As the longtime executive director of the Conneaut Public Library, serving about 20,000 residents in northeast Ohio, Kathy Zappitello is a known commodity in Northeast Ohio. She has a strong track record of community service and economic development. And as a past president of the Association for Rural & Small Libraries (ARSL), her leadership skills were widely praised at the national level. But this November, Zappitello will take on an entirely new challenge: politics. On August 16, Zappitello officially announced her candidacy to represent the 99th District in the Ohio House of Representatives, representing parts of Asthtabula and Geauga counties.
“I come from a long line of public servants and proud military veterans, librarians and teachers, artists, and entrepreneurs, and they taught me to always, always, step up when called,” Zappitello, a native of Northern Ohio, told PW when asked about her decision to run for office. “I am answering the call.”
The call for Zappitello to run came in unusual fashion, after the Democratic nominee, Abby Kovacs, was suddenly zoned out of the 99th District. The move came after the Ohio Supreme Court twice rejected Republican-drawn electoral maps, and a third version of the map put Kovacs’ property in a new district by about 20 feet. Through she had never harbored political ambitions before, Zappitello says her willingness to step in and run as the Democratic candidate in Kovacs’ place—and her determination to win—is rooted in a trend that hits close to home, and has become all too familiar in communities around the country: attacks on teachers and librarians, and on the freedom to read.
Specifically, Zappitello points to two bills now pending in the Ohio statehouse that would block schools and libraries from teaching so-called “divisive concepts.” Zappitello’s opponent—first term representative Sarah Fowler Arthur—introduced one of the bills, HB327. Furthermore, Fowler Arthur recently found herself embroiled in controversy and rebuked by Republican leaders after making comments in defense of HB327 that appeared to suggest there were two sides to the Holocaust.
“My opponent is the primary sponsor of HB327,” Zappitello told PW. “If she is reelected in November, Ohio will be living a dystopian nightmare. HB327 not only targets schools, it would also prohibit Ohio public libraries from promoting or offering instruction or training on so-called ‘divisive concepts’ as defined by a handful of elected officials.”
These so-called “divisive” concepts cover a range of issues, Zappitello says, including issues of racism, diversity, sexuality, the LGBTQ community, policing, and sexism and reproductive freedom. And the net effect of the law as written would not only restrict what teachers can address in the classroom, Zappitello says, but what information librarians can offer in their community libraries.
“Let me be clear, all 251 public libraries in Ohio would be subject to HB327, meaning that lifelong learners of any age will no longer have access to vital resources in Ohio’s community public libraries,” Zappitello told PW. “And schools get a double whammy as they are subject to HB327 and HB616.”
Indeed, HB616, a companion to HB327, would explicitly block Ohio public schools from teaching “divisive” concepts, which according to the bill’s text specifically include critical race theory; intersectional theory; The 1619 project; Diversity, equity, and inclusion learning outcomes; and “inherited racial guilt.”
The debate over HB327 and HB616 in Ohio echoes the debates raging in communities across the country, where vocal minorities have pursued book bans and educational gag orders in local schools and libraries in unprecedented numbers. And while librarians and teachers nationwide are working to organize against these measures, Zappitello says her candidacy is an acknowledgement that the battle at hand is political in nature, and the most effective way to win a political fight—especially on issues so core to civic life—is to stand for election.
Zappitello's candidacy has been greeted enthusiastically in her community of Conneaut (where she is a former president of the Chamber of Commerce and was named 2014 Conneaut Citizen of the Year) even though her winning the seat would mean stepping down from her post leading the Conneaut Public Library, a post she has held since 2009. At a press conference last week Zappitello confirmed that she would resign from her post if elected. "And I will win," she said. "So I will be leaving the library."
The Ashtabula County Democratic Party is also excited about Zappitello's chances. "We believe that she is exactly what voters are looking for right now," reads a post on the party's social media.
Indeed, as her campaign gets underway, the choice in Ohio’s 99th District couldn’t be more stark, Zappitello says.
“We have to trust and protect vocations,” said, pointing to the trained, dedicated librarians and teachers who most voters support and understand are deeply committed to the health and well-being of their communities. Enough, she says, with a vocal minority attempting to make personal decisions for other people’s families under the guise of "parental rights." And despite being well known and highly respected in the district, Zappitello says she is prepared for the personal attacks she expects will come her way ahead of the November election.
“I am not afraid,” she told PW. “I want to help my community. This is my path.”