Conneaut Public Library Director Kathy Zappitello to Run for Office

Kathy Zappitello, executive director of the Conneaut Public Library, OH, and past president of the Association for Rural and Small Libraries, announced her candidacy for state representative of Ohio’s 99th district in August. Her decision, she said, came about after Former Democratic nominee Abby Kovacs, who won the August 2 primary to run against incumbent Sarah Fowler Arthur (R-Ashtabula), was forced to withdraw from the race after being narrowly disqualified by redistricting.

Kathy Zappitello head shotKathy Zappitello, executive director of the Conneaut Public Library, OH, and past president of the Association for Rural and Small Libraries (ARSL), announced her candidacy for state representative of Ohio’s 99th district in August. Her decision, she said, came about after former Democratic nominee Abby Kovacs, who won the August 2 primary to run against incumbent Sarah Fowler Arthur (R-Ashtabula), was forced to withdraw from the race after being narrowly disqualified by redistricting.

Zappitello, a Northern Ohio native, will be stepping down from her library role at the end of the year to take on the full-time paid representative position “because I am planning on winning” the November 8 election, she told LJ in a recent conversation—and offered details about her platform, her campaign, and why being a library director is (and isn’t) a lot like being a politician.

LJ : What led to your decision to run for office?

Kathy Zappitello: The buildup happened because of House Bill 327 that was introduced in Ohio, the “divisive concepts” bill—it’s a book banning bill. [At ARSL] we keep a very close eye on what is going on in all states when it comes to library access. When this bill got introduced [in March], it popped up on my radar very quickly. And I was shocked to see it was my own representative that had introduced this piece of legislative action. So I felt I was in the right place to inform the public of why this is bad for libraries, bad for schools, and bad for government.

Did you have any doubts as to whether it was the right move?

Absolutely. I am not a politician—I am a library director from a small and rural library, and I’ve been doing this for 20 years. But I was attending the American Library Association Conference in June when the Dobbs decision broke, and even though we knew it was coming, to be with my colleagues and thousands of strangers really brought to light what is happening. I was at the foot of the Washington Monument, and I literally said out loud, “I have to do something.”

After the conference, I came back and I shared that with people close to me, that I felt a calling to help in a different capacity. What I didn’t realize, going on behind the scenes, was that Ohio has had three sets of maps that have come out to draw these legislative districts. And the final map, the one that Ohio will be using to vote, actually drew our candidate—who would be opposing our current incumbent who wrote House Bill 327—out of the district by 20 feet. So even though I thought my calling would happen further in the future, it’s happening right now.

Do you have political experience?

I’m going to answer yes, but I want to explain. I am a mover and shaker in my community. I wear a lot of hats and I have created a lot of opportunity to bring forth change and development. Libraries get our work done in an apolitical way. We have always worked with everyone, whether that’s government, other nonprofits, or businesses, we are trained and very astutely aware of our community. And we know—and I know—how to get things done in light of whatever is going on politically. I’m good at that. So I really do feel I can take those same skills, because I have been working in that capacity, and bring that to the House of Representatives.

What I do know is that, especially in in our district in Ohio, we don’t have government officials who are involved in those conversations. We get crickets. My representative hasn’t been a part of them, even though she has been asked, and we’ve invited [her], and this is an ongoing thing for years. There’s been zero communication. I know that by having conversations, and bringing different voices together, that is the way we decide what it looks like when we move forward. It’s difficult to talk about some of these different topics and say, “We don’t see eye to eye, but can we expend some time exploring what we have in common?” And starting there to decide how do we build that bridge to get there together. I’m good at that.

What does your platform look like?

I have three things as my platform. The first one is accountability. I know, as a library director, that accountability is key. I know this from being president of the Association for Rural and Small Libraries. I know this because I have been our local chamber president, our rotary president, president of a private foundation that works on economic development. The position that I’m running for is a paid position. This is a job, this gets a pension, this gets retirement. That should come with some accountability. And I also know that I have reached out to our representative and I haven’t had those meetings, and I haven’t gotten the information that I’ve needed. So I just wonder, no matter where you are in the United States, are you questioning the accountability of those that are supposed to be your voice in government? That is going to be the number one thing that I want to talk about throughout the campaign, and also when I’m in that office. That is something I strive for personally and professionally.

The second thing is infrastructure. I feel that we who are involved in libraries know this. We are at the center of these culture wars that are happening, and it takes all of the energy away from what is really needed. I have a colleague a few miles down the street—her entire township and her library sit on a septic system they’re outgrowing. That’s not a library problem—that is a community problem. But all of that [need for strengthened infrastructure] goes with economic development, creating a quality of life and an opportunity for folks to be lifelong learners, to get the credentials that they need to expand their careers or enter the workforce, and make sure that they are trained and linked to those resources.

The third thing is communication. I feel that by profession I am an expert communicator, and I have held to that standard. That means having difficult conversations over and over again. I’m going to put this under the umbrella of the divisive concepts bill that I mentioned earlier. The sole purpose of that bill is to not communicate. That bill says, “These conversations are difficult. These conversations make people uncomfortable. Therefore, we are going to legislate against conversation.” And that is the exact opposite of what we need to be doing in libraries, the exact opposite of what we need to be doing in schools, and the exact opposite of what we need to be doing in our communities.

How are you campaigning?

Our District 99 is a new district, some portions of Ashtabula County and some new sections of Geauga County, which were never in our district before. What I’m doing right now is getting out and trying to talk to as many folks as possible. I’m trying to not only meet people, but encourage people to talk with each other and with their loved ones and their families about what is important to them.

My other thing is: Google me, Google [my opponent]. Since the gerrymander and the Democratic candidate getting redistricted out, this is the 11th hour of a campaign. I have very limited time. My call to action when I announced my candidacy was, “I want to talk with everyone, and I plan on doing that. But what’s more important right now is that we have these conversations in our homes, and we talk about what is important.”

Will you be stepping away from the library?

Yes. My board is very supportive, and they weren’t shocked. It was, “Oh, of course, you’re doing this, Kathy, this makes sense to us.” My board also knows that I have been working diligently for years to build leadership at every level of this organization. Systemwide in this library, everyone is excited and ready for their next opportunity.

What do you bring to this race from your years as a library director, at ARSL, and all your community work?

Maybe this is because I’m the middle child, but I am a mediator, and I can gather voices. I have a proven track record of creating the reason why: Why do we need it? Why should we care? Why is this a topic you should be engaged with? I’m good at, “Hey, let’s have a meeting. Let’s have some conversations. Who else needs to be sitting around this table?” and then leading everyone through those conversations to create an outcome that is mutually acceptable.

And frankly, it’s the job that sometimes nobody wants. Who wants to sign up to continually talk to people who perhaps don’t like you, or to talk with a group that is really adamantly moving in a different direction? That would be me. Because some of that is just what you have to do, what’s necessary to find the way. It won’t be my way, and it won’t be their way, but it’ll be our congruent way together.

I am a positive person, always glass overfull. But I feel that right now I almost sound like Chicken Little—“Hey, everybody, the sky is falling. Do you feel the rumble under your feet?” Because we need to be aware of what is happening legislatively. In Ohio, specifically, House Bill 327 would literally gut the vocation of the library. It is in direct opposition to what we’re charged to do, which is to create a barrier-free access to the human record. We can’t allow censorship. We have to fight that head-on every time we see it. That is ethically what I am charged with doing. And this is it. We are seeing it, and we must gather those voices, and we must try to stop this.

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Lisa Peet

Lisa Peet is Executive Editor for Library Journal.

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