Snohomish County Councilmembers Nate Nehring (left) and Jared Mead, moderate a panel discussion with Tulip Tribes Chairwoman Teri Gobin, Stanwood Mayor Sid Roberts and Lynnwood Mayor Christine Frizzell during the Building Bridges Summit in December, 2023, at Washington State University-Everett campus in Everett. (Ryan Berry / The Herald file photo)

Snohomish County Councilmembers Nate Nehring (left) and Jared Mead, moderate a panel discussion with Tulip Tribes Chairwoman Teri Gobin, Stanwood Mayor Sid Roberts and Lynnwood Mayor Christine Frizzell during the Building Bridges Summit in December, 2023, at Washington State University-Everett campus in Everett. (Ryan Berry / The Herald file photo)

Editorial: Candidates, voters have campaign promises to make

Two county officials’ efforts to improve political discourse skills are expanding to youths and adults.

By The Herald Editorial Board

With the races now set, following last week’s deadline for filing for political offices — from U.S. president on down to precinct committee officer — maybe we ought to set some ground rules for the campaign for the upcoming primary and general elections.

OK, maybe not ground rules, but a renewed plea for civil discourse.

Ask anyone who’s run for office, there are already a number of rules and requirements, such as those around reporting campaign donations and spending. But as to what candidates can say about themselves, their views and their opponents, it’s the First Amendment that allows — as it should — a largely free rein on speech.

That leaves the discourse among candidates — not to mention the conversations among everyday Americans on issues important to them — to personal discretion. And there isn’t always much of that discretion in evidence.

Amid flashes of competence — Congress did pass reauthorization of the Federal Aviation Administration this week — that body still appears so mired in rancor, posturing and self-serving soundbites and snarky tweets that it most recently could manage only a 16 percent approval rating, according to Gallup polling. And that’s up from 12 percent in February; so, folks, good job?

Whatever the cause — an overdose of social media, seemingly intractable problems, dissatisfaction with g0vernment leaders, irritable growl syndrome — officials, candidates and the public have largely lost the ability to hold strong beliefs on issues without first labeling those with opposing viewpoints as ignorant, immoral, uncaring, un-American or all of the above.

For more than a year now, two Snohomish County Council members — Republican Nate Nehring and Democrat Jared Mead — have led a campaign called the Building Bridges Project that encourages a return to discourse and debate that emphasizes skills that includes listening to understand, rather than to respond; and finding shared values and goals even among disagreements over courses of action.

The two officials, who are clear they still hold differing opinions on potentially divisive subjects, have spoken with high school classes, service clubs and community groups, and last year held a series of public workshops that worked with community members in bridge-building skills.

Those discussions, Mead said, have been rewarding in restoring his optimism, even in the face of attacks for various positions he’s taken and his and Nehring’s work to seek common ground. Each has taken criticism from within their own parties and the public for working outside that political orthodoxy, but the community conversations, Mead said, have shown him they do have wider support.

“It’s really helped me understand the scope of how the loud voices don’t actually represent where community and society are.” he said. “And that’s what’s given me optimism to think if we can harness that vast majority of people left, right and center, everywhere, that want to see everybody work together want to see civility in politics, that can work at the national level and that can work at the local level.”

One outgrowth of those meetings has been a website for the project’s continuing work in the community Among the website’s features, members of the public are invited to take the Bridge-Building Pledge.

This is unapologetically Golden Rule stuff, among the things we should have learned in kindergarten, but it’s worth making a commitment to. Among the pledge’s tenets:

I will be kind when disagreeing and refrain from turning a political disagreement into a personal disagreement;

I will treat people with dignity and respect regardless of their political position;

I will remain humble in recognizing that I do not have all the answers;

I will give others the benefit of the doubt and assume positive motives;

I will be gracious in debating policy positions by taking on the opposing side’s strongest points rather than creating straw-man arguments;

I will refrain from posting online anything I would not be willing to say to someone in person;

I will challenge my beliefs and assumptions and be open to modifying my opinions in the face of new information.

Nehring said he and Mead have discussed tailoring a pledge more specific to the practice of public officials’ work and candidates’ campaigns for office. Nehring mentioned a recent meeting with the Snohomish County League of Women Voters, which shares their interest in civil and respectful political campaigns, where the idea for a candidates’ pledge was kicked around.

But the two also are looking toward the future, and specifically toward the political and community leaders who could be at risk of being discouraged from that potential leadership by the current political climate.

Both are working on creation of a pilot program to offer a Future Leaders Academy that beginning next school year will lead a group of high school students from throughout the county in strengthening those skills, perhaps inoculating them against the onset of those poor habits in discourse.

Nehring said the first cohort of 15 to 30 students would meet regularly with him, Mead and others, to look at political challenges and opportunities and at what is blocking good discourse from happening.

“When we did our Building Bridges tour, we asked what the root causes of polarization are, and every single time it was social media, media consumption and not taking a critical look at the news they’re receiving,” Nehring said.

The two have reached out to school districts and teachers to identify students who might be interested, but students also can apply through the Building Bridges website. Applications, available on the website, are due by May 31.

At the same time, Nehring and Mead aren’t giving up on working with adults to help them become the more reliable “adults in the room.”

“We all share some of the blame and responsibility for the outcomes we’re getting,” Nehring said. “Because as voters and as consumers of media, we’re always looking for that soundbite, that controversial piece. That’s what we pay attention to.”

Along with expecting better behavior from our elected officials and political candidates, there are expectations for voters and citizens.

“Until there’s kind of that shift, that we’re not going to tolerate the kind of crap anymore, then I don’t know that we’re going to see a change in the candidates because the candidates are responding to what they see as working,” he said.

Turns out, voters, like candidates, can make promises, too.

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