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State leaders gather for civil discussion

JoAnn Ward

After being sworn in Jan. 3, the Minnesota Legislature was invited to do something some of its members haven't done in awhile: have dinner together, chat and learn to play nice.

Few legislative meetings were scheduled for Jan. 4, as the National Institute for Civil Discourse was in town for an event for leaders from the state Capitol.

It is traditional for legislators to take in presentations about transportation, education and bonding and receive other important backgrounders from agencies and professionals. Health care has been a primary topic of discussion.

The difference this year? Political climate.

"We are in such a hypercritical time. People are so negative. And that isn't always helpful," said State Rep. JoAnn Ward, R-Woodbury, who played a role in bringing NICD to Minnesota.

Republicans and Democrats tend to protect their territory too much, unwilling to work together, ignoring commonalities or being closed to solutions, Ward said. "Both sides point fingers at the other side, and I'm sure the truth lies somewhere between."

Ward had an idea to change the status quo, offering a delegation of NICD members who held a half-day meeting for all legislators who wanted to join. Both parties agreed to hold presentations, eat a lunch buffet and have table conversations meant to foster unlikely friendships made in confidence, Ward said. "Create a safe space for people to be honest. It gets people kind of talking and find some common ground."

Tables were assigned and mixed up so that legislators got to know their coworkers — new to the Capitol with returning legislators, rural and inner-city and suburban, people from the other House or Senate, those on different committees.

While the nation is facing high rates of anxiety and stress, Ward is hopeful Minnesota can try to change its political climate.

During the recent elections, Ward said, "people have been given permission to speak in ways that are not necessarily socially acceptable."

Drama, conflicts, denigration and demonization of others, and an air of unhelpfulness is not what Minnesotans want, Ward said. "I think we're going to work very hard to avoid the national mess."

At the NICD meeting, Republicans and Democrats from outside of Minnesota led discussions about the future of the state and what is ideal for all legislators. Elected officials tried to take concrete steps together, on common ground, Ward said.

Ward said she was grateful for the opportunity to bring NICD to Minnesota.

"I'm driving this, and I'm in the minority," Ward said. "It's not political. It's taking time to find that relationship and trust and respect."

And maybe, Ward said, NICD will develop a next generation of legislators that will be more respectful than the current or past generations.

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