By Joe Hallett
COLUMBUS: When I was sent from Toledo in 1985 to the Blade’s Capitol bureau, the 99 members of the House and 33 members of the Senate were mostly squeezed in tiny offices scattered through the Statehouse.
It was common for Republicans and Democrats to be neighbors. They lunched together at Mary’s diner in the basement and drank together at the Galleria bar across 3rd Street. Bipartisan friendships formed; members and their families got to know one another.
In 1988, House members moved into the Riffe Center, the new 31-floor building named in honor of the late Vernal G. Riffe, the longest-serving speaker in Ohio history. Republicans and Democrats were segregated from each other on different floors.
In 1992, Ohioans enacted eight-year legislative term limits. In 1994, Riffe retired, and when he stopped going to the Galleria, so did everyone else. It closed soon after.
Over time, “the day-to-day casual association was virtually eliminated” between lawmakers of opposite parties, recalled Paul Tipps, a retired lobbyist, who remembered a time before the current “year-round, hyper-partisan, unfriendly atmosphere in the General Assembly.”
It’s easy to forget the ugly partisan battles that occurred during Riffe’s 20-year tenure as speaker. But when the campaigns were finished and it was time to govern, there were two components then that are missing from today’s lawmaking — compromise and civility.
They have been lost to gerrymandering and term limits. With districts drawn to ensure that incumbents can’t lose except to a same-party challenger, pragmatism is sacrificed, said state Sen. Frank LaRose, an Akron-area Republican.
“When you’ve got people trying to prove they’re the farthest to the right or farthest to the left in order to survive a primary, it creates a naturally polarizing atmosphere, and there are fewer of us left who will say we’re in the center.”
The empowerment of the partisan extremes intimidates lawmakers, LaRose said: “I believe that compromise is the essential skill of statesmanship, but for some reason folks have this notion that if you compromise, you’re a sellout.”
LaRose can’t single-handedly change the system, but he can control his own behavior and demeanor and try to influence colleagues to regard one another as something more than partisan enemies. Toward that end, he has teamed up with a Democrat, former state Rep. Ted Celeste of Grandview, on a civility crusade.
Before he left the House in 2012, Celeste proved in three successive House races that you can win by staying positive. Encouraged by a movement that took root in 2005 in his Grandview Heights church, First Community, Celeste developed a program, the Next Generation project, devoted to building trust in politics through civil discourse.
After Celeste conducted a workshop last year at a Council of State Governments meeting in Cleveland, LaRose and other Ohio lawmakers from both parties were inspired to work toward creating a so-called civility caucus. Along with encouraging “respectful conversation” between the parties, LaRose said the caucus “will look for opportunities to create social interaction to get to know each other outside the legislature.”
Later this year, Celeste and LaRose will co-present a civility workshop at the Council of State Governments’ meeting in Kansas City.
“The sad thing about it is the public is very skeptical about the ability to make changes to the political system, so when I tell people what I’m doing they say, ‘Well, good luck with that,’ ” Celeste said. “The question is, can we reach a critical mass of people who feel the way we do to start to make a change?”
The two parties have rigged the system against bipartisanship, but at least someone is trying.
Hallett is senior editor at the Columbus Dispatch. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.