Clare Higgins: Lessons local government can teach national political debate

Published: 09-23-2016 9:19 PM

I served on the Northampton City Council for six years during the 1990s. There were disputes, disagreements, unanimous votes and bitter feuds, all (mostly) debated and resolved by nine people elected by their peers to wrestle with the challenges of local government.

At that time, the Council operated by a set of rules that were home grown and a little quirky. The rules are different now. They don’t include concepts like minority reconsideration, which allowed a single councilor to hold up the majority when an ordinance or order was passed after two votes or the mayor as non-voting chair of the meeting. Those were pretty much unique to Northampton.

The prescribed language for some actions sounded like something from the last century, “Be it ordained by the City Council of the City of Northampton in City Council assembled, as follows...”

The Council’s rules had a section that said, “No member shall be mentioned in debate by name; but may be described by the place which the member occupies, the ward which the member represents or by such other designation as may be intelligible and respectful.”

More seemingly archaic language that governed the behavior of those who had responsibility for governing. The rules encouraged working towards outcomes and strived to deter ad hominem attacks. They weren’t always successful, but generally they fostered an atmosphere of collaborative engagement.

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We referred to each other never by first name (unless one slipped), most often by title or as the councilor from Ward (1,2,3...). We endeavored to be intelligible and respectful. We tried to govern with decorum.

This practice allowed us to take up both mundane and contentious issues within a framework that encouraged working together towards a resolution. It reminded us that each had a role at the table and that while disagreement could seem intractable on one issue, agreement might exist on the next.

And minority reconsideration — this was a rule that some loved and many hated. But it gave the minority another chance to fight for what they believed was right.

As I have watched this train wreck of a presidential election careen towards Nov. 8, I have thought about those meetings in that little room in the Puchalski Building and the wisdom in those rules.

On Monday, Secretary Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump will have the first of three scheduled debates. I expect we will hear a new set of nicknames from Trump, intended to belittle and demean Clinton. I presume that Clinton, trained in the Senate, will refer to Trump as her “opponent” or maybe Donald.

There probably will be little decorum and even less respect. The country will certainly not get the exchange of competing ideas necessary to inform the electorate. Those who support Trump will be counting his punches and those who support Clinton will be stacking up the Trumpian errors and outrages.

We have been heading this way for a long time. Rising inequality, mass incarceration, the devaluation of black lives, the increase in the white working class mortality rate, disinvestment in infrastructure, in cities, in schools, in rural areas, permanent wars, easy access to drugs and guns... and a federal government that seems incapable to act.

These are the building blocks of the nation’s anger and despair.

There will be debates, and there will be an election. Someone will win and someone will lose. When Bob Dole lost the 1996 presidential election, before Twitter and Facebook, he declared that “the president was my opponent and not my enemy.” I don’t think we will get that kind of concession speech this time around.

What will happen on Nov. 9? How will a country divided take on the enormous challenges that we have? Boorish behavior has been normalized by Trump and his team. If he wins, it will become the norm.

There are some answers found in those old City Council rules. Like decorum and respect; which are necessary in any hard discussion.

A willingness to listen to conflicting opinions as we struggle to find common ground. Understanding that people are more than their political opinions on any given day and that people can change positions through dialogue.

Those qualities aren’t present in our current national political dialogue. They aren’t found on Twitter, Facebook, or at the end of online newspaper stories. But respectful dialogue is out there — in some local governments, neighborhood groups, nonprofits and voluntary organizations for instance.

And we need to bring respect to every interaction, especially when talking to people we don’t agree with. Otherwise Trumpism wins.

Clare Higgins of Northampton, the city’s former mayor, is executive director of the nonprofit Community Action! of the Franklin, Hampshire and North Quabbin Regions. She writes a monthly column and can be reached at