It was a simple idea, but a surprising one in this age of political polarization, which now includes innuendo about one’s manhood.
Why not get North Carolinians of all political stripes together to have conversations, to better understand one another’s point of view, and see whether there is any common ground about how to make life better in the state?
The result was the first of a series of meetings last week at Duke University involving conservatives such as Raleigh businessman Art Pope, former state GOP Chairman Robin Hayes and former gubernatorial candidate Chuck Neely, and liberals such as MaryBe McMillan of the state AFL-CIO, former Charlotte Mayor Dan Clodfelter, and former state Rep. Rick Glazier, head of the North Carolina Justice Center.
It all started when John Hood, president of the conservative John Pope Foundation, wrote a column about a year ago about how liberals and conservatives rarely talk to each other and usually get their information from different sources. He encouraged people not to just read information that reinforced their views, but also to read material that would help them understand different viewpoints.
What is needed, Hood said, is a more constructive dialogue.
That column prompted Leslie Winner, executive director of the liberal Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation and a former state senator, to call Hood to talk about it.
“One of the main lessons of being in the General Assembly in the 1990s was to really listen to people who disagreed with me,” Winner said. “There was always a kernel of truth to the people who disagreed with me.”
“We agreed to do something about it together,” Winner said.
Hood, Winner and Fritz Mayer, associate dean of Duke’s Sanford School of Public Policy, began planning a way to bring a political cross-section of North Carolina leaders together in an informal setting to talk about the state’s problems.
Invitations to join the group – called The North Carolina Leadership Forum – were sent out under the names of some prominent North Carolinians, including former governors Jim Hunt, a Democrat, and Jim Martin, a Republican, Duke University President Richard Brodhead, Ann Goodnight of SAS and Pope.
And so about 30 people met last Thursday and Friday at the Durham campus. Among the listed participants were business leaders such as Brad Wilson of Blue Cross & Blue Shield and Goodnight, and political leaders such as state Sen. Andy Wells, former state Sen. Pete Brunstetter and state Sen. Jeff Jackson.
The group plans to meet four times during the year. The subject is both simple and difficult, Winner said. What can be done so that more North Carolinians can earn enough to support their families? It doesn’t have to be a government program, Winner said. The group may come up with ideas for businesses, churches or nonprofits.
People can leave disagreeing about the solutions, Hood and Winner said. The goal is to have a constructive discussion and come up with ideas that everybody can get behind.
During the first meeting, the participants spent time getting to know each other and, with the help of a professional facilitator, tossing out ideas about how to improve the ability of residents to provide for their families. In the next meeting, the group will hear from policy experts.
Some ideas, such as raising the state minumum wage, Hood said, drew sharply different reactions from the participants.
But they judged the first meeting a success. “It was an A plus,” Mayer said. It was also, Mayer said, probably the first statewide effort of its kind in the country.
And in a year when much of the nation’s politics has turned toxic, it is a breath of fresh air.