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Washingtonians Strive For Diplomacy In Personal Politics

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Sue Gainor and her husband Scott Murdock.
Jonathan Wilson
Sue Gainor and her husband Scott Murdock.

Richard Crespin had heard his potential business partner, Joiwind Ronen, was pretty liberal. So when they met for the first time, he tried to tone down his own admittedly conservative look.

"I actually dressed slightly differently, as not to put it off right away," Crespin says. "I did try to steer clear and try to find issues where we might have some common ground instead of trying to debate her in any way."

While she may have appreciated his sensitivity, Ronen — who says her first name, Joiwind, came from hippie parents -- doesn't remember thinking Crespin had toned down anything about his clothing.

"I was immediately shocked," she recalls. "I thought, here's someone I want to partner with, and he is as preppy and Republican as they get. Are we going to be able to find common ground?"

The perfectly named liberal "Joiwind" and Richard, the conservative found enough common ground — they've been business partners for years, after all, promoting corporate environmental responsibility. And even as they discovered more political differences, the two say their relationship has deepened as they've bonded over other things, such as both having young children. Ronen says one key to dealing with each other is laughter.

"We'll cast each other as they diabolical Republican, and the extreme liberal," she says. "So when I have a question about the conservatives, I'll call Richard, and when he has a question about the liberals, he'll call me. So we remember not to take each other too seriously."

For Sue Gainor and Scott Murdock, learning to deal with their political differences wasn't quite so easy. Part of the issue is, well, they're married. Their differing views also came as a bit of a surprise -- to one of them, at least. Luckily they can laugh about it, but it took a while.

"I'd say it was probably the Clinton administration that brought it to a head," Murdock remembers. "I knew how avid she was, and I thought it won't be a good conversation if I tell her."

"I thought we were in lockstep until some months after the election he informed me he had not voted for Clinton," Gainor says. "And I assumed all the while, because we had been active on some issues, and he had shared my activism, that we had voted the same, and we had not."

"The elections happened, and Clinton won," Murdock says. "We were discussing amongst friends about who had voted for who, and I felt I should be honest and said, 'I didn't vote for Clinton.' She was pretty irritated."

Gainor says she stayed mad for a few months, but eventually got over it. Now she says she's learned not to assume that her husband is passionate about something just because she is, and she says they've both learned when a political argument has become more trouble than it's worth.

But Gainor hesitates to draw any comparisons between her marital relationship and what lawmakers on Capitol Hill have to endure.

"There's very little in the interaction, day-to-day, that politicians can learn from a couple like us because the stakes are different for them," says Gainor. "For us, the stakes are harmony in the household and harmony among our friends. For his birthday, just last week, we got together with some friends, some far to the right, and others — we call them the neighborhood hippies. It was really enjoyable because we just avoided political conversation as a general rule."

That's not a luxury elected officials have. Bob Gibson, director of the Sorensen Institute for Political Leadership at the University of Virginia, says political civility is at a generational low.

"It used to be that congressmen and delegates and senators used to go out after work and have drinks and understand each other better," he says.

Gibson says that's changed in part because we're in an era of permanent campaigning, and elected officials don't feel they have time to socialize with their opponents. But he says political civility can make a comeback, and he believes it can be a grassroots effort.

"There doesn't have to be a magic moment at which the country has to turn around," Gibson says. "It can be an individual thing where people just listen and try to understand the other side. We have plenty in common with people we don't agree with; we just have to find it."

To recap, elected officials: listen a little more, and laugh a little more too.

All right, so maybe it can't be that simple. Can it?


We learned about this story through WAMU's Public Insight Network. It's a way for people to share their experiences with us, and a way for us to reach out for input on stories we're working on. Learn more about the Public Insight Network.


[Music: "Working On It" by Mark Knopfler from Wag the Dog Soundtrack]

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