HERE IS A shining example of how not to treat your opponents in elected office:
U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., observes that her Republican colleagues are like wife beaters. Referring to the GOP's role in the government shutdown, she quips:
"I have to say, when you start acting like you're committing domestic abuse, you've got a problem. 'I love you, dear, but you know, I'm shutting down your entire government. I love you, dear, but I'm going to default, and you're going to be weak.' Something is dreadfully wrong."
Having worked with women (and men) who have been the targets of domestic violence, I have to say I completely agree with Boxer. Something is, indeed, dreadfully wrong when a presumably mature (and rapidly maturing) woman sees no difference between House Speaker John Boehner and Bluebeard.
And now, here is proof that there are still some intelligent forms of life out there. Sadly, it's not in the nation's capital, but at this point I'll take sanity wherever I can get it.
State Rep. Brian Sims and I don't agree on much. He thinks a woman's right to choose an abortion is a fundamental pillar of constitutional jurisprudence; I think it is the constitutional fraud of the century. He is the first openly gay legislator in Pennsylvania and is fighting hard for marriage equality; I am a straight lawyer who thinks that the only way we can "read" a right to same-sex marriage in the Constitution is to allow social science to trump critical legal analysis. He says he's not that religious; I carry a rosary in my pocket.
He is most definitely on the liberal end of the political spectrum, and my fingers have a tenuous grip on the conservative ledge.
And yet, Sims is one of the more principled and collaborative public servants I've encountered in my half-century on earth, most of it spent in this beloved cesspool known as Philadelphia.
It might have to do with the fact that Democrat Sims has experience as a community organizer in the cesspool, which provokes eye-rolling in many of my siblings on the right but which is actually something the nuns of my parochial youth would have commended. The ability to deal with others, particularly others who have no inclination to listen or bend, is the only thing that separates civility from chaos. The farce in D.C. is a clear example of what happens when that element is overlooked.
I recently sat down with Sims and asked about his philosophy for getting the job done. Eschewing metaphors about wife beaters and arsonists, this freshman member of the Pennsylvania House was a lot wiser than his elders, like Boxer:
"The idea of not even changing a mind, but being able to work with a mind that is unchanging or work with a mind that is opposed to yours, you need to understand it. It sounds very elementary, and it's something that we talk a lot about around here, the idea that nothing should be revolutionary about the idea that you have to understand the people that you work with. But somehow that seems revolutionary of late in this sort of modern discussion of American politics."
As Sims once put it, he's trying to find empathy for people who disagree with him. It takes a lot of humility to say that I am not even going to try to change someone's mind but, rather, figure out a way to find common ground on those points where our values don't crash into each other.
So many times, we hear a politician or a pundit preaching about the purity of his or her positions and the importance of not yielding to a watered-down version of the truth. I've been guilty of that myself in the past, and I still think it's absolutely crucial to stand for something well-defined and immutable when it comes to the things that define us as human beings. I could no sooner say, "I'm personally against abortion but wouldn't deny that choice to someone else," than I could say, "I'm personally against wife-beating but wouldn't deny that choice to someone else." To me, they are equal violations of human dignity.
But I agree with Sims that the way to move forward is to acknowledge the immutable characteristic of your differences, and then look for areas of common purpose. As he says, "Being slightly magnanimous when people don't expect you to be gains a lot of ground."
For example, we both agree that immigration reform is important, which involves me stepping over the conservative Mason-Dixon Line of the battlefield and moving into enemy (progressive) territory. By the same token, Sims believes that we need to be much more business-friendly in the city and reform our draconian tax code, which imposes a significant burden on the best income producers and job creators in Philadelphia. His liberal friends of the tax-and-spend variety would probably be aghast at that notion.
I think most of us got a clearer picture of Sims' character through a lens provided, ironically, by one of his staunchest opponents, conservative-firebrand state Rep. Daryl Metcalfe.
After the Supreme Court invalidated parts of the Defense of Marriage Act in June, Sims wanted to address the assembly. Metcalfe tried to silence him by saying the decision violated the "word of God." Even those of us who think that same-sex marriage should not be legalized were appalled. Sims, however, maintained his dignity and gained many admirers, including yours truly.
Barbara Boxer could take some lessons.
Christine M. Flowers is a lawyer.