My last session in the Idaho legislature leadership decided legislators needed training in “civility”. It was a required afternoon and I attended, though some skipped it. We all first met in the lunch room before being assigned to working groups. They asked if anyone could define for the group “integrity”. I had an immediate reflection, but said nothing. I went to my assigned “group three”.
As I entered the room where 30 legislators were to sit I looked around for a seat. Many were standing, chatting, laughing, but you see, I’m a Democrat. No one was smiling at me. So I sat down in a lonely chair. The room slowly settled and late legislators wandered in. One came up to me and asked if he could sit next to me and I smiled and nodded. It’s brave for a Republican to talk to a Democrat in the Idaho legislature.
The leaders discussed the hallmarks of civility, respect for colleagues, acknowledging their effort despite differences. They suggested one of the ways to enact such behavior would be to write a note or an email to a colleague about such. The man who had sat next to me leaned in winked and whispered, “I’ve gotten such a note.” It was my practice after each legislative session to write notes to at least 50 fellow legislators I had worked with, expressing my gratitude for their work, their integrity. He had gotten a note from me.
The session continued, talking about just what made civil discourse and what didn’t. I did not speak. I looked around the room. All legislative districts have three representatives, one Senator and two House members. I knew everybody in the room, and I could tell that my district was the only one with all three representatives in the room. I thought this odd.
At the very end of the discussion a legislator from my district raised her hand. “I don’t have problems with how I am treated here in the Capitol. I think everybody is respectful. But when I return to my district I don’t think my fellow legislators treat me with respect.”
“And just how does that manifest?”
“Well, they don’t include me in the events they have planned. They schedule a town hall and don’t invite me.”
The time was up and many had already risen from their seats. I felt stung, even back stabbed. I walked up to this legislator in the hall as she was talking to someone and waited for a chance to speak to her. “Is there something we need to talk about?”
She stared at me. I waited, and then said, “Would you like to visit? I heard you say you felt you weren’t being treated fairly.”
She still did not respond. After a long wait I said, “Why don’t you email me and we can talk.” She never emailed.
The next town hall I scheduled I made sure she was aware and invited. She did not respond to the invitation.
You can try to teach people. But if it’s in their nature to harass or be uncivil, I’m not sure an afternoon session will change much. And it seems the voters aren’t real discerning that such behavior is an important criteria for their support. No, this representative democracy is really just a reflection of us, the public, civil or uncivil, respectful or dis. If we don’t like our representatives, then look in the mirror.