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Rob Christensen: Talking across the partisan divide

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Rob Christensen has covered politics for The News & Observer of Raleigh and is an author. Write to him at rchristensen@newsobserver.com.

For the past year, some of North Carolina’s leading Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives, left-wingers and right-wingers, tried something different.

They talked to each other. And I don’t mean they trolled each other on the internet, calling each other pinkos or knuckle-draggers.

Under the auspices of Duke University, 30 leaders met five times for all-day sessions featuring civil conversations about how to help more North Carolinians earn enough to support their families.

Those who were listed as participants included Raleigh businessman Art Pope, a financial backer of Republican candidates; state GOP Chairman Robin Hayes; former GOP gubernatorial candidate Chuck Neely; the AFL-CIO’s MaryBe McMillan; former Charlotte Mayor Dan Clodfelter, a Democrat, and former Democratic state Rep. Rick Glazier, who leads the N.C. Justice Center.

And while they didn’t convince each other to change their political philosophies, participants said it was a useful exercise in better understanding the other person’s point of view.

“We felt it was really important for the future of the state for people who honestly disagree with each other, have a place where we could listen to each other’s opinions… and perhaps form some relationships,” said former state Sen. Leslie Winner.

The North Carolina Leadership Forum was the idea of two people — Winner, the former head of the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation in Winston-Salem, and John Hood, the president of the John William Pope Foundation in Raleigh. It was prompted by a Hood column.

Winner is a liberal and Hood is a conservative. They agreed that there was not enough conversation among people with different political views and that they should make some effort to cross the partisan divide.

Duke’s Center for Political Leadership, Innovation and Service, which is looking at ways to try to fix the nation’s politics, agreed to host the effort.

There was no playbook on how to do this, Winner said. The sessions were private and off the record  so that people could speak candidly.

Hood said there were several traps they tried to avoid: not to pay too much attention to the past, both good and bad, and to avoid coming up with any sort of 10-point plan to solve a particular problem.

The aim, Hood said, “was to have a civil dialogue about persistent and even unbridgeable differences, as opposed to a dialogue that leads to consensus, which is easier.”

Fritz Mayer, who headed the Duke project, called it a “fascinating exercise” and said Duke had funding to bring in another group of North Carolina leaders in the fall.

Hood said this project alone can’t dramatically improve things in the state. But he said participants hoped that similar projects will be replicated in communities across the state.

“It is contrary to human nature to attack people … if you know people personally,” Hood said. “It is not that you are going to agree on everything. It is just that you are not going to make all of your disagreements personal.”

Hood recalled the old “Firing Line” TV program hosted by conservative William Buckley, where he engaged politely with liberals such as John Kenneth Galbraith.

“It really was the case in the not too distant past where people could disagree very strongly with each other on important issues and not call each other names,” Hood said. “I think we had some of that in our first session. We argued with each other, instead of bickering with one another.”

Winner said the group came away seeing the issue in perhaps less black and white and a little more gray.

“I don’t think we changed minds,” Winner said. “I still think we should raise the minimum wage and John doesn’t.”

Mayer said the group may have come out of the experience with a little more intellectual humility — perhaps more open to viewing different evidence.

“North Carolina is a microcosm of the challenge that we face as a nation,” Mayer said.

Rob Christensen covers politics for The News & Observer of Raleigh and is the author of “The Paradox of Tar Heel Politics.”

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