DENVER — Two state senators, a Republican and a Democrat, sit on a dais in a dimly lit conference room at the Colorado Convention Center here and begin to talk. The two men are friends – they tease each other, call each other “dude” – and they are fed up with partisan fights.
So they decide to try something drastic. Each will vote with the opposing party on two of the most controversial issues in American politics: abortion and gun rights.
“If we don’t do something different, then it’s the same old storyline,” the Democrat said.
That’s the plot of a short play by New Mexico State Senator Bill O’Neill, a Democrat, that was staged this week at the annual summit of the National Conference of Legislatures. of State, a nonpartisan organization that includes sitting legislators from every US state and territory. It was one of many sessions that encouraged lawmakers to think about partisan battles and how they might come to a detente.
Bipartisan collaboration still exists in state legislatures, lawmakers attending the summit said. But they also said it was becoming increasingly difficult to reach the other side of the aisle, leading to more traffic jams or hyperpartisan legislation.
Old traditions of bonhomie are crumbling and legislators risk turning against voters, the media and their own caucus when working with the other party.
Partisan animosity in the Nebraska legislature has grown over the past four years, said Sen. Ben Hansen, a Republican. When he talks to lawmakers who served a decade or more ago, they say the culture of the legislature has completely changed.
Democrats and Republicans used to get together to have a drink and smooth things over, Hansen said. “That doesn’t happen anymore.”
Some lawmakers at the conference acknowledged that certain bipartisan traditions made them uncomfortable.
After Connecticut’s annual session ends at midnight, the atmosphere traditionally shifts from fierce fighting to bipartisan celebration, Sen. Will Haskell, Democrat and acting vice president, said during a panel focused on the experiences of young people. legislators.
He said while it’s important to find common ground, it’s hard to be friends with lawmakers when you’re convinced their political positions could harm your family.
“To this day, I see both sides of it and I’m really struggling with that 12:01 moment,” he said. “At the end of the day, what we do is not a game.”
The growing tension in the legislatures reflects the national mood. Republicans and Democrats increasingly view the opposing party as not only wrong, but dangerous. Ahead of the 2020 election, 90% of then-candidate Joe Biden’s supporters and 89% of then-President Donald Trump’s supporters said the United States would suffer lasting harm if its preferred candidate was losing, according to a Pew Research Center poll (The Pew Charitable Trusts funds the center and Stateline).
Some lawmakers at the summit said that in this hyperpartisan climate, even talking to a member of the opposing party is risky.
“With the Twitter world, the Facebook world, every time someone takes a picture of you talking to someone across the aisle, it becomes politically problematic for you,” Virginia said. Of the. Terry Kilgore, Republican and House. Majority Leader, during a roundtable on partisan dispute resolution.
“In this world, it’s getting harder and harder to go in the middle, for every part,” he said, “but it’s something we have to aspire to do.”
Many moderate lawmakers lose their seats or are expelled. Lawmakers who want to stay in power are under pressure to toe the party line, both with their votes and their public statements.
It doesn’t help that in 37 states, one party controls both houses of the legislature and the governor’s office. In these so-called trifecta states, majority lawmakers have less incentive to cross the aisle, and minority lawmakers have very little power to influence legislation.
Oklahoma State Rep. John Waldron, a Democrat, teacher and House Minority Leader, said he was able to work with GOP lawmakers on some education bills , as a measure to create incentives for teacher training.
But it hasn’t been easy for him to convince GOP lawmakers to attend meetings of the bipartisan educators’ caucus he co-chairs. Oklahoma Democratic State Rep. Meloyde Blancett said it was even harder for her to convince GOP lawmakers to join her bipartisan women’s caucus.
“House leaders have warned Republican women that they better not be seen with us,” she said.
Friendly relations — and strategically drafted bills — can open the door to bipartisan cooperation, lawmakers said.
Florida State Representative Amber Mariano Davis, a Republican, recently championed a tenant safety bill sponsored by Democratic State Representative Robin Bartleman. Davis said Stateline the bill dealt with an important matter of public safety. It helped that she also got along with Bartleman.
“There are members of the other party who will stand up throughout the session and talk about the terrible human beings we [Republicans] are,” Davis said.
O’Neill, a writer who has published two novels and two books of poetry, came up with the idea for the play last year. That’s when his friend, Republican New Mexico state senator Cliff Pirtle, convinced him to vote against a bill that would restrict the use of a bee-damaging pesticide. Pirtle had explained to O’Neill that the law would hurt farmers.
The “no” vote outraged some of his constituents, O’Neill said. “I get a flood of emails – ‘Hey, what’s your problem? “”, Did he declare. “That’s where I started, it started with this.”
Bipartisanship is also an issue close to his heart. “It’s just something that’s close to my heart, bipartisanship,” O’Neill said. Stateline. “We are living this, and it is so timely.”
O’Neill and Pirtle bonded at bipartisan social events, they said, such as playing for the state Senate‘s charity basketball team. Although O’Neill is a progressive Democrat who represents parts of Albuquerque and Pirtle is a libertarian-leaning Republican who represents a rural area, they realized they had a lot in common.
They both enjoy talking to people who think differently from them. And they share what may be an unusual trait in politicians: they don’t really like conflict.
“I’m a staunch Republican, I feel like less government is better government,” Pirtle said. Stateline days before the play’s debut in Denver. “But I think if two reasonable people can sit down and have a good chat over a cold beer, I think a lot of problems can be solved.”
The play – which O’Neill says is still ongoing – is around 40 minutes long and is a staged reading of scripted dialogue. Two actors are seated next to each other, reading binders and occasionally gesturing to archival footage displayed on a screen. After casting their controversial votes, they take turns walking to a podium and explaining themselves, while a PA system plays the boos and groans of their angry supporters.
After the Denver performance, O’Neill and Pirtle admitted to the show’s nearly 70 attendees that despite their friendship, they hardly ever voted together (and they certainly never traded votes on burning issues).
Besides the bee bill, Pirtle could recall only one other example: This year, he and O’Neill supported a bill to create the New Mexico Opportunity Scholarship, a tuition-free university program. Just as O’Neill received angry emails after his bee vote, Pirtle faced backlash for voting with Democrats and some Republicans on free college.
“I got huge hits from all the bloggers and publications and such,” Pirtle said, at least initially. He voted for it because the bill would fund job training scholarships and workforce training is badly needed in his district, he said.
O’Neill’s play ends on a dark note. Both lawmaker characters know they probably ruined their political careers with their vote-changing experiment.
“I look to the future and I don’t like what I see,” says the Democratic figure. “Actually, I don’t see anything but a blank. We are so divided.
Next, a video clip shows a rodeo queen riding an arena holding an American flag. O’Neill finds the video moving. But it’s a lonely scene. The clip is silent and the arena is empty.