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Commentary: Bringing political parties together

Once upon a time, Michigan legislators from both parties sparred sometimes over partisan issues, and then eventually huddled in the back of the chamber to figure out how to get the job done.

Then, they’d often go hang out or play golf together, Republicans and Democrats. These days, members of the two parties all too often regard each other as if they were the bad guys on the other side of the Berlin Wall.

That has become especially true since term limits. Nastiness may have reached an all-time high after last fall’s astonishing lame duck session, in which the Republicans rammed right to work past livid Democrats. But while there’s something to be said for being able to accomplish your goals, having two parties whose members barely speak to each other is not a recipe for good government.

Chuck Perricone knows this from personal experience. He was elected to the legislature as a Republican from Kalamazoo in the 90’s, and became the first Speaker of the House in the term limits era.

He found that the atmosphere was changing fast, and that, he told me, “The Speaker’s role I’d worked so hard to attain had more to do with the negative energy of politics than the positive potential of sound policy.”

This troubled him deeply. And, for the last eight years, he’s tried to do something about it by putting together a privately funded conference to bring together the legislative leadership and members, especially brand new members, from both parties to talk off the record, about the issues.

Earlier conferences have been in Kalamazoo. This time, however, he brought it to Detroit’s Renaissance Center, where I had the privilege of moderating a panel on “improving city-capital communications.” My guess is that both sides learned some things from the experience.

Perricone, who also owns the internet magazine Dome, which publishes one of my columns, told me he moved it to the Motor City this time for a number of reasons. For one thing he said, “there simply is no larger issue looming than the City of Detroit,“ as the legislature prepares for a new session.

With battles over the city’s future expected, he said “legislators require expert input. It was important to converge the issue and local expertise” with those who may be voting on the city’s future.

Perricone told me there was a lot of skepticism this year about whether people would show up, especially after the rancor at the end of last year’s session.

But turnout was at a record high -- and he wasn’t surprised. He said, “the pressure for results (in Lansing) couldn’t be higher. And the trick to being an impact player in the legislature is to truly understand individual leaders and what makes them tick.” His conference, this year partly sponsored by Oakland University, lets them do just that.

No lobbyists, staff or press are allowed -- just lawmakers. This forces them to talk to each other, free of distractions and prying eyes. How much of this carries over to Lansing, I can’t say. Frankly, while I was there, I saw Democrats mostly talking to Democrats and Republicans sitting with Republicans.

But I am convinced that what Perricone is trying to do is critically important, regardless of what anyone’s politics may be.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s political analyst. Views expressed in the essays by Lessenberry are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.