When Jeff Tarte, a conservative Republican state senator, spoke at Davidson College Presbyterian Church, a church known for its liberal views, he began to sweat. In all other ways, he appeared calm and articulate. Perhaps his body anticipated hostility.
But hostility never came on Sunday night, Sept. 23. Tarte, a former three-term mayor of Cornelius and longtime member of Davidson United Methodist, spoke respectfully. The audience of about 60 listened politely. When the time came for a question-and-answer session, people asked hard questions about recent legislation. When the time came for open discussion, people voiced disagreement and frustration. Back and forth they talked about difficult subjects: teacher pay, gay marriage, voter ID, abortion, Medicaid and healthcare. Not once, though, did anyone on either side of the podium raise voices, malign character, use belittling phrases or release party-line venom.
The gathering was a ray of civil discourse.
The Rev. Lib McGregor Simmons set the tone for the evening as moderator. She began with a prayer to the God who created us all and ended in Jesus’ name.
After introducing the concept behind this new DCPC program that addresses hot topics, Simmons said she wanted to proceed in a way “that promotes listening and learning, as well as speaking honestly with one another.”
She stopped the audience from clapping in agreement with political views.
The freshman senator also set an amicable tone. Tarte began by saying that he is troubled by all the political cynicism and rhetoric, and he believes that “the extremes are taking over.”
In contrast to airtight rants, Tarte preceded many of his conservative statements with phrases such as “from my perspective” and “you don’t have to agree with this.”
“How do we engage and get dialogue?” Tarte asked. “Part of the process is people being comfortable with discord and not feeling like they will be shut out or not listened to.”
Tarte sees more reaching across the aisles than what is reported by the media. He sees good ideas coming from both sides of the aisle. Probably 85 percent of the 1,300 pieces of state legislation over the past year are unanimously agreed upon, he said, but it is the five or six hot button issues that get all the attention. He regularly dines with Democrats and Republicans alike and has met with Moral Monday leaders.
At one point, Matt Samson, an anthropology professor and ordained pastor, challenged Tarte’s comparison of the dependency in the U.S. to Soviet Russia.
“I think that’s bit of an overstatement,” Samson said. “Nobody thinks the government should do everything. It would be helpful for people like yourself, who are willing to come to these kinds of meetings, to moderate that kind of dialogue.”
Tarte apologized without hesitation.
At the end of the meeting, no longer sweating, Sen. Tarte complimented the DCPC group, saying, “We may have different views on things, but how you all have reacted and engaged in this is totally appreciated. This is what we need more of.”