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Thrift Store Debate Defies Political Labels
Jul 11, 2012
Since I got back to Madison for the summer, I've been blog-embroiled in my hometown's latest controversy: a proposal by a handful of local boosters to build a million-dollar, 18,000-square foot community thrift store.
There are lots of facets to this story, but one that hasn't come up is political ideology. I know the thrift store steering committee includes at least one Republican and one Democrat. One shop owner who strongly opposes the thrift store put my blog URL on a bright yellow poster in her Main Street window. I have yet to ask her whom she's voting for in November or whether she considers herself a political Lefty like me. Another business owner opposing the project has frequently declared himself a firm believer in free enterprise, but his econo-fundamentalism didn't stop him from giving me two hours of his time to talk about his concerns about the thrift store.
Trying to view this local issue through ideological lenses gets confusing. The thrift store proposal arises from leftish concerns that government funding for local poverty assistance programs may dry up. The thrift store organizers say they would donate the store's profits to help the poor. Asking for taxpayer dollars ($150K from Madison, $150K from Lake County) to subsidize the store seems like it could only come from us lefties. However, privatizing assistance to the poor—moving authority over tax dollars from public agencies to a private non-profit—sets off alarm bells similar to those that ring in my head when I hear conservatives talk about replacing public schools with private options.
The thrift store proposal could win conservative points by emphasizing the free market as a tool for generating assistance for the poor. Yet as an economic development tool (and the organizers make that an auxiliary selling point), the thrift store plan seems to reject a free market solution: it knocks down two functional commercial buildings and a third vacant building on which no daring entrepreneur wants to roll her capitalist dice.
The usefulness of political labels breaks down somewhere between Washington, D.C., and Madison, S.D. I can point to Lake County neighbors who argue bitterly with my defenses of Barack Obama the usurping socialist (no, he's not!) but who agree with me completely on the boondogglery of the community thrift store. I also know one good Dem whose socialist impulses lead him to support this project.
That's one reason I like local politics: we have to drop the ideological labels and prefab talking points and get down to the practical questions of how to spend our tax dollars.
Cory Allen Heidelberger writes the Madville Times political blog. He grew up on the shores of Lake Herman. He studied math and history at SDSU and information systems at DSU, and is currently teaching French at Spearfish High School.