Ohio politicians to address their own divisiveness with help of national civility group

August 18, 2013

By Dave Scott

Beacon Journal Publishing Co.

A year ago in the heat of a divisive election cycle, many politicians avoided talking about civility and attempts at bipartisan legislation. This year, a group of Ohio lawmakers is getting together to understand each other on a personal level.

There is even talk of a political action committee to funnel financial support to those who participate in civility workshops.

Ohio Sen. Frank LaRose, R-Copley Twp., with help from former Ohio Rep. Ted Celeste, D-Lakewood, is arranging a bipartisan meeting of as many as 30 legislators in the Statehouse on Sept. 17 that will be an off-the-record attempt to learn more about each other, how they form their political views and how they can achieve greater cooperation.

“People don’t just blindly arrive at some sort of ideology,” LaRose said. “This is a lifelong journey they’ve been on. This just sheds some light on who they are. …I think it makes you less dismissive of somebody whose views are contrary to yours because you realize where those come from.”

LaRose said it is not likely reporters will be welcome, but the attempts to address civility might eventually include the media and their involvement.

“I don’t want the meeting itself to be a press conference,” he said. “I want it to be a genuine exchange of ideas.”

LaRose participated in a workshop about civility at the Council of State Governments regional meeting in Madison, Wis., a week ago. Celeste, who is working with the National Institute for Civil Discourse, also participated in that workshop. The pair also will talk about civility at a meeting sponsored by the Ohio Chamber of Commerce on Sept. 6 and at the national meeting of the Council of State Governments in Kansas City later in September.

Celeste is creating “modules” for workshops called “Building Trust Through Civil Discourse” and is associated with the Bohay Institute for Legislative Leadership.

The Institute for Civil Discourse is chaired by George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, and was founded following the shooting of Gabrielle Giffords. It’s run by Carolyn Lukensmeyer, a national civic engagement leader who built America Speaks into an influential organization. In the 1980s, she was chief of staff for Ohio Gov. Dick Celeste, Ted Celeste’s brother.

The Beacon Journal is a participant along with three universities and the faith community in the ongoing Ohio Civility Project. Newspaper stories and a survey of area residents found a profound disgust with incivility on the part of politicians, the media and the public in general.

During the 2012 election, the Beacon Journal approached several federal and state politicians to ask simple questions about civility. Only two responded, one who was running unopposed and one who was retiring and not running.

Ted Celeste says incivility is still dividing Ohio’s political atmosphere. He said part of the problem comes when the General Assembly is controlled by a single party and the minority party is shut out of the legislative process.

“It creates a hostile attitude,” he said. “So when the one side that’s been in the minority for a long time gets to be in the majority side, instead of saying ‘Gee, I’m going to work with these people,’ they say ‘We’re going to stick it to them.’ ”

LaRose sees support for changing political culture, and it might start with social events like the Sept. 17 meeting.

“Good ideas tend to catch fire like a brush fire and hopefully you start seeing it in other states as well,” he said. “Having talked to legislators in other states, there are folks who want to do it. It just takes some effort.”

Celeste travels the country promoting civility and sees similar support, leading him to consider generating the financial support that is the lifeblood of political movements.

“I think the time is right,” he said. “My ultimate view is this: There has to be positive reinforcement for this, and in the name of the political game, it’s all about money…. I’m looking for a PAC, a nonpartisan PAC, that is supportive of people who go through this process.”