A panel discussion at Bucks County Community College to promote open primaries in Pennsylvania also evolved into a free flowing talk on other ways to possibly lower the temperature on hyper-partisan politics, especially at the national and state levels.
The Feb. 3 event at the BCCC Lower Bucks Epstein campus in Bristol Township was part of a twice-a-semester series organized by the college’s Social and Behavioral Sciences Department. This one was called “The Political Power Hour: Finding the Middle, a Tripartisan Symposium on Reforms to Empower Moderates and Independents.”
Speaking before an audience of about 50 was the five-member panel of David Thornburgh, an Independent, chair of BallotPA and son of the late former Pennsylvania Governor and U.S. Attorney General Richard Thornburgh; Republican Congressman Brian Fitzpatrick; Republican former Congressman Jim Greenwood; Democratic strategist, attorney and Army veteran Danny Ceisler; and Republican Langhorne Borough council member and Bucks County League of Women Voters member Kathy Horwatt. She filled in on short notice for Democratic state Senator Maria Collett, who was unable to attend because of a “developing conflict.”
Thornburgh said Pennsylvania is one of only nine states in the country that doesn’t allow Independents and unaffiliated voters to cast ballots in primaries, thus disenfranchising 1.3 million state voters for half the election cycle.
“Fifty percent of veterans consider themselves political independents,” he added. “So it’s like, in the primaries, we’re telling them ‘Thanks for your service but no thanks for your vote.’ To me, that’s unconscionable.”
Thornburgh noted that instituting open primaries in Pennsylvania would take a majority vote of the House and Senate and the governor’s signature, like any other legislation.
“Fewer extremists will be the nominee of either party,” said Fitzpatrick, pointing out what he felt would be one advantage of open primaries.
Horwatt said she frequently helps out with voter registration drives as part of her work for the League of Women Voters.
“When young voters register as Independents and we point out it means they can’t vote in primaries, they say ‘We don’t want to have anything to do with parties. We don’t want to have anything to do with the way they are acting,’” she said.
“We need to find a way to empower moderates and Independents and one way to do that is let Independents vote in primaries,” added William Pezza, a BCCC Social and Behavioral Sciences faculty member who moderated the symposium.
As the discussion ranged over a wide range of topics including gerrymandering, referendums, initiatives and civics education in schools, Fitzpatrick repeated at several points that any change in the current partisan climate will require a change in the way people talk to and treat each other.
“We need to have respect for people with different concepts than ours,” he said. “You can accept people without necessarily agreeing with them. That’s kind of where we’ve gone astray.
“No one party has a monopoly on good ideas. Extract yourself from your ideological perch. Try to come to the center and reach consensus. Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. I always thought the smartest people know what they don’t know.” Ceisler concurred that a shift in attitudes would lead to progress.
“I think we can all agree we want things like safe streets for our kids, so let’s focus on how that can be accomplished,” he said. “Any effort to bring people together and talk, that’s a first step.”
Greenwood urged people to leave their media comfort zones and seek out a wide variety of print and broadcast outlets, not just the ones that reaffirm their own ideas.
People go to their safe places, with the hard right going to FOX and liberals to MSNBC,” he said. “It seems like people watching FOX and those watching MSNBC live in parallel universes. We need to teach students K through 12 how to use media and discern what is true and what is not.”
Thornburgh suggested a tax on political contributions, with the money going to boost civics education in schools.
Pezza also touched on the media several times, urging outlets to run fewer stories about extremism and more about efforts at compromise. Editors should have their staffs find out where all state legislators stand on open primaries and print or broadcast the results, he added.