Against the backdrop of an overheated partisan divide, the Columbus Partnership is urging Congress to be more civil – with Central Ohio as the model.

In late April, The Columbus Dispatch reported that members of the Columbus Partnership, the high-powered group of Central Ohio business leaders chaired by L Brands CEO Les Wexner, were in the nation's capital speaking out against a proposed bill that threatened jobs at Columbus's Defense Supply Center. Every so often, members of the Partnership travel to Washington for what they call a “fly-in” to meet with legislators. Summoning their collective weight to influence the fate of legislation that will impact the Central Ohio economy is one of the things the Partnership does best.

What was not reported, however, was that these 34 powerful civic leaders hadn't traveled from Columbus to Washington, D.C., just to talk about one proposed defense-spending bill. They had something both more ambitious and more amorphous in mind; something that, at first glance, might seem a bit off-topic for the group. Squishy, even.

They were there to talk about civility.

“I Feel Dirty”

Why would a group of powerful Columbus dignitaries, whose role in the Partnership historically has been to promote smart economic development locally, mount a civility caravan to Washington, D.C.? An attempt to cast Columbus as the grownup in a nation-sized roomful of jabbering finger-pointers? A self-congratulatory kumbaya moment?

Both are likely part of the answer. But insiders say it's more personal than that. Many say it's a passion project that started at the top, with Partnership founder and chair, L Brands CEO Les Wexner.

Wexner first spoke publicly about his concerns last August, after a rampaging driver killed a counter-protester at a “Unite the Right” rally of white nationalists who had gathered in Charlottesville to protest the removal of a Confederate statue. Days later, Wexner spoke to more than 700 L Brands employees in person and via video conference, telling them that he found the events in Charlottesville and President Donald Trump's response—Trump said there were “very fine people” among the white nationalist protesters—“shocking” and “terrible behavior from a leader.”

“Personally,” Wexner said, “I feel dirty, ashamed.”

He felt compelled to do something. He used the two biggest powers at his disposal—his wallet and his influence in the Partnership. “When it comes to political leaders and political parties, I'm not going to support anybody unless they send me a note and tell me they're going to behave civilly,” he told the L Brands associates.

Public records suggest Wexner, who declined an interview request for this story, has made good on that pledge. While in prior years both he (a Republican) and his wife, Abigail (a Democrat), gave sums large and small to a wide array of candidates (he gave $101,700 in May 2017 to the National Republican Congressional Committee), in the second half of 2017 Wexner made just two $5,000 donations to bipartisan PACs and a $300,000 contribution to the With Honor Fund, a national organization that supports “principled next-generation veterans … who will work in a cross-partisan way to create a more effective and less polarized government.” Candidates supported by the fund must take a pledge of integrity, courage, and civility. Abigail Wexner followed up her husband's gift in 2018 with a $2.5 million donation to the With Honor Fund.

Wexner also sent around his own civility pledge, says Alex Fischer, CEO of the Columbus Partnership. “He sent that pledge to a number of political leaders, and said, ‘Think about this,'” says Fischer. “He said, ‘This is impressive. And this is consistent with how I think about things.'”

Then Wexner appealed to his friends in the Partnership.

A “Magical” Evening

The gathering in D.C. spanned two days, during which 26 Partnership members and eight guests participated in several events: a reception with members of the Ohio Congressional delegation and their staffs, a tour of the new National Museum of African American History and Culture and a private dinner conversation with Central Ohio's representatives on Capitol Hill—House Democrat Joyce Beatty and House Republican Steve Stivers and Senators Rob Portman, a Republican, and his Democratic counterpart, Sherrod Brown.

Taking part in the events from the Partnership was an all-star cast of Columbus heavyweights: Wexner and his wife Abigail, Ohio State University president Michael Drake, CoverMyMeds CEO Matt Scantland, New Albany Co. president Jack Kessler and Huntington Bank CEO Steve Steinour, just to name a few. The community guests included Mayor Andrew Ginther, City Council President Shannon Hardin and Franklin County Commissioner Kevin Boyce.

The April 25 dinner, which took place at the National Museum of American History, was billed as “Jeffersonian,” meaning it followed a protocol devised by the country's third president that would allow important, delicate discussions to occur, sometimes between political rivals. It was closed to the press (Jefferson kept things private by eschewing potentially gossipy servants at such dinners, preferring to have the food set out beforehand), and the 40 or so guests sat at five round tables. They were seated in the museum's “Unity Square,” says Fischer, in the presence of the original Woolworth lunch counter where a 1960 sit-in by four black students challenged racial segregation.

The members of Congress rotated tables between dinner courses. Carolyn Lukensmeyer of the National Institute for Civil Discourse moderated the discussion, offering a series of questions, such as “How do you feel about the current [political] environment?” and “What can we do about it?” Participants were encouraged to describe their thoughts and experiences candidly; any story that was shared was to stay in the room.

By many accounts, it was a fascinating evening. Steinour says it was “magical.” “People I like and respect [sat] around a table taking a very unique topic and just being incredibly candid about it. And with their openness, inspiring others to engage and maybe think a little differently.” It was, he says, “a very special night.”

At the end, Lukensmeyer facilitated a panel discussion with Beatty, Stivers, Portman and Brown before Partnership CEO Alex Fischer and Wexner closed the evening with Wexner giving what Fischer calls a “sort of benediction.”

“I think it was particularly powerful on the evening after the dinner to have Les walk up with four members of Congress,” recalls Fischer. “I think it was a proud moment for Les, an acknowledgement that, you know, maybe we are making a little bit of a difference. … It wasn't about an outcome. We weren't trying to solve a problem necessarily. It wasn't about, ‘You have to have an action plan coming from this.' It's about, ‘Let's just be in conversation. Let's be in fellowship. Let's build culture.' I think that was a fun moment for Les to give that flavor of a benediction and a challenge. And the challenge is, ‘Gosh, we need more of this.'”

The Columbus Way

In some ways, promoting civility and collaboration is a natural extension of the brand the Partnership has already effectively established. Columbus' triumph in winning the $50 million Smart City Challenge, for instance, has often been credited to the collaboration across industries and the creative partnership between public and private entities that was formed to develop the proposal. It's a way of doing business that caught the eye of Harvard Business School professor Jan W. Rivkin, who in 2015 authored a study of the Partnership's efforts that popularized the term, “the Columbus Way.”

Civility also is a habit among the members of the politically diverse Central Ohio congressional delegation: Stivers, Beatty, Brown and Portman. “If Rob Portman and Sherrod Brown were running the Senate, we'd get so much more done,” says Ginther.

Stivers and Beatty, too, are known to have a companionable friendship. They disagree on major issues, but often seek out opportunities to collaborate on bills and projects that don't touch on ideology as a show of bipartisanship. Earlier this year, they launched an effort that aligns perfectly with the Partnership's latest theme: a Civility and Respect Caucus.

Members of Congress who want to join their caucus must sign up in pairs—a Democrat and a Republican—and commit to organizing at least one civility-oriented event in their district. So far, 22 have joined, and Beatty and Stivers hope to reach 50 by the end of the year. Here in Columbus, the pair announced the initiative at a Columbus Metropolitan Club event, followed by a “civility tour” of local high schools. At the end of each visit, the students stand and, raising their right hands, take a civility pledge written by Beatty, promising to do their part to build a society in which each person is respected.

“I want more Americans to know, and especially our young people,” says Beatty via email, “that you can disagree without being disagreeable. Being civil and respectful is not about changing your beliefs, but rather it is all about having an open mind and listening to different perspectives.”

Wexner, in an emailed statement, applauds the initiative. “I'm so proud of the bipartisan leadership of the Civility and Respect Caucus,” he writes. Stivers and Beatty, he says, “are leading the way to build a collaborative model that demonstrates the Columbus Way.”

He expresses his hope that Beatty and Stivers, along with Portman and Brown, will “bring this way of thinking and leadership behavior to Ohio and the rest of the nation.”

Fischer says that this is the same message the Columbus Partnership can bring to the conversation. “We're always stronger, whether it's in government or in private business—or even in our personal lives—when we do things together,” he says. “Ideas are always stronger when they have the input and dialogue of different perspectives, and you know, that's how we think about it in our private businesses—always trying to have different perspectives around our board tables and executive rooms.”

Things They'd Never Say to Your Face

For Stivers, the loss of civility is personal. During the spring and summer of 2017, E. Stanley Hoff of Westerville left Stivers a series of threatening voicemails. In one, he said, “Leave Obamacare alone or die”; in another, he referenced the shooting at the congressional baseball game in June 2017 that left Republican House Majority Whip Steve Scalise severely injured, and added, “Maybe the next one taken down will be your daughter, huh? Or your wife. Or even you.” Hoff was sentenced in May to 40 months in federal prison. The incident left Stivers shaken, angry and concerned about the direction public discourse is heading. “What's likely to happen is people will get even more radicalized and decide violence is the way,” he says. “That's the ultimate destination of incivility. It's unacceptable, and it undermines our republic.”

Stivers says the rise of Facebook and Twitter has been the spark that lit the flames of incivility, and that there's plenty of blame to go around. “The anonymity created in social media makes people think they can do and say things they'd never say to people's faces,” he says. “After they do it online a little bit, they think it is OK to say it to people's faces.”

Beatty, the Democrat, lays at least a portion of the blame at the doorstep of President Trump. “As Valerie Jarrett recently said in response to a racist tweet, ‘Tone starts at the top.' As elected officials, we are held to a higher standard, so it is incumbent on all of us—beginning with the president and a Republican-controlled Congress—to lead by example.”

Partnership members interviewed for this article generally steered clear of partisan finger-pointing and instead spoke about the need for both Republicans and Democrats to start talking to each other again. “The willingness to civilly engage has been eroding over time,” says Steinour, “and we're willing to put a stake in the ground and try to turn it around.”

Moving Forward

So what does the Partnership hope to accomplish, precisely? Aren't the members essentially preaching to the choir when they meet with Beatty and Stivers, Portman and Brown? Can the Partnership save America from itself?

Leading by example is the primary goal, say Partnership members and staff. Maybe that collaborative spirit at the root of the Columbus Way can be extended to party politics and, ultimately, to civil discourse. Maybe the Columbus Way can set an example for a kinder and gentler America.

“We've got a Democratic mayor and a Republican governor and Democratic and Republican members of the business community and the broader community all working on issues together,” says Fischer. “That's the Columbus Way.”

Former Mayor Michael Coleman, who once was known for preaching that Columbus needed “swagger” to shed its cowtown image, is now just as passionate about civility.

“I've been thinking a lot about the radical middle,” he says.

The reason for the current impasse in Congress and in the culture, says Coleman, is the degree of passion on both the right and the left. “Taken together, they're about 20 percent of our universe,” he says, “but they are controlling the agenda.

“But 80 percent of the country is part of the radical middle. Let's do something radical and find a way for the middle to control the agenda.”

It's an interesting way to make civility—patient listening, courtesy and respect—sound exciting. “To demand civility is to demand values and ethics and respect,” he says. “Be passionate about your demands. Don't sit on your hands. Don't bite your tongue. Demand it. Be radical about it.”

It seems the notion is spreading locally.

Former Ohio Supreme Court Justice Yvette McGee Brown, a partner at the Jones Day law firm in Columbus and a Democrat, is co-chairing Revive Civility Ohio, an on-the-ground effort sponsored by Lukensmeyer's organization and directed, along with programs in three other states, by former Ohio legislator Ted Celeste. McGee Brown recently was joined by co-chair Bob Cupp, a Republican state representative who once was McGee Brown's colleague on the Ohio Supreme Court. She was the only Democrat on the bench and often found herself in the minority on opinions, she says, but Cupp always went out of his way to understand her position. “He could have ignored me—he had the votes—but he was seeking understanding,” she says. “And that's what we're missing today.”

Later this month, McGee Brown will participate in a forum in the Ohio Statehouse atrium titled “Elevating Community, Collaboration and Civility.” The event will be co-sponsored by the Partnership, along with law firm Squire Patton Boggs and the Matriots, a cross-partisan organization that supports women candidates for office. Alex Shumate, managing partner of Squire Patton Boggs, says he's also hoping to bring Lukensmeyer to the firm for further discussion. “I'm excited to work with Carolyn because she has the data,” he says. “What are the best practices? What are the programs that have worked? We don't have to reinvent the wheel.”

Mayor Andy Ginther welcomes the Partnership's collective voice. For him, the April dinner crystallized the connection between civility and economic development in the region. “When you don't have civility, you're not going to get bold, innovative ideas; there's not going to be honest dialogue, there's going to be a short-sighted race to the bottom. ... But when there is a positive and constructive dialogue and public discourse going on … that supports a strong, stable, growing economy.”

Fischer concurs, with a more measured tone that befits the person in charge of herding the lions in the Columbus Partnership. “I wish this was a conversation that could have a quick end to it, but I think these are cultural shifts and we're going to try to do our part to push and pull and encourage and model behaviors that are productive,” he says. “What I hope is that we keep it up, and a decade from now we look back and find we are making progress.”