Some might say that civility and politics don’t mix.
But three groups in the Akron area and an organization coming here from the Twin Cities aren’t willing to accept this.
They hope to improve the level of discourse in politics.
“We are here for the common reason of being frustrated with sound bites and how to move beyond that,” said Jim Meffert, who heads up Promoting Healthy Democracy in St. Paul, Minn.
His group has chosen one U.S. congressional race for a special citizen involvement experiment — the Betty Sutton-Jim Renacci race in the Akron-Canton-Cleveland area.
Locally, a complex civility project is under way that will involve three universities, the faith community and the Beacon Journal.
“We would really like to change the tone of political debate,” said John Green, executive director of the University of Akron’s Bliss Institute of Applied Politics, which is part of the Ohio Civility Project.
Three of four Ohioans think incivility in Ohio politics is either a very serious or somewhat serious problem, according to a poll by the Ohio Civility Project, a collaboration of UA, Cleveland State University and the University of Mount Union.
Led by Green, the Ohio Civility Project currently is in the process of developing a civility code that will be used in the November election to gauge whether statements made in the presidential race live up to these standards.
In conjunction with the Civility Project, the Beacon Journal is publishing the America Today series illustrating that area residents are deeply divided because of their variety of experiences in the brutal recession. The stories attempt to give citizens unfiltered opportunities to express themselves.
Building on the university and newspaper efforts will be a community group that includes local pastors who will challenge local residents and political campaigns to live up to the civility guidelines. The group also may urge area television stations not to accept advertising that runs afoul of the civility standards.
“I would be willing to lend my name to doing that,” said the Rev. Mark Ford of Love Akron, who is part of this community-led effort.
The faith leaders also include Akron attorney Larry Vuillemin and the Rev. Norm Douglas at Heart to Heart Communications.
Separate from the local effort, though related in its goals, is Promoting Healthy Democracy. The nonpartisan group plans to use a citizens-jury process to gauge the most important issues in the 16th Congressional District, which will pit two congressional incumbents against each other and is expected to be one of the most hotly contested races this fall. The jury of registered voters will judge how well the candidates address key issues.
Meffert thinks the fact that the Akron area has so many efforts focused on improving the tone of public discourse is “pretty amazing.”
“We’re glad to be a small part of that,” he said. “Hopefully, if we do this right, people will be clamoring for it.”
Developing civility code
The Ohio Civility Project began in March 2010 as the first collaboration among three Northeast Ohio universities — UA, Cleveland State and Mount Union. The group decided to explore the issue of how to improve public discourse, bringing together a panel of experts in May 2011 who concluded a lack of civility was a major problem in Ohio politics. This was supported by a survey of registered voters last summer.
The project is now in a new stage, which involves developing a civility code and using it in the fall to evaluate the presidential campaigns.
Green and several others, among them Ford, Beacon Journal editor Bruce Winges and Dan Moulthrop, curator of conversation at the Civic Commons, are in the process of developing an initial draft of the code. They are crafting questions that could be asked about a campaign statement. One question being considered is: “Does this statement contain derogatory comments about other people?” An affirmative answer would mean the statement was uncivil, while a negative response would mean it would pass at least one test.
The questions will be turned into statements that will make up the code. To test the code’s validity, the group will use polling in the Akron area and two focus groups being coordinated with the Beacon Journal in late July — one with younger citizens and another with older citizens.
The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation has provided funding for some of the research.
The group also will seek feedback from the community, leading up to a large community meeting in early September, just before the presidential race really heats up.
“We want standards a lot of people are behind,” Green said. “Our hope is that the expectations are widely recognized. If someone violates them, this will be recognized.”
The final version of the code will be used to evaluate the civility of various statements by the presidential candidates. The results will be shared on a website, where the public can weigh in, and also published in the Beacon Journal.
The group is still deciding a few key issues, including where the campaign statements will be drawn from — campaign ads and statements in news stories are being considered — and whether inaccurate statements should be considered uncivil.
Green is hoping the civility code will be successful in the same way that political fact checks are now being done by many newspapers and will be replicated for races at the local, state and national levels. He thinks raising the level of civility won’t make problems go away but will mean there’s a better chance of resolving them.
Ford became concerned about civility after the 2008 presidential election.
He was troubled by what he heard on talk radio and saw in blast emails that bashed President Barack Obama.
“That’s not the way Jesus behaved,” Ford said. “He did not call people names. I don’t think he would say Barack is a socialist or communist.”
Ford voiced his concerns at a meeting of Summit County pastors about a year and a half ago, leading a prayer for unity.
Ford then read about the Ohio Civility Project in the Beacon Journal and arranged a meeting with Green, whom he hadn’t met before. He coordinated a roundtable of local faith leaders to talk to Green.
Ford and Green put together a group of community leaders, inviting Doug Oplinger, managing editor of the Beacon Journal, who was crafting a civility project based on discussions in the newsroom.
Since then, Ford, Green and Oplinger have become part of a core group, made up of community leaders with different backgrounds, involved in a yearlong effort focused on civility.
After the civility code is developed, groups of citizens may be tasked with taking the code to candidates and campaigns and asking them to abide by it. Those involved also have discussed asking television stations only to accept political ads that meet the code.
“I know negative advertising works,” Ford said. “I hope people will no longer tolerate this stuff. It’s making the culture hostile.”
The local effort focused on civility was one of the reasons Promoting Health Democracy chose the 16th Congressional District for its citizens-jury process.
“There was already an energy behind how to help things recover and move ahead,” said Kyle Bozentko, a policy analyst for the group.
The 16th district race was also interesting because it features two incumbents — Renacci and Sutton — thanks to the redrawing of district lines that put both in the same district. The new 16th includes all of Wayne County and parts of Summit, Stark, Portage, Medina and Cuyahoga counties.
“This is one of the congressional races that is a tossup,” said Meffert, who heads Promoting Health Democracy. “We want to see how we can get the discussion back to the important issues the voters want to hear about.”
The group sent a letter to 20,000 randomly selected, prospective jurors in the 16th district last week, explaining that Promoting Health Democracy is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that uses the citizens-jury method to “give a cross-section of the public an opportunity to learn about and report on important policy issues.” The jurors will be paid for their time.
From those who agree to participate, the group will select 24 jurors who reflect the makeup of the 16th district based on factors such as party affiliation, age, education and race. The jurors will meet in late July when they will learn the results of a survey that identifies what voters see as the most important issues in the district. The jurors will decide, based on these results and their discussions, what policy issues they think should be the focus of the congressional race.
“We’re hoping that sets the context for the campaign — gives the public something to measure what’s being discussed over the summer,” Meffert said.
A second group of jurors, drawn from the same pool, will meet in September. They will talk to Renacci and Sutton and evaluate how well each candidate is focusing on the issues prioritized by the first jurors. The jurors will convene one last time in early October to measure how the candidates to this point have addressed the key issues.
Promoting Health Democracy will give voters a firsthand view of its process through its website, www.promotinghealthydemocracy.org/. The group has reached out to Renacci and Sutton, inviting them to be involved.
In the end, the jurors will report to voters whether the candidates have done a good job of addressing the most important issues. Bozentko said the decision will be up to them.
“Regardless of the outcome, we will communicate the results,” he said. “They may like one, like both or say they don’t like either.”
Beacon Journal readers have an opportunity to join the conversation of the community civility effort by going to this story on Ohio.com. There, they can select a moderated conversation at the Civic Commons, or the anonymous Ohio.com comment page, to address these questions:
Do you agree with the goals of the Civility Project?
Do you think a Civility Pledge would be a good idea?
Stephanie Warsmith can be reached at 330-996-3705 or firstname.lastname@example.org.