18 June 2014: Democracy all about listening

Democracy all about listening

It was great to read Dave Stahl’s letter to the editor last week about Sen. Mark Udall being a senator who listens.   Way too often we read letters and columns criticizing office holders.  I’m as guilty as anyone, so I’m happy Dave took time to relate his positive experience.

A few weeks ago, I had a similar experience with Sen. Michael Bennet.  Out of the blue, I was contacted by one of his staff about setting up a town hall meeting.  “Whoa,” I thought.  “I’m finally going to meet the senator about whom I’ve been a frequent critic.

To be blunt, I wasn’t happy when former governor Bill Ritter appointed Bennet, rather than Joan Fitzgerald or Andrew Romanoff who were in my opinion far more qualified, to fill the remainder of Ken Salazar’s term after President Obama named Ken Secretary of the Interior.  Michael had the misfortune of being the superintendent of Denver Public Schools, having been appointed to that position with no previous professional educational experience, and committed what were to me unpardonable blunders.

That sense continued through his 2010 election bid against Ken Buck.  It was only towards the campaign’s end I accepted Buck was a rightwing looney and came down solidly for Michael.

In my October 27, 2010 column I wrote my hope was that Buck, “while remaining a staunch conservative, was not ideologically enslaved to superstition, bigotry and ignorance.”

In relation to Bennet, I frustratingly opined, “I am challenged to recall another Colorado senatorial race in which neither candidate inspired confidence.”

The process of coming to support Michael was “an ordeal,” I wrote, having concluded, “The choice between Buck and Bennet is not one of between two evil men, but between two individuals who approach life from diametrically opposed perspectives, a consequence of one — Bennet — being able to progress upward through Bloom’s cognitive process and the other — Buck — struggling with its base tier, that of knowledge.”

Since then, I’ve watched Bennet more closely and slowly begun giving respect and appreciation, grudgingly albeit, for what he is doing in the Senate with one notable exception: His stance on public education.  Go figure!

All that was wiped out not because he took time to hold a town hall meeting at Two Brothers and responded to my comment about excessive testing “killing public education,”—in fact, his response was unsatisfactory for me—but because some days later I received an email from his staff with a link to Sen. Mike Johnston’s recent Harvard speech on public education that Michael encouraged me to find and listen to, which I have.  (More on that next time.)

The bottom line: Sen. Bennet remembered, which suggests a number of notions including him valuing others’ input even when it contrasts or opposes his position and, perhaps, my comment spurring further thought on his part that, which, if so, might lead to him reconsidering long-held positions on education.

In other words, to gain my respect does not require another coming into agreement, but respectfully listening and responding.  Michael’s follow-up email demonstrated that.  In so doing, it has opened an invaluable dialogue between me and at least his staff.

In response I wrote Michael thanking him for his time and willingness to engage in conversation about the plight of public schooling.  When one considers the plethora of issues besides public education—fracking v. local control, wildfire mitigation, water use and rights, the I-70 Corridor, environmental degradation, climate change, e.g.—none carry the emotive power as do our schools.  Note the uproar here in Clear Creek over the recent doffing of Todd Lancaster’s professional head and the hullabaloo in our neighboring district, Jeffco.

America is a democracy founded upon several principles: rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, equal protection under the law, and separation of church and state among them.  Except among rightist zealots, the last one, the belief that church and state have in Thomas Jefferson’s words to Connecticut Baptists “a wall between them,” is most sacred.  If we share a common secular faith then, it is democracy and the vehicle to inculcate democratic values, including the aforementioned rights and equality before the law, is uncorrupted universal public education.

I believe Sen. Bennet shares that Jeffersonian perspective, so while he and I have at this point differing perspectives on certain aspects of public education, the only way we can come together is through dialogue.

So, Dave, I get it when you write about Mark Udall listening.

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