Ohio lawmakers promote civility at roundtable discussion

January 16, 2014

By Doug Livingston 

Beacon Journal staff write

State Senator Frank LaRose (left) addresses a question as he sits beside Ted Celeste, the founder and director of Next Generation before the Akron Roundtable at the Quaker Station Thursday, in Akron. LaRose and Celeste have worked together to promote civil discourse and improve government decision making. (Karen Schiely/Akron Beacon Journal)

State Sen. Frank LaRose, R-Copley Twp., and former state Rep. Ted Celeste, D-Lakewood, engaged in civil discourse during an Akron Roundtable discussion at the Quaker Station on Thursday.


The men presented a shared vision in which people understand one another before forming opinions. The talk is part of a continuing effort to foster civility in a political process distorted by extreme political ideologies.


Celeste is the founder and director of Next Generation, a project of the National Institute for Civil Discourse in partnership with the Council of State Governments.


LaRose is a first-term senator serving Wayne County and portions of Stark and Summit counties. He’s known for reaching across the aisle and endorsing Democrat-sponsored bills.


Together, they have attended and hosted workshops in Ohio and elsewhere.


Before answering questions from the audience, each spoke of the need for civility by sharing common experiences and concerns in their political careers.


LaRose sees the benefit of reaching across the aisle to get things done, especially when national and state politics have become so polarized.


The polarization became apparent as the first-time senator took office in 2010.


“I naturally ended up partnering with people on both sides of the aisle and working to try to get things done. But I noticed that all of the mechanisms of state government were sort of built in such a way that they tend to draw people to one side or another,” LaRose said. “And it doesn’t foster a good working relationship. And it ultimately means that we don’t do our best work for the people we represent.”


Passion in politics is a virtue, LaRose conceded. But passion can hamper the political process when it turns into personal animosity.


When Celeste ran for office in 2006, he vowed to run a clean campaign. He sent letters urging outside groups to not take cheap shots at his opponent.


Celeste said he defeated an incumbent Republican and served until the redrawing of his district made it too difficult to win again.


“I believe that one of the greatest causes of dysfunction is the way we draw district lines,” LaRose said.


Legislation drafted to address the gerrymandered districts of Ohio passed with all but one vote in the Senate, but died on the shelf as the last legislative session ended.


LaRose said he and State Sen. Tom Sawyer, D-Akron, plan to reintroduce the bill.


LaRose said Ohio’s redistricting process creates “safe” districts where unwavering ideologues can stray from the center when campaigning or avoid compromise when governing.


Recipe for civility

The men offered suggestions on what can be done to bring competing interests together.


First, get to know the opponent on the campaign trail and reach across the aisle when in office.


LaRose suggested a district exchange, during which legislators of differing opinions would spend a day together to understand each other personally.


Newly elected lawmakers could take an orientation to learn how the legislature works and encourage members to work together during the bill-making process.


Celeste and LaRose also expressed the “negative” effect that term limits have on civility.


The men said that by the time a lawmaker gets to know his or her colleagues, another campaign season is in full swing.


Civility isn’t only under attack in politics, the men said. Each cautioned the public about where they get their news and the pitfall of anonymous comments. A “fractured” media can reinforce esoteric beliefs but does little to help voters understand all sides of an issue.


Ultimately, voters should pay attention to the issues and not cast their ballots for the candidate with the most yard signs, LaRose said.


Modeling civility at the dinner table and in everyday conversation is also important in fostering pragmatism. The men agreed with a question from the audience that suggested civility courses in education could benefit the next generation.


Civility should not be seen as weakness. That has been a hurdle as Celeste and LaRose have attempted to foster relationships among opposing parties.


“Here’s an Ohio Republican that is caving,” LaRose said conservatives might say when they see him working with the other guys.


“It’s not sissy to be civil. I will stand strongly on what I believe. But we have to work together to get things done,” LaRose said.


Doug Livingston can be reached at 330-996-3792 or dlivingston@thebeaconjournal.com.