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Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Democrats doing the right thing
by David Atkins ("thereisnospoon")

There is a growing faction of progressives who have indicated that they will not support Barack Obama's re-election, and refuse to vote for him come election day 2012.

If for no other reason than control of the Supreme Court, I believe that stance is seriously misguided. And I suspect that many who hold that position today may soften as the reality of the danger the Republican nominee poses comes into clearer focus in the fall of next year.

But even those who cannot bring themselves to vote for President are making a mistake to throw the entire Democratic Party overboard. Case in point: my own amazing local Assemblymember Das Williams in California's 35th (actually, now the 37th due to redistricting) Assembly District representing parts of Ventura and Santa Barbara Counties. Das went through a bruising primary battle and a swath of conservative special interest money to win election in 2010, and has been a tour de force in Sacramento ever since. One of his biggest accomplishments to date has been an anti-privatization of libraries bill, which is rapidly gaining steam despite strident opposition from various interest groups:

Dozens of librarians from across the state went to the Capitol on Monday to support a bill that would make it more difficult for local governments to contract with private firms to run libraries.

They rallied as only librarians might, concluding the event with the reading of a homemade, hand-illustrated children's storybook titled "The Privatization Beast Comes to Our Town" and the appearance of a person dressed in a bright yellow costume playing the role of the fictional beast.

"We have an undeserved reputation for saying, 'Shhhh!' all the time," said Gina Quesenberry, a librarian at the El Monte Library in Los Angeles County. "People don't know that we're fine with a little noise and hubbub."

The noise they were making was in support of Assembly Bill 438 by Assemblyman Das Williams, D-Santa Barbara, whose district includes Ventura and much of Oxnard.

The measure, awaiting a vote in the Senate, would place strict conditions on cities contemplating contracting out for library services, including requirements for multiple advance notices of a public hearing, the completion of a study enumerating anticipated savings, open bidding and an assurance that no existing library employees would lose their pay and benefits.

The bill is strongly opposed by local government officials, who say the proposed restrictions are so severe that the bill would effectively eliminate the option of contracting out.

Click here to see an awesome photo of Das fighting the "privatization beast". This is the sort of thing, replete with effective political theater, that great local Democrats are doing all across this country to far too little fanfare.

The context for this effort is the a nationwide push to privatize libraries nationwide, particularly by one major private library firm called LSSI:

SANTA CLARITA, Calif. — A private company in Maryland has taken over public libraries in ailing cities in California, Oregon, Tennessee and Texas, growing into the country’s fifth-largest library system.

Now the company, Library Systems & Services, has been hired for the first time to run a system in a relatively healthy city, setting off an intense and often acrimonious debate about the role of outsourcing in a ravaged economy.

A $4 million deal to run the three libraries here is a chance for the company to demonstrate that a dose of private management can be good for communities, whatever their financial situation. But in an era when outsourcing is most often an act of budget desperation — with janitors, police forces and even entire city halls farmed out in one town or another — the contract in Santa Clarita has touched a deep nerve and begun a round of second-guessing.

Can a municipal service like a library hold so central a place that it should be entrusted to a profit-driven contractor only as a last resort — and maybe not even then?

“There’s this American flag, apple pie thing about libraries,” said Frank A. Pezzanite, the outsourcing company’s chief executive. He has pledged to save $1 million a year in Santa Clarita, mainly by cutting overhead and replacing unionized employees. “Somehow they have been put in the category of a sacred organization.”

Yes, somehow the public tends to think that public libraries should remain...well, public. Amazing.

Why privatize libraries? Because local city councils strapped for cash have to make ends meet somehow, and it's easier to hand over the libraries to LSSI to fire all the workers and rehire them at substandard wages, than it is to make the deeply unpopular and difficult move to screw over librarians at the collective bargaining table. Privatizing libraries is incredibly unpopular, and city councils would like to be able to do it with as little fanfare as possible.

Cities across California, especially those managed by conservative city councils, have been quietly privatizing their libraries through LSSI at a rapid clip. My own city of Ventura is considering doing just that. As a member of the city of Ventura's Library Steering Committee, I'm part of a group that will make a recommendation to the city on what to do with its library. Das Williams' bill may or may not pass, and it may or may not pass in time for to affect the decision of Ventura's city council. But if passed, it will help ensure that the views of citizens and rights of library workers will be better protected from the national wave of austerity.

And speaking of the city council, partisan control of the council hangs on a razor's edge; depending on the outcome of elections this November, it could well swing into conservative hands, making privatization of the libraries that much likelier.

The local county party of which I'm vice-chair and field operations chair will be doing what we can to ensure that that doesn't happen. We have also put pressure on Sacramento to support Das Williams' bill, just as we worked hard and spent good money to ensure that great Democrats like Mr. Williams got elected in the first place. It's hard work, and takes countless hours of volunteer time and money to make these sorts of positive outcomes happen.

Those who advocate throwing the entire Democratic Party under the bus out of frustration with what's happening in Washington, D.C. might want to look closer to home, and to nearby battles worth winning on a more local level. Chances are, your local and state Democratic Party is fighting to make the right thing happen, as is your local Democratic legislator. A lot of good people are working hard to make a real difference. Not all of them are as fantastic and progressive as Mr. Williams, but many of them are. And if they aren't, then find someone who is and help get them elected instead. And then try to make sure those progressives are promoted to higher and higher levels of elected office.

That (in addition to building a progressive think tank and messaging infrastructure to support our candidates) is part of how we'll take this country back from the neoliberal and conservative establishment. One city, one county, and one state at a time.