Statehouse forum sponsored by Columbus Partnership, The Matriots and Squire Patton Boggs.

What are the outcomes of incivility in today’s political climate? For former U.S. Rep Pat Tiberi, a Republican, it was the fact that he could not convince a Democratic colleague and friend to co-sponsor a bill with him because the congressman was facing a primary challenge and didn’t want his constituents to see him as willing to collaborate across the aisle.

“There is no reward, electorally” for collaboration in Congress, said Tiberi Thursday evening at a forum in the Ohio Statehouse rotunda entitled “Elevating Community, Collaboration and Civility.” “There is none.” Tiberi currently serves as president and CEO of the Ohio Business Roundtable.

For former Ohio Supreme Court justice Yvette McGee Brown, it was when The Columbus Dispatch published a photo of her, the lone Democrat on the court, with Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor, a Republican, along with an article that described their friendly relationship and the fact that they often agreed on court decisions.

“She got unbelievable shit from Republicans,” said McGee Brown, “and I got unbelievable shit from Democrats. It was so ridiculous.”

The event, co-sponsored by The Matriots, a cross-partisan PAC dedicated to helping women get elected, Squire Patton Boggs, a law firm, and the Columbus Partnership, the organization of heavy hitters from Central Ohio businesses and nonprofits chaired by Les Wexner, was aimed at fostering conversations to “ensure our ability to build civil discourse in our community.”

Civility has been the message from the Partnership of late, initiated by Wexner and kicked off in April when members of the Partnership and other civic leaders flew to Washington to meet with the Central Ohio congressional delegation. The Partnership’s newfound mission is detailed in the July issue of Columbus Monthly, on newsstands now, in a feature titled, “Can’t We All Just Get Along?”

Yesterday’s keynote speaker, Carolyn Lukensmeyer, executive director of the National Institute for Civil Discourse, laid out the problem. She told an audience of about 100 that the rancor of today’s political environment is not only stymying collaboration in Congress, it’s increasing Americans’ stress levels. Her organization hears from corporations that are concerned that political disagreements among employees are hurting productivity, and from families who don’t know how to come together civilly for holiday dinners.

“This kind of person-to-person antipathy has not been seen since the Civil War and Jim Crow laws,” she said.

Panelists, who also included George Barrett, executive chairman of Cardinal Health, and Nancy Kramer, founder of Resource/Ammirati and chief evangelist at IBM iX, said they didn’t have any solutions for the decline of civil discourse, but agreed that politicians and civilians alike can combat the problem by reaching across the aisle and trying to understand the perspectives of those with opposing views rather than confronting or disregarding them. 

“We have to get ourselves into rooms where we’re not comfortable,” said McGee Brown, who is a partner at Jones Day and co-chairs the National Institute for Civil Discourse’s on-the-ground effort in Ohio, Revive Civility Ohio. “We need to get out of our comfort zones and have those difficult conversations with people different than us.”

“I hate to say ‘mandate,’ ” said Tiberi, with a chuckle, “but you almost have to mandate that everybody find a friend who is different.” Tiberi lauded an effort by current U.S. Reps Joyce Beatty (D) and Steve Stivers (R), who formed a Civility Caucus. Members of Congress can only join in pairs, a Democrat and a Republican who pledge to visit each other’s districts together and encourage civility.

“As business leaders,” said Barrett in an interview following the event, “we have to model the behavior. It’s not simple, but you can establish a tone that comes from the organization.”

Columbus Partnership CEO Alex Fischer said that the Partnership does not yet have additional civility-oriented events planned, but that the organization will stick with the issue.

“What we’re learning is you just have to stay after it,” said Fischer. “You’ve got to develop muscle memory. This isn’t just one and done.”

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