The other day, down at the Chamber of Commerce's candidates' forum, strong mayoral candidate John Powers, when asked about his plans to bring leadership to our dysfunctional City Council, made the case for discussion, exchange, mutual respect and dialogue. While his answer may sound like a typical campaign platitude, there is more to Power's point than mere rhetoric. He spoke to politics in its ideal form, a process of persuasion that relies upon dialogue, rhetoric and mutual respect. What Powers implies is that heavy-handed vote taking will always lack the necessary moral suasion. He is right.
Consider that the "new majority" on the City Council has now made three major personnel decisions: 1. The decision to fire Pete Fortin and replace him with Henry Miggins; 2. The decision to seek special counsel, one Yale Lewis, to represent the city in the dispute over the River Park Square parking garage; and, 3. The expression of no confidence in City Attorney Jim Sloane. The decisions were all made on 4-3 votes, and there is no evidence that the majority sought to find common ground with the minority.
Frankly, these decisions and how they were made, smell a whole lot like some of the more important decisions the previous majority of five made. Two come to mind. First there was the decision to hire, as City Manager, Bill Pupo without even showing sufficient respect to the public to require a nationwide search. And then there was that now infamous emergency resolution regarding funding the parking garage -- a slam-dunk. That was that -- but, it turns out, at what cost?
These decisions, both those made by the new majority and those made by -- what shall we call them -- "the old majority" have something else in common: They were all abject political failures. Not one, in the end, could command the necessary moral suasion.
None of these decisions have moral legs so to speak. Suasion refers to the power to influence. Moral suasion, therefore, is the power to influence toward a sense of rightness. But these decisions rested entirely on arithmetic: five beats two, four beats three.
Put into context, as difficult and frustrating as it might be for this majority to accept (or any majority for that matter), if you can't get beyond a 4-3 vote that falls on predictable lines you don't fire city managers, hire special counsel and diminish city attorneys. It is too damaging to the health of the body politic. Nor, I might add, with a majority do you summarily hire city managers and vote for emergency ordinances.
Of course, simple majorities can make all these decisions, the majority does rule, so to speak. But when they resort to ends apart from means, they roll the dice. At the very least, they most certainly become a target for the old "what goes around comes around" political virus.
There are those who argue that change, dramatic change, demands such polarization, but history teaches us something different. It teaches us that over time, real change is dependent upon studied attention to politics, not ideology. Otherwise, one council's change will be overturned by the next -- a dynamic that could be repeated for years leaving the city stuck in first gear.
We recall Steve Corker's story about how he nailed down Councilman Steve Eugster's vote that sealed the Miggins back-door deal. Seems he took Eugster out to have nachos, if I remember the story correctly. Eugster, we know, wasn't all that excited about Miggins, but he was persuaded over nachos to support Corker's heavy-handed parliamentary move.
In order for the Miggins decision to have moral suasion, Corker would have had to take not Eugster out for nachos, but rather he would have had to have dined with Rob Higgins or Roberta Greene or Phyllis Holmes. He needed to at least try to persuade, but instead he relied on arithmetic. My four beats your three.
I offer as a textbook example of doing it the right way the famous 1954 Supreme Court decision, Brown vs. the Topeka Kansas Board of Education -- the famous school desegregation case. Chief Justice Earl Warren understood the historical moment, and he knew that he had the votes to declare school segregation unconstitutional. But given the issue at hand, he needed more. He needed moral suasion beyond what suffices for most Court decisions. He sought a unanimous vote, not 5-4, not even 7-2, but 9-0. Given what was at stake, he had to try. Warren had to persuade, and to persuade he had to compromise, and to compromise he had to show respect for a range of deeply held, sometimes contested, points of view. He "worked the chambers," so to speak, and he came out with that 9-0 vote. Ideologues might have been disappointed, but the decision had moral legs. It would be sustained over time, and that's what counted.
Politics always creates problems for those who believe that government is about ideology, about doing things the one right way. Politics does require tradeoffs. When do we give so much ground in the interest of persuading that we lose sight of what it is that we were trying to accomplish in the first place? When does morality give way to expediency? Tough questions, no doubt. At some stage in the game, if politics is to maintain that moral basis, a line must be drawn in the sand. But before we get there, much political work needs be done, and we aren't seeing that work done in Spokane. We have to walk before we can run.
So we need go at these matters with a sense of humility. Politics in its ideal form requires that we work to at least agree to disagree. Sometimes, in the interest of resolution, we will end up with nothing more to sustain us than an apology and a vote. Sometimes our political theater does end in a 4-3 vote, or a 5-2 vote used to be the case. But even on these occasions, our respect for politics will sustain the health of the body politic.
For examples of arrogance in action, we can find no better than Hillary Clinton's approach to health care reform and Newt Gingrich's performance following the 1994 election. In both cases, we saw arrogant people presuming that they had a mandate that transcended politics. Both relied upon the forces of ideology and counted votes. Not surprisingly, neither succeeded.
Our legislative processes are replete with protocols that have traditionally been relied upon to ensure civility as the process unfolds. They range from the simple: "Would the gentlelady from California yield for a question?" Or consider the many compliments wrapped around the insult: "I should like to thank the gentleman from the great state of Ohio for those remarks, as undecipherable as they might be." Needless formalism? I don't think so.
To some, all this seems so tedious. But when we forget protocol, when we abandon formality, when we dismiss rhetoric, we have nowhere to go but to arithmetic, and when we reduce politics to counting, we risk our civility.
So much damage has been done, so much civility has been lost -- and not just by the new majority. Both sides are to blame. It will remain for the incoming leadership to engage politics in as close to its ideal form as is possible, at a level so necessary to real change, so necessary to effective stewardship, so necessary to a healthy body politic.