parents.
Shannon Cuttle was not able to attend the October 3 forum. However, Cuttle’s ELEC form lists Rachel Fisher as campaign manager. (This story initially erroneously listed Stephen Mershon as Cuttle campaign manager; Mershon is a campaign advisor for 2018, while he served as campaign manager for 2017.)
Javier Farfan who is running with incumbent Annemarie Maini said that their campaign was likewise grassroots and focused his response otherwise on campaign issues. Maini was not present due to a previous engagement.
Via email Maini responded, “If anyone is managing our campaign, it is me. Running a campaign is hard work and all candidates rely on groups of friends and supporters to help them.” But Village Green asked Maini about the obvious subtext of the question: Was former BOE member Steve Latz managing her campaign?
See Maini’s full written reply below.
Latz has managed or been involved in many successful Board of Education campaigns over the past two decades — including Maini’s successful 2015 run with Chris Sabin. Many who closely watch local BOE elections see Latz as a bit of a “campaign whisperer” due to his past history of work on the BOE and with candidates. Others see his involvement as less benign, feeling that too many BOE members are associated with Latz. (Latz supported or managed the campaigns of 5 of the 9 current BOE members — BOE President Elizabeth Baker, Robin Johnson Baker, Stephanie Lawson-Muhammad, Chris Sabin and Annemarie Maini.)
Last spring, Village Green contacted Latz about his role in local campaigns.
Latz responded via email to Village Green: “My role is really one of hearing from people who would like to run and agreeing to handle a lot of the campaign infrastructure work to enable them to do so — anyone working full time would be unable to mount an effective campaign otherwise.”
Latz pointed out that others had run managed multiple campaigns and named Andrea Marino, Wayne Eastman, Walter Fields among others from older campaigns. (Village Green reached out to Marino, Fields and Eastman on this question; all said they were not actively involved in any campaigns this year.)
“I am not the only one who agrees to support campaign efforts by doing a lot of the campaign work,” continued Latz, “but maybe the only one who has supported a particular kind of candidate, like Robin Baker (twice), Larry Petracarro, Abby Cotler, Shelley Slafkes, Mila Jasey, Julie Burch, Jerry Clifford, Rogers Campbell, Mark Miller, David Fraser, David Giles, Beth Daugherty, Lynne Crawford, Andrea Wren-Hardin, Sandy Karriem, Tia Swanson, Amy Higer, Jennifer Payne-Parrish, Elizabeth Baker, Maureen Jones, Bill Gaudelli, Stephanie Lawson-Muhammad, Annemarie Maini, Chris Sabin and James Davis.”
Latz noted that many people he helped “ended up with very different outlooks than when they started, and another set of people I helped were first elected after campaigns run by Andrea Marino, but whose positions changed after their first term on the Board. I don’t have any litmus test for who I support — just someone who generally supports educational equity and who seems like they might make a thoughtful and constructive Board member.”
Latz rejected the notion that he said some put forward that he “controls” the Board of Education: “Which in addition to being untrue is an insult to all those Board members who have chosen to serve.”
Maini also responded directly to Village Green’s query asking if Latz was involved in her and Farfan’s campaign:
“Steve Latz is involved, as he has been in several recent campaigns, but he does not ‘run’ it in a way that controls the direction or goals of me or my running mate. As with all campaign volunteers, we appreciate his hard work on the many technical aspects of the campaign, including getting lawn signs printed on time, explaining to our treasurer, Michael Parlapiano, how campaign financial reporting to NJ ELEC works, helping with mailings and much more. Javier and I sincerely appreciate his work, as do the many candidates to whom he’s provided similar help in the past. I am proud to say that our campaign has a large team of volunteers who share our vision but also bring a diverse set of skills and experiences to the table to support the campaign. …”
She continued, “Does Steve tell me what to think and how to vote? It is insulting to imply that a single individual on the campaign staff tells me how to think or vote. I have a Masters in Math Education, ten years experience at JP Morgan in senior management roles and I am the owner and Director of South Orange Country Day School, which my current and former parents tell me does pretty well for their children.”
Maini concluded, “Our Board has always consisted of nine members with diverse viewpoints, both on what educational outcomes we want to see and what the district needs to do to achieve them. There is no one board member who can mastermind a decision without talking to and collaborating with other board members. Newly-elected Board members are often frustrated when they realize that they have to work hard to get their viewpoints across. Serving on the board means hearing from a variety of community members with diverse views on specific issues and using that information to work with fellow board members to reach consensus on the district goals, the priorities for the superintendent, and the message we give to the superintendent. And, most importantly once the board votes and makes a decision, regardless of how you voted, your job is to wholeheartedly support the decision.”