Librarians Run for Office

Frustrated and feeling a sense of urgency, library media specialists join the influx of educators seeking political office in the mid-term elections.

Election Day is less than three weeks away and, this year, ballots across the country were impacted by an influx of educators seeking political office.

“I’m really encouraged by that,” says Mary Kunesh-Podein, library media specialist at Robbinsdale Middle School, in Minneapolis, MN, and state representative in District 41B. “Te achers are becoming empowered. They’re the ones that are boots on the ground, and they’re the ones that take the real issues to the legislature.”

Kunesh-Podein (left) was ahead of the curve, winning her state representative seat in 2016. She is running for reelection this year, the veteran among a handful of librarians and library media specialists who took the initiative for the first time in 2018. She agrees that the walkouts and support around the country helped motivate teachers to campaign, but she also cites another motivating movement.These teacher-candidates from both parties entered races riding the momentum of the spring teacher walkouts and surrounding public support. Many also feel an urgency to have a voice not only on local and national education legislation, but also on the other issues that most impact their profession and students. While some lost in primaries, others have made it to the general election on November 6.

“I think the majority of teachers are women, and I think the #MeToo Movement has really energized and empowered women,” says Kunesh-Podein. “When they’re getting together, they are saying, 'we’ve got to do something.'”

Jolene Armstrong, librarian at Okmulgee (OK) Primary School, is on the ballot for a state House of Representatives seat in Oklahoma’s District 13. Melanie Spoon, library media specialist at James L. Capps Middle School in Warr Acres, OK, ran to represent District 81 in the state’s House of Representatives. Staci Bechard, librarian at the Montana School for the Deaf and Blind, was a Democratic candidate for Montana’s District 25. Spoon and Bechard lost their primaries after making late decisions to run.

“This is the first time I’ve had the guts to say, 'I’m going to run for office, I’m going to throw my hat in the ring,'” she says. “I’m going to do it because I believe in women.”For Spoon, becoming a candidate was an extension of her political activism over the years. It started when her mom took her on the teachers walkout when she was 14. A lifelong Republican who idolized First Lady Barbara Bush and was motivated to get her MLS and move from the classroom to the library by George W. Bush’s wife, Laura Bush, she has made calls and written letters to government officials and the Republican National Committee for years. But this year was different.

In Montana, Bechard decided she could no longer just yell at the TV and criticize politicians from afar.

“I had heard a number of people say, 'this is the time we need your voice, this is the time for regular citizens to stand up to make a stand for what we believe in,'” she says. “I live and breathe the issues of the Democratic platform. One of my daughters has a chronic healthcare issue. My other daughter is special needs. So I wanted to be a person who got up at the front lines and stood up for folks, especially with healthcare, disability, with education. Those are all very important to me.”

So important, in fact, that she was willing to make herself uncomfortable and learn on the fly.

“I wasn’t the most polished person out there,” she says. “It didn’t come naturally to me to knock on doors, but I felt so strongly about it that I pushed through. When I actually started talking to people face-to-face, it inspired me to know I was doing the right thing. Here are people who have issues that are so important, such as healthcare, the opioid epidemic. We needed that person to stand up for them.”

National decisions, local action

While many may have considered Bechard, a Democrat, a long shot in “red state” Montana, she says people are wrong to judge her homestate that way.

“There is a lot of independent thinking here and a lot of strong people, especially women,” she says. “I was so incredibly inspired and motivated to come out of my shell by the people I met, by the legislators I met who were already serving and the candidates who were running. A lot of them were really strong, exceptional women.”

Bechard and Spoon express a common belief that middle ground can be found in their states.

Bechard speaks with a potential voter.

“I’m very passionate about finding a way for us to come together, compromising the political platform just enough so we can get something done,” says Spoon.

After their primary losses, neither woman has decided if she will run again, but they didn't drop out of these midterm elections completely. Bechard is now knocking on doors for Democrat in a different district.

“Jackie and I met at a candidate forum, and we hit it off, because we just have the same goals,” says Spoon (left), who added that Oklahoma doesn’t have the bitter political party divide that other areas in the country do. Spoon is working for the candidate she thinks will best represent the district. In this election, that means the long-time Republican is now helping Democrat Jackie Phillips.

Still, some people—especially her fellow Republicans—have asked her about Phillips’ opinion on national issues. To those potential voters, Spoon stresses that this is a local election with a candidate who wants to “do what’s best for our district, our region in our state.”

That said, Spoon herself was motivated to run in part by a national decision and the fallout from it.

Spoon in her library at Capps Middle School.

“When they appointed Betsy DeVos as our education secretary, that was just a huge slap in the face,” she says. “This woman does not represent public schools. We don’t understand why she has that position being in charge of public education. And that’s me, a Republican.”

Kunesh-Podein singles out the union-limiting Supreme Court decision in Janus v. American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. It was another kick to those who feel as if they are constantly being asked to do more with less.

“As an educator for these last 20-something years, I’ve seen the cycle of underfunding education, unfunded mandates to school districts that drain whatever funds they have available,” she says. “I felt like I have an opportunity here to voice some of the concerns and work on these issues to ensure that we are providing the best educations we can for our students and, at the same time, creating a positive academic environment for teachers and administrators to thrive and continue to do their very best work.”

Who better than educators?

In her two years as a state representative, Kunesh-Podein realized that educators need to be there—if for no other reason than to properly inform the vital education legislation. Her first year, she was stunned by what she heard in education committee meetings. She couldn’t believe what the representatives thought were important issues in schools and their ideas for solutions.

“At first, I was not sure how I was to respond, but at one point I just said, 'I can’t sit here quietly. I cannot sit idly by and let people think this is the reality when indeed it was not at all,'” she says. “So I started speaking up more and more and going to talk to some of the legislators who were proposing things that weren’t worth our time or efforts in the legislature. Often times I would find out that some lobbyist brought it to them.”

Like Bechard, with her very personal connection to healthcare, Kunesh-Podein and Spoon have personal experiences they brought with them as candidates. Both have been single moms, taking multiple jobs and at times worrying about making ends meet. They know the struggles families face. Kunesh-Podein needed public assistance when her new teaching job couldn’t cover the bills and the cost of raising children. She wants to be there—in the state house and her school library—for those families struggling like she once was.

Perhaps most importantly, these women and all of the educators in races across the country this year have spent years creating relationships with students and families, learning their struggles, seeing the importance of a good education first hand and know the impact societal issues such as poverty, trauma, hunger, and a lack of resources can have on a child and community.

“Who knows families and kids better than teachers?” says Kunesh-Podein. It’s about finding solutions to more than poor test scores, she says. “Mental health issues, financial struggles, homelessness, parents working more than one job and not being able to give the students the attention sometimes that they need. How can we meet those needs without taking over but at the same time being really supportive of the family and the student?”

Says Bechard, “Teachers and librarians are well-versed in a number of issues that affect all of us. They see it daily in classrooms. Teachers see the big picture, and that’s why they make good candidates.”

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