When former state representative Ted Celeste campaigned for his Lakewood seat in 2006, he said he chose to run with civility.
“All the political pros said that the only way to beat an opponent is to beat them up. Do nasty things, go negative,” he said. “I said the only way I’ll do it is if I can run a positive campaign.”
“We did that and won.”
After taking that lesson to the Statehouse, Celeste embarked along with Ohio Sen. Frank LaRose (R – Copley Twp.) to take the message throughout the state and nation through their work in the General Assembly and Next Generation, an offshoot of the National Institute for Civil Discourse (NICD).
On Jan. 16, both lawmakers addressed their plan to bring politesse back to American politics at the monthly Akron Roundtable at Quaker Station.
After failing in his 2012 U.S. House bid, Celeste founded Next Generation as a state-level project of NICD, which focuses on promoting civility within mass media and the legislative and executive branches of national government. Former presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton chair the nonpartisan center that formed in response to the shooting of former U.S. representative Gabrielle Giffords in 2011.
Celeste said he felt the need to launch Next Generation, which offers workshops to state lawmakers across the country, because over half of the United States Congress – hovering at all-time low approval ratings – consists of former state legislators.
“We are the feeder system,” Celeste said.
Next Generation offered an introductory workshop for state legislators that it has presented in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Nebraska and Washington, according to Celeste. Celeste also presented the workshop to the Council of State Governments’ Midwest and West conferences. He said he hopes to hold the workshop in a dozen other states by this year’s end.
“I’m excited for the fact it’s going so well nationally,” he said.
The project faces difficulty in the partisan culture that dominates state politics, and lawmakers received reprimands from their caucases for attending the civility sessions, said Celeste.
“Their leadership didn’t like the fact that they were working with a person across the aisle,” he said.
LaRose involved himself with Celeste’s mission after attending an NICD session soon after his election.
“When I first ran in 2010 I think I knew that policy tends to evoke strong emotions from people, but I didn’t really grasp it until I was out campaigning myself, then through service in Columbus,” he said.
“When it goes too far is when people take that passion they have and they manifest it in personal animosity against people that have a different opinion.”
LaRose, a first-term senator with a military background, has in only three years earned a reputation for reaching across the aisle. He and State Sen. Tom Sawyer (D – Akron) drew headlines for drafting legislation to fix Ohio’s much-maligned gerrymandering that passed the Senate but expired in the House the last legislative session.
LaRose told the assembled Akron-area professionals that he believes the nature of democracy tends to “actively discourage” mutual cooperation and courtesy, easily seen from the vitriol of recent Akron politics to the perpetually locked pitchforks in Congress. One of the underlying causes, according to the young lawmaker, is the lack of opportunities to personally interact with opposing politicians.
“Legislatures seem to have become in recent years a little more transactional than they used to be,” LaRose said.
“There are not the opportunities to build relationships and get to know one another, to learn about each other’s spouses and families, where you come from, what drives you and makes you excited.”
Celeste added that regulations that prohibit spending public funds on social gatherings have recently stifled social interaction between lawmakers.
Though LaRose acknowledged that mainstream media and cultural norms tend to exacerbate the problem, he focused on practical solutions to implement in the Ohio Statehouse.
For many, he said, the mindset remains “come to Columbus, make laws and go home.”
LaRose suggested launching a program in which legislators trade districts for a day to gain additional perspective. He also pushed for more training on civility at the mandatory new member orientation.
Redistricting reform, a topic for which he and Sawyer drew headlines last year, also presents a problem, he said. LaRose hopes their bipartisan plan will pass both houses this term.
“If we don’t get something done in the next few years, the window closes,” he said. “The closer we get to 2020, which is the next census and the next time we draw redistricting lines, the less likely we are going to be able to have bipartisan agreement on this.”
Both Celeste and LaRose also agreed that term limits hinder their mission for civility; by their estimation, more time to get to know colleagues translates to more amicable relationships.
“Civility isn’t caving in,” said LaRose. “It’s not sissy to be civil.”
Celeste and LaRose ended their presentation by answering a question from the audience: What can the average citizen do to promote civility in government?
Celeste and LaRose agreed that voters should support those that promote civility in that statehouse, but LaRose said they could do more.
“Don’t just vote for the person with the most yard signs out,” he said. “Pay attention to who you’re selecting.
“It’s also modeling that sort of behavior with your family and at work. It’s to change how we communicate with each other.”