Stephen Smith in The Journal: Bi-Partisanship On Display Here in West Virginia

America used to believe in an ideal called statesmanship.
The notion was that a public leader would be responsible not to one party, but to the public good – that it was more important to solve problems than to win political points.
But we now live in a divided era, when partisan political operations are spending more money on elections than candidates themselves.
The thing is, we need bi-partisanship and statesmanship now more than ever.
We have some reason to hope here in the Mountain State, where there are bi-partisan coalitions like the Our Children, Our Future Campaign.
We grew up believing that if you worked hard and played by the rules, you could provide for your family. But that dream is in jeopardy.
Forty-eight percent of West Virginian children live in a family where their income doesn’t cover basic expenses. This generation is the first in decades that is likely to be worse off than their parents. Even life expectancy is shrinking.
There is not much hope for bold statesmanship at the national level, but we have some reason to hope here in the Mountain State, where there are bi-partisan coalitions like the Our Children, Our Future Campaign – which has helped win 18 policy victories in three years.
They don’t care who they work with in the state capitol, so long as the work gets done.
Those victories include extending health care to 165,275 working West Virginians, winning wage increases for more than 127,000 others, cutting government waste through juvenile justice and criminal justice reform, providing 3-plus million more healthy meals to low-income kids in schools, and ensuring that kids get at least 17.8 million hours of physical activity every year. Thanks to Erin Merryn’s Law, the state is currently re-vamping its statewide child abuse prevention policies.
Just as important as those victories is how they are being won. The folks in the campaign hail from 177 different organizations, schools and congregations – exactly the folks who are fighting child poverty day-in, day-out in their own communities and in their own families.
They don’t care who they work with in the state capitol, so long as the work gets done.
Last month (above), the campaign honored the 39 legislators – 17 Republicans and 22 Democrats – who had played a leadership role in passing one of those 18 victories.
From Sen. Jeff Kessler’s work on the Future Fund and Delegate Pasdon’s work on Erin Merryn’s Law to Sen. John Unger’s work on Feed to Achieve and Sen. Chris Walters’ sponsorship of truancy reform. Over the years, the campaign has made plenty of mistakes that have helped us learn some lessons about bi-partisanship and why it is so hard to achieve.

Bi-Partisanship Takes Courage

The campaign gets criticized by Republicans for working too closely with Democrats, and criticized by Democrats for working too closely with Republicans. As they say, it is a lot easier to kill a bill than to pass one. Working toward bi-partisan solutions, in the face of that criticism, takes real courage.

Bi-Partisan Doesn’t Mean Non-Controversial

When the campaign took up the issue of raising the minimum wage, some thought that it was too “controversial” or “divisive.” But folks saw that it had been kept low for too long, and that most small business owners supported raising it, and that working families could not take care of their kids on $7.25 an hour.
Folks made the case for a raise, and in the end, the House supported the bill 92-5, with Democrats and Republicans coming together.
Many in the campaign also worried that it was too controversial to challenge the governor for cutting children’s programs. But again, folks made their case – this time by organizing Republicans, Democrats, law enforcement officials, religious leaders and other allies. In the end, the House voted 90-0 to reinstate the funds and the Senate agreed, 34-1. The governor then congratulated the Legislature for finding a solution.
If folks had worried too much about being controversial, nothing would get done.

Bi-Partisanship Means Working With People You Don’t Agree With

One of my favorite things about living in a democracy is that it forces me to listen to, and work with, folks I may not agree with.
The Our Children, Our Future campaign has become a place where the Catholic Diocese and WV FREE can find common ground, where local unions and chambers of commerce can work in common cause, where Democratic and Republican legislators can find shared interests – all with the broader goal of ending child poverty.
Earlier this month, the campaign decided which 10 issues it will work on next year. Inevitably, there will be folks in the campaign who don’t know about or don’t agree with every issue chosen.
Inevitably, there will be some of those issues where folks will need to compromise in order to get meaningful legislation passed. Inevitably, the campaign will be criticized for being too controversial.
But that means they’re doing something right.
There’s always more to do. The campaign will keep working to include more West Virginians from every walk of life, keep engaging new legislative allies at the state and local level, and keep learning from its mistakes.
That’s what statesmanship requires.
Hello, Stephen.