Partisan clashes in states prompt push for civility

Partisan clashes in states prompt push for civility
© Greg Nash

When Jason Frierson (D) became Speaker of the Nevada Assembly, he wanted to signal to minority Republicans that he was open to compromise and conversation, that he represented a clean break from the partisan feuds that had riven the institution in recent years. So he bought an olive tree for his office in Carson City.

In Maine, House Speaker Sara Gideon (D) wanted to encourage cross-party cooperation, so she ended the practice of having an aisle dividing Democratic and Republican members. Members of the two parties now sit intermingled.

Idaho’s state legislature nearly imploded last year over disputes about office space and regulatory reform sharply divided members of the state House and state Senate. Over the summer, state Senate President Brent Hill (R) and House Speaker Scott Bedke (R) urged their members to get to know their seatmates from the other chamber to reduce tempers.

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Across the country, state legislators who win low-profile elections to low-paying jobs in state capitals say their jobs are becoming more difficult, as the partisanship that has ground Washington to a halt begins to filter down to the state level. 

Where they were once free to work with any fellow legislator on an issue of common interest, more now feel the pressure to stick to their partisan labels, and more feel personally attacked by members of the other party in a way that was unthinkable just a few years ago.

“Your party identity is more of a defining feature than I’ve found it even just three or four years ago. That does result in a little less ability within the capitol to work together on big bills,” said Colorado state Sen. Kerry Donovan (D), who represents a swing district of mountain communities. “The long-term lesson of American democracy is that having different political parties is important because there are other perspectives in the room, but ultimately they have to work together.”

The pressure, and the partisanship, has increased in recent years as the stakes have grown. With Washington plagued by stalemate, lobbying firms and political operatives are turning their attention to state legislatures, where they can pass meaningful legislation or tip the partisan balance with an investment far smaller than one needed to move the needle at the federal level.

“I find myself constantly saying that the previous year was the worst I have seen. I would love to be able to move away from that statement,” said Kathleen Dillingham (R), the minority leader in the Maine state House.

And the importance of state legislative seats has been underscored by a decade of litigation and political fights over district lines, as both sides conclude that the fight to win control of Congress begins with a battle to control the mapmaking process in the decennial redistricting.

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“I have seen the shift, and I have seen the nature of the conversation become much more hyperpartisan,” said Frierson, the Nevada Democrat. “It’s frustrating, and it’s a little unsettling moving forward, that we’re becoming more polarized.”

Legislative leaders who have been in office for years bemoan the shift toward an increasingly partisan culture. Some are committing themselves to doing something about it. About 16 states have invited the National Institute for Civil Discourse, a nonpartisan group that hosts a half-day workshop on building trust, to give presentations at the beginning of their yearly sessions.

The group has held five workshops in Maine, and two each in Ohio, Washington, Minnesota, Oregon and Delaware, said Ted Celeste, the institute’s director of state programs and a former state legislator in Ohio.

Many legislative leaders say they know they set examples that the rest of their caucuses follow, even in states where one party holds a supermajority large enough to effectively shut out the minority party.

In California, where Democrats hold an overwhelming advantage, state Senate Majority Leader Bob Hertzberg (D) says he makes a point to sit down with his Republican counterpart every session to find areas where they can agree, or at least compromise, on the margins.

“What are you supposed to do, tell people they aren’t relevant?” Hertzberg asked. “I don’t believe in that.”

The disputes are not always clean breaks between Democrats and Republicans. In many cases, the most acrimonious battles can come between members of the same party.

In Texas in 2017, a bitter feud between Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick (R), who runs the state Senate, and former House Speaker Joe Straus (R) caused a nasty divide that threatened Gov. Greg Abbott’s (R) agenda — until Abbott stepped in to mediate. 

In North Carolina, then-House Speaker Thom TillisThomas (Thom) Roland TillisSenators hail 'historic changes' as competing proposals to tackle military sexual assault advance Bipartisan group says it's still on track after setback on Senate floor Overnight Defense: Military justice overhaul included in defense bill | Pentagon watchdog to review security of 'nuclear football' | Pentagon carries out first air strike in Somalia under Biden MORE (R) had to play shuttle diplomat between then-Gov. Pat McCrory (R) and state Senate President Phil Berger (R), before Tillis won election to the U.S. Senate and McCrory lost his bid for a second term.

New Jersey Democrats celebrated when Gov. Phil Murphy (D) won election to succeed outgoing Gov. Chris Christie (R) — but Murphy’s tenure has been marked by almost constant squabbles with Stephen Sweeney (D), the powerful president of the state Senate.

So it was in Idaho last year that Hill’s Senate and Bedke’s House found themselves arguing over how to handle new government regulations. At times, the disagreement over policy and process became disturbingly personal, Hill said.

“We had kind of a rough session last session,” he said. But Hill and Bedke met over the summer to negotiate and smooth out the raw feelings.

“It started with the Speaker and me. We just got together and said this is not what we want, we don’t want these kinds of feelings,” Hill said. “We don’t joke in any kind of malicious way about the other house. We try to show that respect for the body itself. Even things that are said in jest are hurtful.”

In some cases, efforts to build bipartisan bridges meet resistance even within state legislatures. When Gideon proposed allowing Republicans and Democrats to intermingle, one of her fellow Democrats angrily told her he would not have sought reelection had he known of her plan.

“People would say things like. ‘well when I come into the chamber I just want to feel comfortable there.’ People would say, ‘I want to be able to trust the person next to me,’ ” Gideon said. “When you’re standing up giving a floor speech next to a counterpart from another party, you shouldn’t feel that you’re shielded. You should feel accountable to the other person.”

Dillingham, Gideon’s Republican counterpart, said she did not see much of a difference after the new seating arrangement. But she said she remains hopeful that she can set a good example for her fellow Republicans.

“Your seat doesn’t prescribe how civil you’re going to be, it’s your actions. And I haven’t seen that it’s produced that much of a change when it comes to folks’ words and actions. I’ll keep my fingers crossed,” she said. “It’s no different than I’ve told my own children. … We have to be the ones to do that, we have to set the better example.”

At times, even the symbolic gestures can seem like they turn into bad omens of future partisanship. In Frierson’s office, his olive tree died.

“I’ll figure something else out for the next session that won’t make anybody have an allergic reaction,” he joked.