State legislators begin effort to reduce incivility in politics

September 17, 2013

By Dave Scott

Beacon Journal staff writer

COLUMBUS: Facing dismissive, even hostile, comments from colleagues, 11 Ohio legislators met in a closed-door Statehouse session Tuesday morning.

Their topic: incivility and what can be done about it.

“I think there’s a real problem in how conversations take place,” state Rep. Kathleen Clyde, D-Kent, said after leaving the meeting. “The lack of civility can be an intimidating environment to come into.”

Sen. Frank LaRose, R-Copley Township, who is working with the National Institute for Civil Discourse, called the meeting.

He described the meeting as the first of “an ongoing conversation among colleagues dedicated to improving the civil discourse in our legislature so that we can better serve the citizens of Ohio.”

LaRose said the group agreed to hold three or four meetings a year and take the following steps:

•   Form district exchanges with legislators from different parties meeting with the public in each other’s district. Lawmakers from urban districts would meet in rural districts and vice versa. LaRose said the goal is to gain greater familiarity with opposing candidates.

•   New-member orientation after the next election would include information on civility and perhaps workshops.

•   Encourage social interaction that includes members of both parties. A lack of familiarity means legislators don’t understand each other as well and are less likely to compromise, LaRose said.

LaRose previously discussed civility at a Council of State Governments regional meeting in Madison, Wis., in August and at a meeting of legislators sponsored by the Ohio Chamber of Commerce at Salt Fork State Park on Sept. 6.

He and former state Rep. Ted Celeste also will make a presentation at the Council of State Governments’ national meeting in Kansas City, Mo.

Bipartisan effort

Of the 11 who participated Tuesday, six are Republicans and five are Democrats.

LaRose said he sent two emails and a paper notice of the meeting to all legislators. He was not disappointed in the turnout, he said, because the General Assembly is not in session, a change from when he first scheduled the meeting.

Those who did come said they heard skepticism about civility efforts from other lawmakers.

LaRose said a couple of lawmakers told him they heard from some of their colleagues “at least dismissive — if not outright hostile — attitudes toward it.”

“But I didn’t hear who was saying that, nor would I really even want to know,” he said. “But I think some folks think that, ‘Well, this is just an esoteric idea, creating civility. However are you going to do that?’ ”

Principles maintained

LaRose said he will continue to argue that the project is constructive without compromising principles.

He said some people make the mistake of thinking that “civility” means lessening an aggressive defense of what a politician believes.

“You can still be an ardent supporter of a particular policy stance without being mean-spirited, or personal or negative or unfair in how you characterize each others’ views,” LaRose said.

Clyde said Ohioans are paying a price for political incivility.

She said that because of stridence between lawmakers, “a lot of legislation passes that is too extreme, that we are not together on.”

She also suggested that some witnesses before legislative committees appear to be less than open in their testimony for fear of attack and that some talented candidates might be choosing not to run because they don’t want to subject themselves and their families to incivility.

LaRose tried to put the issue into historical perspective, citing an example of a U.S. congressman who was caned on the House floor and the troubles during the Civil War.

But he added, “Things are bad and there is room for improvement.”

Safe districts

Asked about causes, LaRose cited legislative boundaries as a problem because they create candidates in “safe” districts that are dominated by a single party. He also he said term limits put legislators out of office just when they have gained experience for how to get along with political opponents.

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 public in general.

Dave Scott can be reached at 330-996-3577 or Follow Scott on Twitter at Davescottofakro.