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No real winners in library election

A patron checks out books at the Smithtown

A patron checks out books at the Smithtown library. Politicization has come to the library's board of trustees. Credit: John Roca

It’s no news that the battle of progressives against "Patriots" has hit Smithtown, with the right-wingers outnumbering the lefties. The town’s school districts have hosted confrontations so fiery that the town is frequently mentioned in national news coverage of the current culture wars.

But it is news, and new, that politicization has come to the Smithtown Library board of trustees. Frustrating, terrifying and even laughable news, thanks to what seems to be a comedy of misunderstandings having little to do with libraries.

In May’s Smithtown school board election, three newcomers opposing what they call district efforts to overemphasize racial equity and teach "critical race theory" defeated three incumbents. The first-timers notched the wins behind a Donald Trump-supporting and hyper-conservative Facebook group that increasingly swings local races, Long Island Loud Majority.

Beating incumbents in school board elections is usually difficult, but the challengers — Stacy Ann Murphy, John Savoretti and Karen Wontrobski-Ricciardi — won handily.

But the big shift in 2021 was not unexpected to anyone paying attention.

The library election narrative, though, is mind-blowing:

  • Two incumbents, board president Annette Galarza and member Theresa M. Stabile, were seeking reelection. In a third seat, a one-year term was to be filled as a member stepped down.
  • Two local women decided to run. One, Kristin Robinson, is well-known for speaking out at school board meetings and writing on Facebook (under the name "Kris Michel") that racism is systemic, omnipresent and evil. The other, Nicole Cullari, is not a public activist, and stresses that she is a stay-at-home mother and daughter of a librarian who is married to a federal law-enforcement professional.
  • Another person, whom neither Robinson nor Cullari (nor anyone, really) says they’ve met in person, posting on Facebook as "Kathy Fran," asked people to vote for Robinson and Cullari because "the library in itself is an inherently racist institution and now more than ever we need PROGRESSive progress in our education materials. We need to teach our children to accept their privilege and our books will be the best resources to guide them through this new page of accountability." Kathy Fran no longer has a Facebook profile, and did not respond to Messenger requests.
  • Cullari and Robinson say they don’t think the library is a racist institution at all, and knew nothing about Fran. And between the post being so wildly inflammatory, and the poster being unknown to local progressives, there is suspicion that it actually came from a right-winger looking to motivate conservatives.

The post caught fire on social media. Three local moms who were upset by it and had the backing of Long Island Loud Majority (and a raft of local Republicans) — Marie Gergenti, Theresa Grisafi and Marilyn Lo Presti — got in the race. The online back-and-forth became toxic and vicious.

And the Long Island Loud Majority-backed candidates whipped the incumbents, Robinson and Cullari, last week with a total turnout at least three times higher than usual.

I spoke to Robinson, Cullari and Gergenti. I have no reason to believe that the women who lost would have impacted the library negatively, nor that the winners will.

But the way this library board election was contested undermines the idea of free libraries as centers of community, intellectual exchange, polite disagreement and important discussion. It also lays waste to the idea that we ought to treat our neighbors with courtesy and respect.

And between the two disgraces, it’s impossible to pick which is worse.

Columnist Lane Filler's opinions are his own.

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