Many years ago I did a story talking to marriage counselors about strategies for keeping a relationship together.
The story was actually prompted by ongoing disputes between Flathead County and the city of Kalispell in Montana. The two had a long history of joint land-use planning in the area just outside the city limits, but their commitment was beginning to fray in the face of rapid growth. They were having huge disagreements over the proper direction to go, and I wanted to see if marriage counselors could offer some advice on how to hold a political union together.
I don’t remember much of what they said, but I recall quite clearly one counselor telling me, “Yeah, just before you get married, you’re as happy as you’ll ever be. You love someone, they love you. You’re both on your best behavior.”
That’s a pretty accurate description of the first week of a legislative session: the honeymoon stage, when everyone’s happy to see each other again. Past insults are temporarily forgiven, nobody’s bill has been spiked yet. All is good.
Some honeymoons are shorter than others, though. I’m predicting the over-under on this one will be about 10 days.
Partly, that’s because the rumors of infidelity started almost as soon as Gov. Butch Otter finished his State of the State address. Once he recommended a $116.6 million increase in public school funding — the largest increase since 2007 — giddy Democrats began wandering the hallways looking for someone to hug. Some said the governor deserved an honorary “Democrat of the Month” award.
The idea is that if you understand what motivates someone and understand that they truly have the state’s best interests at heart, you’ll be less likely to engage in negative discourse or character assassination.
Getting a big ol’ smooch from the opposition party probably wasn’t the best way to start this year’s relationship with his fellow Republicans. Failing to slip a tax cut into his budget proposal was an even bigger faux pas.
Nobody’s calling the divorce lawyers just yet, though. In fact, lawmakers took an unprecedented step Tuesday to strengthen their internal relationships, both between Republicans and Democrats and between the House and Senate.
At the urging of legislative leaders, they spent five hours in a civil discourse workshop put on by the University of Arizona’s National Institute for Civil Discourse.
The institute was created following the 2011 mass shooting in Tucson, Ariz., in which six people were killed and another 13 injured, including U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords.
Director Ted Celeste said the workshop wasn’t intended to change lawmakers or get them to compromise their core beliefs. Nor was it prompted by any specific concerns about civility in the Idaho Legislature.
Rather, the goal was to have lawmakers talk about their personal “political journey” — why they ran for office and what experiences or events shaped their core beliefs. The idea, he explained, is that if you understand what motivates someone and understand that they truly have the state’s best interests at heart, you’ll be less likely to engage in negative discourse or character assassination.
We’re trying to raise the tide on our collective comportment.
House Speaker Scott Bedke
“The hope is to tone down the craziness,” Celeste said, so people can move beyond the incivility of partisan politics and start working together to solve problems.
Executive Director Carolyn Lukensmeyer noted that the institute “has had profound difficulty getting a decent foothold in Congress.”
It’s had more success working with state legislatures, she said, but this was the first time legislative leaders invited the institute to give a workshop to the entire body.
Civility does not, of course, mean the Legislature will set aside its fiscal responsibilities and simply approve the governor’s budget. Nor does it mean the Republicans’ intra-party fight or the inter-party fight between R’s and D’s will suddenly be resolved.
It is possible, though, that with a little civility the focus of these disagreements will be on the issues, rather than the personalities involved.
“We all behave pretty good in church, but true religion goes beyond church,” said Senate President Pro Tem Brent Hill, who together with House Speaker Scott Bedke invited the institute to Idaho. “It’s how you treat someone in a town hall meeting or how you act when meeting with constituents. This has to do with an attitude and state of mind, not just with specific actions in the Legislature.”
“We’re trying to raise the tide on our collective comportment,” Bedke added.
Religion and politics are usually the two subjects people are encouraged not to talk about in polite society, he said, and “the reason for that is because our beliefs in both those areas are heartfelt.”
Legislators have to discuss at least one of those topics, he noted, but they can do so in a way that still respects the views and beliefs of people on the other side.
“When handling core beliefs in a political setting, we have to be careful or the dialogue can degenerate in a hurry,” Bedke said. “We can’t stereotype one another.”
Spence covers politics for the Lewiston Tribune: firstname.lastname@example.org, (208) 791-9168.