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Legislative Leaders Past and Present Convene to Discuss Civility, Overcoming Differences

By Will Keyse

Washington Senator, CSG National Chair and former CSG West Chair (2017), Sam Hunt, addresses assembled leaders

As a part of this year’s Annual Meeting in Boise, and in celebration of 75 years, CSG West convened a collection of leaders to engage in dialogue around issues facing legislatures today. In addition to officers, committee co-chairs, and leading private sector partners, CSG was fortunate to welcome a number of past chairs whose service spanned several decades.

With so much experiential wisdom at hand, the questions posed to the attendees all drove towards a common theme: how have you as leaders navigated difference throughout your careers to form relationships, uphold the values of the institutions you serve, and done it all despite increasing polarization at the state level?

States across the West are grappling with redistricting and high member turnover rates as the new biennium approaches. The importance of civility in legislatures has never been more important as the region navigates the intersecting challenges posed by the pandemic, drought, inflation and public distrust in government, among others.

Though the individuals in the room represented a broad range of constituencies and came from all walks of political life, they all agreed on one thing: It is of paramount importance to see and appreciate the humanity in legislative colleagues. As one member put it, “the time for civility isn’t when it’s easy or convenient—the time for civility is when being civil is the last thing you feel like doing.”

Speaking on her career in the Wyoming House, former Representative Rosie Berger (Chair, 2012) recalled feeling at wits’ end with colleagues that categorically voted differently than she did. Then she made a point to visit each of the state’s districts and came to understand the values and communities that shaped the votes of her colleagues. The trip may not have shifted her priorities, but it was an invaluable experience in building empathy, and taught her that bridging gaps always starts with being a listener first.

Former Wyoming Representative and CSG West Chair (2012), Rosie Berger, speaks to the group

In Hawaii, Senate President Ronald Kouchi and Senator Brian Taniguchi (Chair, 2002) spoke about a common convening room at the Capitol, where there would be crock pots of food and guitars available for members after working hours. Having a physical place where people could break bread and make music together helped to re-establish humanity in what is invariably an intense and personal process. The tradition is one that was lost in the wake of the pandemic, and both hope to see its return as a part of building goodwill.

Former Colorado Senator Nancy Todd (Chair, 2015) attested that when lawmakers are unable to connect in person, to have a cup of coffee or share a meal, it limits their ability to see life beyond the walls of the capitol when making decisions. Getting caught up in minutiae and playing into charged topics of the day is an easy trap to fall into, especially when one does not take the time to get to know colleagues on a personal and intentional level.

The key to collaboration, the consensus was, is going beyond seeing red and blue, and going beyond barbs and platitudes. Sharing moments of joy is important. Putting people first– understanding their families, their communities, the values shared on both sides — those are the ways to overcome bitterness and division.

As the region looks forward to the next batch of legislative members, states face fresh challenges and opportunities.

Nevada Assemblywoman Danielle Monroe-Moreno, co-chair of the CSG-West Health Committee, highlighted that generational differences have pushed institutions in different ways. As younger and more diverse members are elected, the challenge for leadership will be to integrate new ideas and approaches while ensuring that decorum and institutional knowledge of the lawmaking process remains intact.  

Former Idaho Senate Majority Leader Bart Davis (Chair, 2003) reflected that legislatures, when at their best, feel like a gathering of trusted friends. He remarked that mentorship was a key component of his own career in the Senate, both as a mentor and a mentee. He would often share his list of “20 things a good leader should know,” one of which was: someone may be your opponent, but they should never be your enemy.

CSG West has been a proud host of regional cooperation for 75 years. Incoming Vice Chair, Wyoming Representative Mike Yin, remarked that CSG is a forum where legislators can show up with no need to know someone else’s policy priorities or political party, and there is a true spirit of collaboration. We thank all the members that participated in this leadership forum and in each of the sessions at this year’s CSG West Annual Meeting in Boise.

CSG current and former Chairs gather in celebration of the 75th Annual Meeting