Health & Family

Conservatives, liberals solve the world’s problems Thursdays at Table 5

The Lunch Bunch. from left: Jake Jacobson, Dr. Ed Newman, Dr. Marvin Shapiro, Stephen Girard, Harvey Barer, Bill Gorelick and Dr. Barry Marshall. Not pictured: Larry Polsky. You can’t solve a problem, Marshall says, if you don’t listen to all points of view.
The Lunch Bunch. from left: Jake Jacobson, Dr. Ed Newman, Dr. Marvin Shapiro, Stephen Girard, Harvey Barer, Bill Gorelick and Dr. Barry Marshall. Not pictured: Larry Polsky. You can’t solve a problem, Marshall says, if you don’t listen to all points of view. dhinshaw@charlotteobserver.com

Want to end partisan political gridlock? Listen to the group gathered for Thursday lunch at Bricktop’s Restaurant near SouthPark, eight men known as the Lunch Bunch. They’ve got an idea.

“A formula,” Dr. Marvin Shapiro says, “to save the United States.”

“To save the world,” Dr. Barry Marshall adds.

Here’s the plan: Set up a weekly restaurant lunch for political opponents – John Boehner, Nancy Pelosi, others. Put them at a round table, like Table No. 5 at Bricktop’s, where everyone’s equal. Maybe Hillary Clinton and Ted Cruz could come, too. Maybe they split a Cobb salad. At Bricktop’s, they’re big enough to share.

This is what the Lunch Bunch does each week. They eat. They argue. Occasionally, someone feels compelled to call “BS,” and he uses the whole word, not the initials. Once lunch is over, Marshall unwraps a block of halvah, the sesame confection he always brings for the group’s dessert.

At first glance, you might peg the men at Table No. 5 as a like-minded group. They’re all white, Jewish professionals. Most are retired. But their politics range from conservative to liberal, and they disagree a lot – about Benjamin Netanyahu, President Barack Obama and the Affordable Care Act, for starters.

On one topic, however, there is consensus: They love their time together.

They’ve been meeting since 2012, when Marshall and Bill Gorelick began gathering with a few friends for lunch. They extended invites to others, soon filled a big table, and found themselves talking mostly politics.

The group’s youngest member is Jake Jacobson, 62, head of SALUS Government Properties. The oldest, Harvey Barer, 84, moved to Charlotte in 2007. He’s a retired New York judge.

“A Harvard lawyer,” Marshall points out.

Marshall, 78, is a retired dentist; Shapiro, 74, a semi-retired primary-care physician. Gorelick, 80, runs a family investment company with his sons. There’s also Dr. Ed Newman, 78, a retired radiologist; Stephen Girard, 76, a retired Hollywood agent and studio executive; and Larry Polsky, 71, the Leon Levine Foundation’s senior program officer. He and Jacobson both work full time, but make it to lunch when they can.

Last year, the group began hosting occasional guests, community leaders such as Temple Beth El Rabbi Judith Schindler and retired Bank of America CEO Hugh McColl. But usually, it’s just them debating the hot issues of the day.

On a recent Thursday, for instance, Barer, one of the group’s liberals, shares a New York Times column arguing that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s hard-line positions are playing into Iran’s hands. That launches a discussion of Israeli elections, a one- versus two-state Palestinian solution and America’s efforts to negotiate a nuclear agreement with Iran.

Salads and sandwiches arrive. The conversation never slows.

A moment of agreement

Ed Newman brings up what he calls “the latest business on Hillary.” He’s referring to the personal account she used to send emails as secretary of state.

Barer allows that she didn’t handle things well, but he still thinks she’s the best candidate for president.

“Why would you vote for somebody like that?” Gorelick asks. He sounds slightly disgusted.

“Because, it depends on who’s available,” Barer says. “Because, Bill, I love you and you are flawed, and I still love you. Hillary is flawed, and if she’s still the best person for the job among the choices, I’ll vote for her.”

Newman thinks it’s sad that Clinton is the best the Democrats can do. “Why don’t they have more candidates?” he asks.

“Well, why don’t you have better candidates?” Girard responds. “Ted Cruz, is that someone you want as president?”

Newman doesn’t want Cruz. He starts naming other contenders. He mentions Jim Webb, a Democrat.

Suddenly, a brief moment of agreement. Several at the table like Webb.

The agreement ends when Girard asks: “How about Jeb Bush being on the board of a company that has broken like a thousand laws related to the environment?”

“And if he was a Democrat,” counters Marshall, “he’d be held on a pedestal and given a Congressional Medal of Honor.”

Moving the needle

You notice that the table seldom reaches consensus. So maybe the Lunch Bunch’s example doesn’t offer much hope for ending partisan gridlock. On the other hand, they are talking to each other, even when they’re virulently disagreeing. And opinions do change, Gorelick says. “I think we can move a needle to the middle, but not across the line. That's what compromise is all about.”

When it’s time for dessert, Marshall pulls out his block of chocolate-covered halvah, which he buys in New York when he visits his daughter. A waiter provides a knife and plate.

The halvah is sliced, passed and consumed. A discussion ensues about prospective presidential candidates and the House of Representatives, which Barer calls “an abomination.”

You have to wonder: Do these guys ever leave angry?

Before that question can be addressed, the subject of Netanyahu comes up yet again, and off they go. Ten minutes later, there’s a lull. Girard finally leans forward to answer.

“The bottom line,” he says, “is when we finish lunch, it may take us an hour or two to calm down.”

But a little time passes. They remember the camaraderie. And the halvah. By the next week, Girard says, they can’t wait to come back.

Pam Kelley: 704-358-5271

The Lunch Bunch

Harvey Barer, 84, retired New York lawyer and judge. Calls himself a liberal. Relies on Stephen Girard to calm him down when gets wrought up.

Stephen Girard, 76, Gastonia native and retired Hollywood agent and studio executive. Calls this the most stimulating group he’s ever been exposed to.

Bill Gorelick, 80, runs a family investment firm with his two sons. Conservative, but a registered Independent.

Jake Jacobson, 62, CEO of SALUS Government Properties. The group’s youngest member.

Barry Marshall, 78, retired dentist. Always brings the halvah. Doesn’t believe anything President Barack Obama says, but would have a beer with him.

Ed Newman, 78, retired radiologist. Calls himself the quietest of the group.

Larry Polsky, 71, Leon Levine Foundation senior program officer.

Marvin Shapiro, 74, semi-retired primary-care physician. Says he has many political views, and he’s usually wrong.

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