April 11 2012 11:33 AM

Fletcher/DeMaio war of words notwithstanding

Tom Shepard looms over other panelists at the
Restoring Civility Conference on Monday.
Photo by John R. Lamb
“To succeed inside a political party, one must cultivate an ability to sit still and remain polite while foolish people speak nonsense.”

—Morton Blackwell

A rumor floated around recently that the San Diego County Republican Party had experienced “mass defections” in the wake of mayoral candidate Nathan Fletcher's decision to abandon his affiliation with the GOP.

The “implosion,” as one local observer described it, came after a party leader apparently went off, at a gathering of Republican women in La Jolla, on Fletcher's decision to jump ship.

Charlotte Perry, president of La Jolla Republican Women Federated, had a different take. “Yes, three people left, but the meeting was running long, and I just figured they had other appointments,” Perry told Spin Cycle.

It was only later when she spoke to one of the women—“I think one of them had babysat for Nathan's kids,” Perry noted—that she learned of their displeasure with the comments made about Fletcher.

Perry couldn't recall exactly what GOP Executive Director Barrett Tetlow said, but she did acknowledge that “Nathan had announced his decision just the day before, so maybe Barrett didn't have time to formulate a more thoughtful response, what with the decision fresh in his mind and all.” (Tetlow did not respond to a request for comment.)

“But really,” she added, “I didn't think too much of it at the time. It wasn't personal or anything. But apparently a few people were offended.”

Welcome to the state of political discourse in the 21st century. A rumor pops, sending political junkies scrambling to determine if this is a game-changer, or the game changer. Social media lights up like a Times Square billboard, sparking more speculation and armchair quarterbacking.

Spawned from a well-received Catfish Club discussion last fall on the topic of civility and how political discourse might return to a more respectful time, a group of concerned academics and community leaders gathered Monday at the University of San Diego's Joan B. Kroc Institute for Peace & Justice to get the politeness ball rolling.

The Rev. George Walker Smith, one of San Diego's iconic civil-rights leaders and Catfish Club founder, told the audience of about 125 that “instead of talking to each other, now we talk at each other…. Unless I agree with you, there is no communication whatsoever.

“America cannot exist as a nation like this,” Smith said. “Over the last eight to 10 years, I have seen a drastic change in San Diego, in this state and in this nation as far as incivility is concerned.”

Smith credited Carl Luna, political science professor at San Diego Mesa College, with advancing last fall's Catfish Club forum into Monday's “First Annual Community Conference on Restoring Civility to Civic Dialogue.”

Sacramento Bee columnist Dan Walters, whose bread and butter is California's dysfunctional political system, told the crowd that the “unintended consequences” of exploding population growth—a 50-percent increase since Jerry Brown's first foray as governor some 35 years ago—a shifting postindustrial economy and the advent of legislative “careerists” and “initiative entrepreneurs” have left California “ungovernable.”

“So far, I'm the only person with this theory, but I think we are testing the limits of the American structure of government to function,” Walters said.

In California, he said, the inability to function politically has reached such toxic levels that the only answer might be to call for a constitutional convention and “start with a blank sheet of paper.”

“We really have nothing to lose,” he said. “When the patient is dying, there's a need for dramatic intervention…. If you don't pay attention to governance, then civic discourse just gets nastier and nastier.”

Constance Carroll, chancellor of the San Diego Community College District, said she believes public discourse “fell apart” after the Watergate scandal and the later evolution of the so-called “politics of personal destruction,” an atmosphere where a Congress member can yell “You lie!” from chambers to a sitting president or emails are distributed depicting Barack Obama as a chimpanzee.

Murray Galinson, a retired banker and once the kingmaker of San Diego Democratic politicians, offered a simple solution for voters—insist on civility from our political leaders or toss them out of office. “We need to insist on tolerance,” he said.

Tony Perry, long-time San Diego reporter for the Los Angeles Times, said he believes San Diego “essentially went crazy” for a couple years dealing with its fiscal woes, further flaming a “political firestorm” that left decision makers paralyzed.

Lawrence Hinman, co-director of the Center for Ethics in Science & Technology, said civility should not be equated with “niceness.”

“We need to learn how to disagree well,” he said. “We need to be truthful and accountable. Words matter,” he said.

The final panelist, Fletcher campaign strategist Tom Shepard, acknowledged the curiosity of his inclusion in the discussion. “It's like inviting Ted Kaczynski to speak to a direct-mail marketing association,” he quipped.

Shepard said the changing tenor of debate stems from the explosion in media outlets, people deciding to live in communities of “like-minded” people and the rise of anonymity in public discourse, particularly through social media.

This, he argued, gives rise to a political system dominated by the extremes on the left and right, leaving little room for moderates, who in turn simply choose not to participate in the process.

Naturally, many who attended the conference noted that those who would benefit most from a civility lesson were not present—the Rev. Smith called that “disgraceful.” And while Shepard spoke of civility, the Fletcher campaign was dropping a new video bomb on YouTube mocking opponent Carl DeMaio's virtual question-answering website.

Any irony there? “This video fully satisfies the criteria I proposed at the conference. It is factual, fair and relevant,” Shepard responded by email later. “What could be more relevant (or germane) to a mayor's race than a candidate's candor and character?”

Will civility win? Follow its developments at sandiego.edu/civility.

Got a tip? Send it to johnl@sdcitybeat.com or follow John R. Lamb on Twitter @johnrlamb.


See all events on Wednesday, Oct 26