What’s happened to civil discourse?

President Donald Trump, left, Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., and White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders. Below is The Red Hen Restaurant in Virginia. Sanders was asked to leave the restaurant. (Associated Press)

Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – In an era where the president of the United States mocks and belittles his critics and a Virginia restaurant refuses to serve one of his top staffers, New Mexico political leaders say they still value civility.

U.S. Rep. Steve Pearce, a Republican running for governor this year, said members of both political parties have been guilty of over-the-top rhetoric.

“If we get to a point as a country where we can’t discuss issues,” he said in interview, “that’s a very bad place to be.”

Michelle Lujan Grisham, a member of Congress and the Democratic nominee for governor, said the political tone in Washington has grown worse over time.

“Now members, in addition to the president, personalize and go after each other on social media all of the time,” Lujan Grisham said in an interview. “I think I’ve witnessed at least three altercations on the floor. … As an onlooker, I got nervous that there were going to be fisticuffs – it was that intense.”

A national debate over civil disagreement flared up this summer when White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders was asked by a restaurant owner to leave the establishment because she works for Trump.

And last month, protesters gathered outside Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen’s home, where they blared audio of crying immigrant children. She was also confronted at a restaurant.

Trump himself often ridicules opponents in particularly personal ways, sometimes taking aim at their physical appearance. As a candidate, he once mocked a reporter with a disability, and at rallies, he sometimes mentioned violence, saying at one event that he’d like to punch a protester in the face.

U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., last week told rally-goers to confront Trump’s Cabinet members if they see the officials at a restaurant, department store or gas station and make it clear “they’re not welcome anymore” – prompting Trump, in turn, to call Waters “an extraordinarily low IQ person” who should be careful what she wishes for.

New Mexico has been home to some aggressive confrontations, too:

• In 2014, the Albuquerque Police Department’s shooting of a homeless camper in the back sparked a sit-in at the Mayor’s Office and disruption of a City Council meeting.

• Also that year, anti-abortion protesters took graphic images into the neighborhood of Gov. Susana Martinez’s top political adviser, Jay McCleskey, as part of a demonstration, sparking a confrontation with him.

• In 2016, a Democratic state lawmaker, Rep. Christine Trujillo, shouted, “Shame on you!” at Martinez during a State of the State address.

Return to ‘decency’

But much of the recent debate has focused on the venom in national politics.

U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich, a Democrat seeking re-election this year, said New Mexico’s own Dennis Chavez – the first Hispanic man elected to a full term in the Senate – is an example of the virtue of trying to work together as Americans to resolve disagreements.

“At the height of McCarthyism in the 1950s, another deeply divisive era for our nation’s politics, Senator Chavez repeatedly called on his colleagues to return to ‘decency, sanity, and the basic principles of due process,’ ” Heinrich said in a written statement. “Chavez’s words resonate today as we have seen far too many vicious tweets, hateful confrontations, and demonization of those with whom we disagree.”

U.S. Sen. Tom Udall, a Democrat, said his dad, Stewart Udall, a congressman and cabinet secretary, “taught me that we can disagree without being disagreeable.”

Nevertheless, he said, people are “understandably outraged” by Trump’s conduct and policies.

“New Mexicans and Americans feel rightfully compelled to stand up and speak out,” Udall said in a written statement. “We should never condone violence or harassment – and we should always stand up for the right to peacefully but passionately protest government actions.”

More civility in NM

In local government, meanwhile, elected leaders rarely trade personal insults, at least not publicly.

“Putting aside our differences is more prevalent at the local level because we’re focused on our communities and neighborhoods,” Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller, a former state auditor and state senator, said. “That’s why you see support from both sides of the aisle in key areas like our public safety priorities.”

And at the Roundhouse, the tone may be improving, some officials say. On the last day of this year’s regular legislative session in February, House Minority Leader Nate Gentry, R-Albuquerque, said he was seeing more civility and camaraderie in the chamber.

New Mexico House Speaker Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, said he has tried to make it a point to reach out to Republicans, in part, because bipartisan solutions tend to be more durable. The state House is passing more bipartisan legislation, he said, and Democratic representatives have toured Republican parts of the state to hear firsthand from residents they might not otherwise meet.

“Civility in the Legislature has been helped enormously through our ‘jobs listening tour,’ ” Egolf said in an interview.

Not a new problem

Pearce, for his part, said both Republicans and Democrats have an obligation to hold members of their own party accountable.

Inflamed rhetoric can have dangerous consequences, he said, citing the June 2017 incident in which a left-wing activist shot U.S. House Majority Whip Steve Scalise of Louisiana and others during the Republicans’ practice for the annual congressional baseball game. Pearce was present at the time but not injured.

“I think it’s time for us to take a look in the mirror and throttle down,” he said. “This is where we’re coming to in the country if we’re not careful.”

But he stopped short of saying the shrill rhetoric is strictly a modern phenomenon, pointing out there’s been a long history of incivility in American politics.

In 1856, Pearce noted, a member of the U.S. House of Representatives used a walking cane to attack a senator after a speech about slavery and its practitioners.

A need for tolerance

Lujan Grisham herself has been aggressive in political clashes, but she said her focus is policy goals, not personal insults.

In 2016, she participated in a sit-in on the House floor in which Democrats called for votes on gun legislation. More recently, she showed up uninvited at a White House meeting on immigration.

“I behaved with professionalism and decorum,” she said of the meeting, noting that President Trump responded to one of her questions during the event.

Lujan Grisham also said that, despite her intense political differences with Republican Gov. Martinez, neither has resorted to name-calling.

And she says she wouldn’t have turned away Sanders, the White House press secretary, from the restaurant if she’d owned it.

Instead, Lujan Grisham said, she might have stood up for her staff by serving Sanders herself so they wouldn’t have to, or maybe writing a note to Sanders to express her opinion.

But she noted that the “restaurant owner, from all accounts I’ve seen, was polite and felt like she had to stand up for her moral values.”

Nevertheless, Lujan Grisham said she has concerns about turning someone away from a service that’s ordinarily available to the public.

“I worry about that,” she said. “It means that our tolerance for each other is being minimized. It means our ability to work through our disagreements is eroding.”

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