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Building bridges while squabbling

Last modified: 10/5/2014 1:23:07 AM
It can be easy to forget, sometimes, that your political adversaries are people, too.

Ken Gidge was certainly feeling that way a few years ago. Frustrated with the state of political discourse in New Hampshire in mid-2012, the Democratic state representative decided to switch up the format of his existing slot on Access Nashua, a public television station.

He’d call the segment The Art of Politics, and the idea would be to bring together viewpoints from both sides of the aisle to demonstrate that it was still possible to have a political discussion with your opponents that didn’t end in bitterness. If they didn’t agree, Gidge thought, they might at least walk away with a better appreciation of where that person was coming from.

The show debuted in June 2012, with Gidge joined by then-Rep. David Robbins, a Republican. On Friday, Gidge celebrated the 100th episode with two Republican guests who’ve since become regulars on the weekly show: Reps. Al Baldasaro and Bill O’Brien, the former New Hampshire speaker of the House.

“We actually brought the ratings up,” Baldasaro quipped in the studio after the latest taping.

The show is now streamed on a handful of other public access channels across the state, and an archive of all past episodes can be viewed online at accessnashua.org.

Sure, the conversations along the way haven’t been entirely civil – “There have been some real bloodbaths,” Gidge recalled – and sometimes it takes several attempts before one panelist is able to finish his or her point before someone else interjects.

As Gidge teed up the centennial show’s introduction, it was only a matter of minutes before the group started bantering. And then they were off: The trio spent the next hour debating the Affordable Care Act, New Hampshire’s U.S. Senate race, the so-called campground tax and state budget issues, among other topics.

By about 10 minutes in, they were arguing over which party would be better suited to control a greater share of the government after the Nov. 4 elections.

“You guys forget we are coming out of one of the worst recessions in the history of this country – and who put us there? Republicans!” Gidge said, exasperated. “I don’t want to go back to the Republicans.”

In his rebuttal, O’Brien pointed out what he views as a central issue with the opposite party.

“The Democrats seek utopia,” O’Brien began, “and the problem with seeking utopia is . . .”

He paused. Gidge had accidentally knocked over a previously unopened bottle of confetti that was on hand for the show’s milestone. Some of the flakes ended up in Baldasaro’s coffee cup.

O’Brien soon finished his thought: “. . . you make a mess out of things.”

A few moments later, Baldasaro pointed to the strewn confetti as he was lamenting the state’s financial standing under the current administration.

“See,” Baldasaro said, “that’s the government spending.”

The show hasn’t gone over well with everyone. Gidge said he has received pushback for sitting down with Baldasaro and O’Brien, especially from fellow Democrats who are still reeling from what they view as a divisive and damaging period in the state Legislature under his time as speaker. Gidge also said he’s had a harder time getting members of his own party to commit to the show than Republicans.

In any case, has this forum helped the representatives find common ground to translate back to their work at the State House? On at least this much, the three representatives agree.

“It allows us to discover that there are common interests,” O’Brien said. “Ken cares deeply about New Hampshire. I care deeply about New Hampshire.”

Then, O’Brien added, “Ken is mistaken in how he carries out his care.”

For O’Brien, who said he’s considering another run at the speaker position if the Republicans win back control of the House of Representatives this fall, the show has underscored the importance of promoting bipartisanship.

“We’re going to have to work on that,” O’Brien said. “It can never be Republicans jamming in solutions.”

And even Gidge – who experienced some “bullying” firsthand from other representatives the last time O’Brien was speaker – is optimistic that the level of vitriol he saw at the State House a few years ago won’t resurface.

“I think those days are over,” Gidge said.

(Casey McDermott can be reached at 369-3306 or cmcdermott@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @caseymcdermott.)


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