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Group encourages civility between Republicans, Democrats

March 9, 2019
In a Jan. 26, 2019 photo, Beth Hannan, center, wearing a blue name tag for Democrats, and Emily Helgeson, right, with a red name tag for Republicans, listen to a presenter at the Better Angels meeting at the Inver Glen Library in Inver Grove Heights, Minn. The group encourages conversations between liberals and conservatives. (Bob Shaw/Pioneer Press via AP)

ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — Sam Erb says if you listen to the critics, Republicans must seem like the worst self-hating psychos on the planet.

“We are racist, homophobic, sexist, deplorable, Islamophobic and any other kind of phobic there is,” they say, according to Erb, a dedicated Republican from Minneapolis.

But listening to their critics, according to Beth Varro, it must seemed like Democrats were the monsters of humanity.

“We are baby killers,” is how critics describe them, according to the Democrat as she made a list on a poster-board. “We think we are the elites, the intellectuals. We want open borders. We are anti-business.”

The self-flagellation face-off was set up by Better Angels, a group formed after the 2016 election to encourage civil conversations between Democrats and Republicans. It began in South Lebanon, Ohio, and now organizes workshops and conversations nationwide. The meetings have become more common around the Twin Cities as of late, the Pioneer Press reported.

The group allowed the Pioneer Press to attend a Jan. 26 session in an Inver Grove Heights library for a peek into the emotional discussions. Afterward, it didn’t seem like anyone was ready to change sides — yet there was a dramatic thawing between the two groups.

“This is encouraging,” said Paul Kirst, a New Brighton Democrat. “This is what we need to get back to good government.”

In most social gatherings, people hide their political leanings. But at the Better Angels meeting, they wore them on their chests — by picking a red or blue name-tag designating Republican or Democrat.

Moderator Kim Martinson said Democrats dominate the metro-area meetings, because the region usually leans blue.

“In Ohio, they have a hard time finding blues,” she said.

Red name-tagged Emily Helgeson of Eagan explained why Republicans shy away from public exposure.

“We reds run into so much anti-conservative behavior. There are only so many times you can be called a racist and sexist,” said Helgeson.

She was among six Republicans who joined seven Democrats as the Inver Grove Heights meeting began.

The group split in two, so members of each party could air prejudices they had experienced.

In the red group, the stereotypes tumbled out of every mouth.

They felt attacked and accused of being pro-gun “and pro-violence,” unconcerned about the environment or the plight of minorities.

The Democrats’ meeting was similar, with different stereotypes.

They felt attacked and accused of being soft on crime, wasteful of taxpayer money, and eager to demand government help for minorities.

Then, the next phase of the workshop: Discussing why each party was best for the nation.

Each group sat in a circle to talk as the other group listened — at times visibly struggling not to interrupt.

The reds went first.

They wanted to show that they were not enemies of various groups — only that they opposed government programs to give those groups special treatment.

“Just because we don’t want the welfare state doesn’t mean we hate the poor,” said Helgeson.

Lisa Sinna said liberals make the mistake of seeing people as members of groups rather than as individuals.

“That stifles their personal growth,” said Sinna.

Another Republican added: “If you have a problem, you fix it yourself. That’s how you grow as a person.”

Conservatives resent paying taxes for programs they see as futile.

“The government doesn’t know how to spend my money better than I do,” said Erb.

Then Democrats circled up to formulate their message to America.

Alexandra Atrubin, of Minneapolis, said a winning issue for Democrats was climate change.

“Without taking the long view on that, all of this is moot,” she said.

Several responded to what they had just heard from the Republicans. America’s past treatment of minorities, said Atrubin, should be considered along with individual expectations.

Most Democrats linked conservative positions to President Donald Trump, which is something the Republicans did not do. For example, Democrats tied the issue of border security to Trump’s proposed wall — which Democrats consistently opposed.

Kirst said Democrats should send a message of restoring civility in political language.

“Right now, if you believe differently from me, I hate you. That’s terrible,” said Kirst.

Democrats, he said, will combat a tendency to seek extremes.

“Politicians define issues in polarizing ways,” he said.

In the final phase of the workshop, the groups reunited in one big circle. Several of them — this was the payoff for the entire session — spoke with members of the opposite party.

Republican Sinna said she was surprised to hear that Democrats don’t want open borders — allowing anyone, for any reason, to enter the U.S. from Mexico.

“That is not what you want?” she asked the Democrats. “Well, that’s what I hear. That’s what people are campaigning on — open borders.”

“That blows my mind,” responded Democrat Atrubin. “That would be a horrible way to run a country. Just don’t put kids in cages. Give them water.”

Several Republicans nodded in agreement.

When it was over, Democrat Atrubin applauded the Better Angels format.

“This entire workshop is worth it,” she said.

Republican Erb hung around, chatting with Democrats.

“I am having a great time,” he said.

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Information from: St. Paul Pioneer Press, http://www.twincities.com