Editors Note: This is Part 2 of our series focused on EveryLibrary’s November 2014 campaign support
Part 2 – Opposition by Electeds
When elected officials go out against a library ballot measure, the formula often looks like this: “The question is not, do you support the library. It is, can we afford this huge debt while facing serious space needs and other needs within the county.” (cite)
The Eastern Shore Public Library serves the two Virginia counties on the Peninsula. In November 2014, the voters in one county, Accomack, were asked to approve a $3.5 million construction bond to build a new facility on donated land in the town of Accomac. (North Hampton County voters were not included in the referendum since the building would be owned Accomack County.) Getting to the ballot in Accomack County wasn’t easy, though. The county supervisors and the library board went through several years of negotiations about the site and the building plan to replace a 50-year old facility. There were differences of opinion between the two bodies culminating in an unfortunate situation that lead, ultimately, to the defeat of the measure on Election Day. When the library board presented their plan and funding request in late summer, it was for a $6.2 million building that would anticipate growth in the community and new uses of the library for a generation. It referenced state standards, the need for ADA compliance, and took the community’s needs and interests into consideration. When the County Supervisors, lead by Robert Crockett, received the plan they instead voted to place it on the ballot for only $3.5 million. Their opinion being that it (the new library) was too big for Accomack County, or perhaps not in line with community priorities. At $3.5 million, the plans which the staff and board had worked toward for several years were suddenly irrelevant. Realizing this, the library board voted to ask the supervisors to remove the measure entirely from the ballot. The supervisors refused, forcing the library to go to the ballot for a funding level they didn’t request. This didn’t give the library much of a chance of passing it. In fact, Supervisor Crockett challenged the library community to get more than 40% of the vote. He said that if the the vote was close he’d revisit the matter, perhaps.
Our first contact with the folks in Accomack included a quick feasibility assessment on running a campaign for something they didn’t actually want or ask for. Our advice to Carol Vincent, the director, and Barbara Coady, the Board chair, was to sue the Board of County Supervisors to get off the ballot. Instead of creating new turmoil in the county, they decided to run the campaign at $3.5 million and communicate to the voters, residents, and other stakeholders about the situation in the mean time. We embraced the challenge and provided pro-bono Information Only training to the staff and trustees at the library, advised the staff and board on how to best position the library’s challenging communications environment (i.e. a $6.2 million plan and a $3.5 million bond question), and provided ideas for outreach in the face of the situation. Carol and her the whole library staff team did an amazing and professional job through the run of the Info-Only Campaign.
We also were privileged to meet with and provide support to the Vote YES for a New Eastern Shore Library committee. This group of neighbors from across the Shore were dedicated to getting the word out about the library bond. They ran one of the best volunteer-only campaigns we’ve seen. From the start, they wanted to meet Mr. Crockett’s challenge and beat expectations at the polls. They identified the vote as a critical opportunity to not only talk about the specifics of the campaign but also to convene a conversation about the future of library services – which includes education, jobs skills, and personal enrichment – in the community. We helped them with their voter data (likely voters), helped plan out their social media calendar, messaged for door-to-door voter engagement, and overall campaign strategy. They took our $2,500 donation and used it to raise matching donations from across the Shore at special events like the Library FiYESta concert and several cocktail hours. Through social media, letters to the editor, radio interviews and paid spots, they talked tirelessly about the value of a new library. Over 500 local folks signed on to publicly endorse the campaign (p.12 too). It started to look like they’d not only get 40%+ but that they might win.
But some people didn’t like that. You can’t underestimate the importance of opposition from the local political operatives when running a library measure. Last week we discussed the late negative mailings from the California Association of Realtors and how that hurt Pomona, CA. What we saw on the Eastern Shore was Mr. Crockett, the county supervisor, respond to the growing public support for the library vote by personally take out radio ads questioning the library and the plan. Mr. Crockett is a former Sheriff and was polled to be one of the top most respected people in the County. Ironically, the plan he was questioning was the plan he forced to be on the ballot. He had ‘concerns’. When an elected official goes out against a library measure the formula looks like this: “The question is not, do you support the library. It is, can we afford this huge debt while facing serious space needs and other needs within the county,” he said. In over a dozen radio ads a day, he expressed ‘concerns’. And ‘concerns’ is elected officials-speak for Vote No or Don’t Vote.
What Mr. Crockett knew was that the library staff and board cannot engage the debate or call him out. EveryLibrary knew that the director and board had worked with Mr. Crockett and the other supervisors for years trying – in good faith – to work through a plan for the community’s library. And the Vote YES committee knew it too. They answered his negative ads with positive ones. They went on talk radio too to correct the record and talk about the community’s need for a library. They put more out more letters to the editor, targeted more social media ads, and put the word out in the streets via door-to-door. They kept it classy and honest and transparent. But it wasn’t enough. In the face of opposition by one of the leading politicians on the Shore and being tied to a ballot measure that wasn’t an authentic expression of community need, it may have been unwinable.
In another way, though, a referendum about the library did pass. The Vote YES committee’s work brought out the highest voter turnout for a midterm election in years. Expectations at the beginning of the campaign were for, perhaps, a 20% Yes vote. While they only got 47% of the Yes vote, that is 7% more than Mr. Crockett’s challenge. The Eastern Shore Public Library community has won the chance to fight for their library on another day. The Vote Yes committee has changed the conversation around the Shore about the library and its role in the future. They have activated new people for the library and in support of the staff. If the vote was against this fundamentally messed-up current proposal, the ESPL community has a way forward based on this vote.
Close readers of our work will know that we kept our involvement with the Vote YES committee confidential during the campaign. We didn’t want to become an outside distraction in an already contentious local discussion. The conversation needed to be about the library and the community’s identity and priorities, not about some political action committee coming in from outside. Our help was welcome by the library advocates and stakeholders. It was only possible because of our donors, supporters, and contributors. The funding we provided the committee, the tactical advice we gave to voter outreach, engagement, and answering the opposition, and the training and coaching for staff and trustees was 100% underwritten by our donors. If this work matters to you, donate today.