copley twp.: A group of Northeast Ohio voters wants to shape the debate surrounding the 16th District congressional race.


The group is participating this weekend in Reclaim November, Ohio! It is a three-day citizens forum intended to influence the way the candidates, Republican Jim Renacci and Democrat Betty Sutton, conduct their campaigns.


The sponsoring organization, Jefferson Action, hopes the effort will steer Renacci and Sutton away from mudslinging and toward a civil, thoughtful discussion of issues that are important to the district’s residents.


Renacci and Sutton, both sitting representatives, were forced into a head-to-head contest when congressional district boundaries were redrawn, landing them in the same district. The contest is already marked by attack ads by both sides.


The hotly contested race caught the attention of Jefferson Action, a Minnesota nonprofit devoted to promoting a more rational approach to democracy. It identified a group of 22 voters that represents the district’s demographic diversity and invited those people to participate in three days of presentations, exercises and discussions at the Radisson Hotel Akron/Fairlawn.


The forum is designed to educate the participants about issues and help them identify the three they consider most important. Jefferson Action will present those three issues to Sutton and Renacci and challenge them to address the topics during the campaign.


On Friday and Saturday, the participants worked to winnow a list of issues, which included such concerns as unemployment, weak economic growth, medical costs and government regulation of private enterprise. They listened to presentations by economic policy experts who are advising the group, reviewed public opinion polling and heard from policy advocates representing a range of political views.


Today they’re expected to agree on three key issues and prepare a report explaining their choices, along with either a general statement about the process or a statement directed to voters in the 16th District.


Meetings stay civil


If the forum was intended to promote civil discourse, it appeared to be working — at least among the participants.


Anger was noticeably absent from the discussions Saturday, even though the participants varied in age, economic circumstances, political affiliation and a number of other characteristics.


Participants said they took to heart the forum’s ground rules, which encouraged them to keep an open mind and ask questions.


“We haven’t had one argument yet,” noted Charles Peck, 67, a retired auto worker from Strongsville.


Bob Harper agreed. “We’re taking the politics out of it,” said Harper, a 45-year-old machinist from Canal Fulton.


Peck said he was hopeful the forum would help turn the race from what he called “a catfight” into an intelligent discussion of the problems facing the district.


Mixed expectations


The forum was so important to Granger Township resident Kathie Gaebelein that she took a day of vacation from her job as a clinical systems analyst to participate.


She said she finds political ads aggravating and welcomed the opportunity to learn more about issues in a nonpartisan environment. Still, she wondered what impact the forum would have.


“This is a very good and very expensive exercise,” said the 66-year-old Gaebelein. “… This is a good start, but how does it get moved to the next levels?”


Erica Penick, 36, had similar doubts. She said she participated to make sure what she called her sector — low-income African-American women — was represented.


“I have very low expectations that anything actionable will come out of it,” said Penick, a church secretary from Strongsville. While she said she believes the forum’s organizers have good intentions, she doesn’t expect the candidates to heed the participants’ recommendations.


Jefferson Action intends to gauge whether they do. The organization plans two more citizens election forums in the district in the fall to examine the candidates’ stands on the issues that were identified by the participants and assess whether they have addressed those issues effectively.


More information is available at www.promoting healthydemocracy.org.


Mary Beth Breckenridge can be reached at 330-996-3756 or mbrecken@thebeaconjournal.com. You can also become a fan on Facebook, follow her on Twitter @MBBreckenridge and read her blog at www.ohio.com/blogs/mary-beth.