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News / Northwest

How Washington state Republicans, Democrats are trying to bridge political divides

“This really is an embryonic movement,” said Washington Lt. Gov. Denny Heck.

By Nina Shapiro, The Seattle Times
Published: May 6, 2024, 6:02am
2 Photos
A discussion takes place at Freeland Library during a gathering of people with differing views on Israel and Palestine, Sunday, April 7, 2024, on Whidbey Island, Washington. The meeting is moderated by Braver Angels, a group that tries to bridge American political polarization.
A discussion takes place at Freeland Library during a gathering of people with differing views on Israel and Palestine, Sunday, April 7, 2024, on Whidbey Island, Washington. The meeting is moderated by Braver Angels, a group that tries to bridge American political polarization. (Ken Lambert/The Seattle Times/TNS) Photo Gallery

Judie Messier wanted to talk to people with different political views.

The liberal Seattle retiree felt the desire especially urgently in the wake of Donald Trump’s rise to the presidency — a phenomenon she found utterly scary.

But it wasn’t easy to find people who lean red and were game for the kind of probing, one-on-one conversations she envisioned using a format developed by the national nonprofit StoryCorps. Sometimes she would send email after email, only to be “totally ghosted,” she said.

Persistence eventually paid off. She’s had at least a half-dozen conversations with people coming from a different political and often geographic place. One was with Sue Lani Madsen, a conservative writer and rancher from Eastern Washington.

It turned out both women had trained as EMTs and served on disaster medical assistance teams deployed to Olympic Games. Messier was astonished. An “almost infinitesimal” number of people share that experience, she said.

Their ongoing rapport illustrates the kind of breakthrough dreamed of by a proliferating number of groups trying to bridge partisan divides. It’s a goal that seems all the more pressing as November’s presidential election approaches, ratcheting up the political toxicity that makes the new movie “Civil War,” about an uprising against the U.S. government in a dystopian future, a not-so-veiled allegory.

But Messier’s trouble finding discussion partners shows a challenge facing such efforts: To build a bridge with people on the other side, you have to get them in the room. And some are finding Democrats more eager to participate than Republicans.

The question is why. Republicans who do take part in such efforts, like Madsen, Washington co-chair of the prominent national bridge-building group Braver Angels, say it’s not because conservatives don’t hunger for civic unity.

Discerning other reasons can be a bridge-building exercise in itself.

“An embryonic movement”

The impetus for depolarization is all around us.

Red and blue America haven’t seemed this far apart in a long time, illustrated in some cases by diametrically opposing laws. After the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in 2022, some states enacted prison sentences for abortion providers. Others, like Washington state, adopted measures to protect providers and patients.

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As November approaches, former President Trump and President Joe Biden, along with their supporters, frequently say a win by the other side would result in catastrophe.

Madsen said people may turn to groups like hers out of frustration. “If they don’t check out completely, they’ll be looking for a place to do something positive,” she said.

To some extent, that’s already been happening.

“This really is an embryonic movement,” said Washington Lt. Gov. Denny Heck.

The Democratic former member of Congress started the Project for Civic Health last year, along with partners at the University of Washington, Washington State University and the Henry M. Jackson Foundation. The project intends to tackle public incivility, like shouting matches, insults and threats, and in doing so remind people of what they have in common and upend government dysfunction.

The project held a daylong summit in October, and it hopes to have another event in the fall bringing together local groups with the same aim, Heck said.

He lists a few, including Braver Angels and a nonprofit started this year by two Snohomish County Council members who, despite belonging to different political parties, have developed a strong working relationship: Republican Nate Nehring and Democrat Jared Mead. Their nonprofit, The Building Bridges Project, focuses on young people and is developing a “future leaders academy” to work with high school students from different backgrounds, Nehring said.

The Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol forged the council members’ resolve to do something about polarization, Nehring said, starting with a series of town halls and a summit last year that led to forming the nonprofit.

Mainstream Republicans of Washington also started a building bridges project last year that has held a series of small luncheons for people looking to “tone down the loudness” in political rhetoric so people can find solutions, said Deanna Martinez, the organization’s chair.

She said she wasn’t sure about the political balance at the luncheons, but they indicate a desire among some Republicans to chip away at polarization.

Heck and Nehring say conservatives also turned out for their events. Nehring said he drew upon his personal network, just as his Democratic colleague did. Heck said his approach amounted to: “Ask, ask, ask.”

The resources of the lieutenant governor’s office undoubtedly helped, too. For Braver Angels, a grassroots group powered mostly by volunteers, achieving balance has been more of a struggle.

The organization ensures its leadership and annual conferences are evenly balanced between reds and blues, as it categorizes people. But overall, 70% of its more than 12,500 members nationally identify as blue and only 15% to 18% red, according to spokesperson Gabriella Timmis. The rest identify as “other.”

The percentage of reds among the group’s 647 members in Washington is even lower: roughly 12%. And it is only 9% among the 4,200 subscribers in the state who receive Braver Angels announcements and may come to events. Many members and subscribers decline to identify a party affiliation, however, and local leaders suspect a large proportion are Republicans wary of saying so.

Still, in a state that saw 39% of its voters support Trump in 2020, the group’s leaders acknowledge an imbalance. It may rest in part on subtle reasons — even coded vocabulary we may not realize as such.

“Be different people”

It was March 2021. Claims of widespread voter fraud were at their peak among Republicans. Braver Angels staged an online debate about the topic. Even talking about it was highly controversial; some of the group’s members believed it gave credence to unsubstantiated claims that Trump won the election.

Madsen, 68, watched it.

“I was quite impressed with how it was run,” said the onetime co-founder of an architecture firm who now operates a goat ranch with her husband near Spokane and writes a weekly “Spokesman Review” column. “It wasn’t about winning.” People sincerely explained their beliefs and the experiences that had formed them, while others really listened.

In addition to the debate, Braver Angels held cross-partisan workshops on the subject and found agreement on many points, including that voters be required to show identification. The approval of participating Democrats surprised some Republicans, Madsen said.

Still, after joining Braver Angels, she has often found reluctance among fellow conservatives when trying to recruit them.

It might, in part, be a stylistic problem. “This sort of thing sounds touchy-feely,” like a bunch of people sitting around talking about how they communicate, Madsen said. For reasons she can’t entirely explain, she said Republicans don’t seem to be as drawn to that.

More essentially, Madsen said: “It comes down to lack of trust.”

Conservatives, she and others say, fear being labeled racist, homophobic and misogynist, for example, and suffering repercussions at work or in social circles if they share their views publicly

Democrats sometimes have reservations about hanging out with Republicans, too — name-calling goes both ways: “libtard socialists,” for instance, being a choice term hurled at liberals.

And progressives may also worry about being disrespected because of their race or gender identity, said Elizabeth Doll, co-chair of Braver Angel’s Western Washington branch and national director of an effort by the group that works with elected officials.

But progressives may feel more comfortable joining bridge-building initiatives because of framing that unwittingly speaks more to Democrats.

Doll, a 29-year-old Bainbridge Island Republican, said before finding Braver Angels — founded by a conservative and two others who don’t publicly identify their political affiliation — she came across bridge-building groups started by liberals alone. In the wake of Trump’s 2016 election, she said, “they wondered what they missed, why this guy got elected. And they didn’t know a single person, sometimes, who had ever voted for a Republican before.”

“Come on, just be more moderate Republicans,” was the implicit message Doll heard. “Be different people.”

Mónica Guzmán, a liberal Seattle author who launched a national Braver Ways podcast in October, noted something similar. “When Trump was elected, who was more scared?” she asked. “Us!”

“The agony of not understanding has been heavier, of late, among blues,” Guzmán continued.

Some liberals thought they were creating a neutral space but in reality, Guzmán said she has come to believe, there is no neutral space. She cited blue rituals, like opening a meeting with a Native American land acknowledgment and asking everyone to state their pronouns. Conservatives may feel they don’t belong in that environment, she said, just as some liberals feel turned off by religious language prevalent in many conservative circles.

In a quest to understand alienating language, Braver Angels created a spreadsheet analyzing an array of terms, conveying abundant minefields. Blue terms conservatives might find off-putting include cisgender, microaggression and BIPOC, the acronym referring to Black, Indigenous and people of color. Among red terms that do the reverse: illegal immigrant, cancel culture and thoughts and prayers.

Amazing conversations

Guzmán traces a personal path to bridge-building.

“I come from a politically divided family of Mexican immigrants,” said the 41-year-old, who was about 5 when her father, a computer programmer, was transferred to the U.S. and brought his family along.

“My parents went the Trump way, and I went the Clinton/Biden way,” Guzmán explained. “And the conversations have been what you can imagine them to be — very strange, very heated. And yet, boy, there have been so many amazing conversations we’ve had.”

One insight revolved around immigration policy. Guzmán’s father recounted watching his own father in Mexico being mocked by friends for promptly paying taxes. They took a more lax view of rules.

Guzmán’s father, though, admired his dad’s principled approach. And when her dad looked north of the border, he saw a similar respect for rules.

Guzmán said that helped her understand that her father wasn’t against different immigration policies. “We should work on it, no problem. But as long as it is illegal to enter the country in a certain way,” she said, summarizing his position, “people shouldn’t do it.”

Messier, the Seattle retiree, said that in conversations she’s had with the StoryCorps program One Small Step, she’s learned not only about other people’s beliefs but about her own.

Before then, the 79-year-old said, she was “a card-carrying knee-jerk progressive.”

Forced to articulate her beliefs, she thought about them more carefully. And while she still believes in the same core values — like diversity, equity and inclusion — she has become more pragmatic.

“However we move forward, it has to be incrementally,” she said. “It can’t be ‘I’m going to smash my ideas, my wonderful ideas, down your throat,’ … because it doesn’t work.”

Madsen, for her part, said she’s always lived in what she calls a “porous bubble.” She chaired the Lincoln County Republican Party for a time and also worked in a profession, architecture, populated with many liberals. Still, she said she found something unexpected in bridge-building conversations: a willingness to listen.

She said she had a lovely chat with Messier after discovering what they had in common. Afterward, they did a presentation together about One Small Step and Braver Angels at the February Ag Show in Spokane. Messier, who got sick at the last minute, attended in a Zoom video call.

In May, Messier plans to go with four others involved with One Small Step to Spokane to meet with people they have talked to over Zoom. Madsen has invited them to visit her ranch.

Talking on a fraught issue

In a meeting room of a Whidbey Island library on a Sunday in April, about 20 people gathered to take on one of the most fraught issues of our time. A Facebook invitation described the workshop this way: “Building Empathy — Palestine and Israel.”

It’s not a traditional partisan issue in the U.S., but Joe Greenheron, a 43-year-old tech consultant, worries it is becoming so, seeing more support for the Palestinian cause among Democrats and more for Israel’s among Republicans.

An island school board member, he calls himself a political moderate who votes Democrat more often than not. Greenheron, who is Jewish, considers himself pro-Palestinian and pro-Israeli “but not pro-the current Israeli government.”

On Christmas Eve last year, he saw two rallies on the politically purple island, one with people waving Palestinian flags and another with people waving Israeli ones.

Working with a woman he met at a Palestinian solidarity group rally, Greenheron asked Braver Angels to moderate a conversation that would bring both sides together. Following a model the organization has honed, the plan was to go through a series of exercises in which a small number of people from each side speak to their beliefs, with everyone else observing, and then for the crowd to identify things they could all agree on.

But people on Israel’s side were in short supply, a moderator made clear, asking people who said they could go either way to speak for Israel. Only two proved willing, and they were far from defenders of its aggression in Gaza or its treatment of Palestinians.

One was Greenheron, who hadn’t planned to participate but did so for balance. The other, a woman who had family in Israel, was reluctant to be publicly identified as pro-Israel. She said her hands were shaking and her heart pounding as, for this gathering, she took that “side.”

The exercises went ahead, with two people picked to speak on the Palestinian side.

Even though the sides didn’t have dramatically different views, the discussion was emotional and at some points tense. When the Israel side listed the existence of a Jewish homeland as a value, someone asked why just a Jewish homeland and not a Palestinian one?

A moderator crossed that out as a potential point of agreement.

At times, participants expressed frustration with the Braver Angels’ discussion framework, which emphasizes people sharing what they believe and why but not prolonged wrangling over whether a certain fact or view is correct.

Still, the group came up with a list of values, concerns and solutions representing common ground. On the list: a cease-fire.

Left unclear was whether that aim would hold up in a more divided room.