National Public Radio has been doing an interesting series lately called “Been There,” where they bring together someone who is just starting off on a new life experience – someone headed for college, someone facing a divorce, even someone facing a gender transition – and someone who has already experienced the event. The newbie asks questions, the veteran dispenses advice.
The results are often fascinating and revealing, even for people who can’t relate to the life experience in question.
A few weeks ago, they brought together Charles Johnson, a man who had just been elected to the city council in Baytown, Texas, near Houston, and Santa Cruz Supervisor Ryan Coonerty, who spent more than a decade on the city council and as mayor in the city of Santa Cruz.
The two cities are not just half a continent apart, they are worlds apart culturally. Baytown may be in what passes for liberal territory in Texas (Harris County was one of the few counties that went for Hillary Clinton last fall), but it’s still pretty conservative territory, the heart of the oil industry (Johnson’s day job is in a nearby chemical plant).
Santa Cruz, meanwhile, has a reputation as one of California’s ultra-liberal enclaves. Hillary Clinton won the county over Donald Trump 73-17 percent, well above the statewide 61-31 percent results. While Coonerty, a lawyer and law professor, is generally considered more conservative than most Santa Cruz politicians, he’s still well to the left of anything Texans would recognize as “moderate.”
So you’d think these two guys wouldn’t have a lot to talk about.
And you’d be wrong.
The two established an almost instant rapport. Coonerty described how his relationship with longtime friends and neighbors changed, with people playing on their past personal connections to sway his vote.
“Sometimes on really, really hot issues, people will make it as though your friendship or your reputation in the community will be forever ruined if you vote the wrong way,” he said. ”And now having … done this for 10 years, I see that, you know, you take a hard vote. People are mad. But then there’s always another vote.”
Johnson, just a few months into his term, understood immediately.
“I actually received an email from someone about a building coming up across the street from their neighborhood, and this person put, please tell me that you care enough not to allow that to happen,” he said. “And I was like, wow, they—they’re really playing on my emotions on this one.”
Johnson talked about how intimidating it was to take the oath of office for the first time.
“I had someone tell me that when I went up to my seat at the dais, they said the expression on my face was, wow, this is a lot,” he said.
Coonerty got it immediately.
“You know what? I take that to be a good sign—when you have that wow expression,” he said. “You know, you’ll pretty quickly realize the folks who don’t have that wow expression on their face are going to be the most difficult people to work with whether they agree with you or not because this job humbles you pretty quickly.”
The discussion went on for six or seven minutes, with the men clearly finding much in common (Coonerty’s priceless best advice: When you go to the grocery store, pick out your frozen food right before you check out because you can be sure someone will corner you to discuss local issues for a long time).
What I took away from it, though, was a sense of how much really unites us. In times when people like to tell us we are more divided and polarized than ever, it’s easy to forget the ways in which our lives work in similar ways. Johnson is in an industrial job just starting on his political career in conservative Texas, Coonerty is a lawyer and longtime elected official from liberal California, and yet their experiences were the same.
Their constituents behave in the same ways, want the same kinds of things. Their own reactions to public service were the same. Their fears and hopes were the same, and Johnson asked questions that Coonerty was able to answer fully and usefully, despite the differences in politics and practice in the two states.
I’ve covered government in a lot of cities and states over the years. I am always interested by the differences I see, even between states that are right next to one another.
And yet, the recent NPR piece confirmed something I have always found: people run for office for similar reasons. Voters have similar concerns. Popular self-government works in similar ways.
In other words, despite all the hand wringing of national politics, when it comes to government of the People, by the People, and for the People, we all have a lot more in common than we think.