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Our View: Civility in politics worth cultivating at all levels | Local

What’s the difference between the U.S. Senate and the Flagstaff City Council?

Both may fashion themselves as great deliberative bodies, but at least the council (unlike the Senate and health care reform) does it in public – and again and again.

That’s one of the takeaways from yet a third meeting this past week on the low-income housing project proposed for Schultz Pass and Fort Valley roads.

Another is that despite some deep disagreements, the council and most of the rest of the crowd managed to keep it civil. When you’re in the same room and using first names and probably know each other from some other social or work setting, it’s hard to start calling names.

That was also the case Thursday at U.S. Rep. Tom O’Halleran’s first town hall in Flagstaff since being elected. He ran as a Democrat, so it’s not as if he was expecting to be shouted out of the room. But Flagstaff Democrats, as they showed with Ann Kirkpatrick, can be tough on even moderate party members.

But the questioners, mostly from Flagstaff, seemed to stick to the issues and O’Halleran wasn’t giving straight party-line answers. That’s not surprising, seeing as how he represents one of the few swing districts left in Congress.

DIFFERENT VIBES

Would the vibes have been different if Republican Bob Thorpe had been at the front of the room? Definitely less friendly, mainly because Thorpe has gone out of his way to take extreme positions on locally important issues like college student voting rights, curriculum independence and public lands. But more important, Thorpe dismisses critics as either socialists or tools of a news media conspiracy against him. It’s a sure way to cut off the conversation before it starts, even though Thorpe lives right in Flagstaff.

We’ve seen that same tendency to label and dismiss in other politicians, and not just President Trump. The president’s problem is that he is limited to 141 characters per tweet, so nuance is not an option if he wants attention. But when he goes for the jugular, he is often wrong – when he isn’t simply vulgar or rude.

Republican U.S. Rep. Paul Gosar, formerly of Flagstaff, was the last elected official to experience a really rude Flagstaff reception – although he is known for dishing it out as good as he gets. Gosar is a member of the free-market, no-compromise House Freedom Caucus, whose style is not only to attack government regulations as useless but also the bureaucrats who propose and enforce them as lawless and corrupt. Here’s a sample from recent press releases:

FROM THE GOSAR FILE

–On low-wake rules on Lake Havasu: “We will not stand for lawless, unilateral actions by rogue bureaucrats.”

–On the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing Act: “This overreaching mandate is an attempt to extort communities into giving up control of local zoning decisions and reengineer the makeup of our neighborhoods.

–On Obamacare: “Every key promise of Obamacare turned out to be a lie.”

–On environmental regulations: “Obama has selfishly put his own legacy ahead of the well-being of hard-working Americans.”

–On Obama generally: “His perpetually inept judgment and disastrous ignorance that has plagued his failed presidency.”

–On bison at the Grand Canyon: “The Park Service has been twiddling their thumbs for more than three years (and) has continuously pushed out half-cocked and costly management suggestions a day late and more than a few dollars short.”

–On religion vs. the rights of minorities: “This uniquely American principal (sic) was attacked during the Obama Administration by partisan ideologues looking to advance a far-left, secular agenda.”

The list goes on, but the extreme language doesn’t change much. There’s little room to debate issues that are the product of “lawless government mandates” produced by “political hacks.”

NO TRACTION LOCALLY

We can’t imagine any of Gosar’s stigmatized targets having much confidence that they’d even be listened to if summoned before one of this subcommittees. But we’re also pretty sure he’d get no traction if he tried out any of these phrases at a Flagstaff City Council hearing.

How do we know? Friday’s hearing on the Schultz Pass housing project is a good example. Neighbors and others who opposed the plan were facing a meeting run by a mayor who clearly supported affordable housing at that site and even more across the city. But Coral Evans gave the public so much time to make their points – four hours worth – that it cost her side a key vote when Eva Putzova had to leave early. Then, to make sure that at least some low-income housing had a chance to be funded, Evans (joined by Scott Overton) agreed to compromise and pull the Schultz Pass project in favor of another less controversial site.

If Gosar, Thorpe and Trump have ever used the word compromise, we haven’t heard or seen it. But beyond living in a black-and-white world that doesn’t exist, these are politicians ready to belittle and attack without evidence the motives of people with whom they disagree. Is it really that tough to stick to the issues?

We don’t have a cure for that kind of debasement of civility and mutual respect that must underlie any politics at any level. But we’d suggest a visit to a Flagstaff City Council meeting – or even just livestreaming a session – might be a good first step (if you can stay awake). The Legislature, Congress and the White House could do worse than import some Main Street-style politics into what has become partisan name-calling. And Flagstaff and cities like it might also get a little more respect for the heavy lifting they are doing on behalf of democracy, no matter how many roadblocks are thrown in their way.

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