It looked very much like a high school pep rally with teachers and school security staff leading students to their seats as the Weequahic High School on Monday afternoon. The marching band played and the strutters strutted. But what school officials say was supposed to be an exercise in civic engagement turned out to be — just as the Phil Murphy campaign billed it to us — a “pep rally” with Phil Murphy, Shaquille O’Neal, Lt. Gov. candidate Sheila Oliver and Newark Mayor Ras Baraka. The whole thing raising questions about appropriate use of school facilities during school hours.
“We have Ambassador Phil Murphy here who is running for governor, who I’m supporting for governor,” Baraka told the students. “As far as I’m concerned, [he’s] the governor. I’m not the principal, so I can say what I want to say. We want him to be the governor. We don’t want Chris Christie, we’re tired of Chris Christie. Right? As a matter of fact we want Christie to go, along with Donald Trump, too.”
Oliver was equally direct. “I’m here this afternoon to introduce to you Ambassador Phil Murphy, who will be the next governor of the state of New Jersey,” she added.
Campaign signs for Murphy dotted the lawn outside the school, the halls inside and the gymnasium where the event was held.
A spokesperson for the Newark Public Schools said this wasn’t presented to them as a partisan political event. She said both candidates were invited and that “it was an opportunity for student civic engagement.” Republican gubernatorial candidate Kim Guadagno saw it differently.
“Well, I was invited to teach a class on civic engagement,” Guadagno said on Tuesday. “I’ve been a law professor for a long time and never once did I teach a class that had a political sign in it, so, no, it did not look like a class on civic engagement; it looked like a political rally.”
Which, it might surprise you to know, is not technically against the statutes of the Election Law Enforcement Commission.
“[ELEC] statute only restricts fundraising on public property,” said the commission’s Executive Director Jeff Brindle. “It’s not the first time there have been rallies such as this. So as long as there is no fundraising going on, this is not an issue.”
Maybe not, but for a supposedly innocuous educational event, participants seemed to be distancing themselves from it today. Mayor Baraka’s office said on Tuesday, “This was not our event.”
“The mayor was a participant in one of a series of of events involving political education at the school,” a spokesperson continued. “It was put on by a group at the school that is holding other political information events.”
The Murphy campaign referred all questions to the Newark Public Schools, which officially organized the event, at which no one took any questions from the kids, who seemed less interested in what Murphy had to say and more interested in who he was there to introduce.
School officials said the students were dismissed at 1 p.m. to attend an event, which was supposed to be about life after high school, with O’Neal leading a discussion. But O’Neal made only brief remarks and took no questions from students or the press before being hurried out of the event through a side door.
As for the kids, any one of them looking for a class in civics here may have ended up with a Shaq t-shirt — and maybe a lesson in what it’s like to be a political prop in the middle of a campaign photo op.