Is the chasm between political parties so wide that there’s no chance they can work together? Maybe not. We both served in the North Carolina General Assembly during the 1990s. Chuck, a conservative Republican, was in the majority party in the House, and Leslie, a progressive Democrat, was in the majority party in the Senate.
While serving, we each learned the importance of listening to people with different life experiences than our own. For example, although we had different views of the tension between protecting the environment and promoting agriculture, when we listened to others, we learned that there was validity in both of our positions. We found that legislative committees that took the time to learn the facts and hear many views could frequently develop legislation that was broadly acceptable.
Frequently, we disagreed on important issues like tax reform or medical malpractice liability reform. Our disagreements were deep, but we respected each other and were able to have honest conversations about why we had the priorities that we did. We did not usually come to a full agreement, but sometimes we arrived at a better solution together than either one of us had proposed individually. Sometimes we even learned that we agreed. We both opposed the lottery!
In those years, although there was a clear partisan divide between the House and Senate, and between the parties in each body, it was common for Democrats and Republicans to work together to find feasible solutions to important problems.
Leslie, who chaired the Senate Education committee, worked closely with the Republican Chairs of the House Education Committee. Chuck, who chaired a House Judiciary Committee, worked closely with the Democratic chairs of the Senate Judiciary Committees. The Republican Speaker of the House and Democratic President Pro Tem of the Senate communicated often. In the end, not everyone agreed with everything we did, but most agreed that we made progress for the people of North Carolina.
Now the partisan divide is much wider. In part because of technology and social media, it is common for people of different ideologies to read completely different accounts of the news and different spins on the facts. People rarely have the opportunity for open discussion with people who significantly disagree with them. It seems harder to have honest dialogue across parties and ideologies.
If, however, North Carolina is going to be able to develop broadly embraced ways to capture important opportunities and solutions to tough problems, people across parties and ideologies will have to develop the ability to have honest conversations with each other, and to understand each others’ values, hopes and concerns.
This is why we are serving on the steering committee of the North Carolina Leadership Forum, a program run by the Duke University Sanford School of Public Policy with the support of The Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation, the Pope Foundation and the Duke Endowment. NCLF has brought together 35 residents from a wide ideological spectrum, both parties and different areas of our state.
We will address an issue everyone in the group thinks is important: How can we enable more North Carolinians to earn enough to support their families? During 2016 we will learn what others think the underlying barriers are to more people earning enough, what values we bring to the table, what different people think the most promising solutions are, and why.
The group first met in early March. People who had never had a conversation with each other came, talked, listened and disagreed, all civilly. Business leaders, advocates for employees and labor, state and local government leaders of both parties and higher education leaders all stayed engaged throughout the day-and-a-half meeting. All have signed up for three more meetings in 2016.
Our goal is that this group of North Carolinians will strengthen our ability to have meaningful, civil dialogue, and that we will take that skill back into our various community endeavors. We hope that this cohort of leaders will form relationships with each other that will enable them to engage in constructive problem-solving on behalf of the people of the state.
If we are very successful, we will also arrive at an agreement about actions that can be taken to improve the lives of North Carolina’s working families, ideas with enough broad support behind them that they will be implemented.
Leslie J. Winner is the former Executive Director of the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation and former member of the N.C. Senate. Charles B. Neely Jr. is a former member of the N.C. House of Representatives and a practicing lawyer in Raleigh.