As former Gov. Paul LePage and legislators clashed and the toxic national discourse seeped into the everyday discussions of many Mainers, some feared that the state had veered from its famously civic-minded roots.

In response, an effort got underway to nudge the state back on track, and it proved so successful that Maine has become a national leader in a growing and ever more serious bid to revive civility more broadly.

With a number of powerful organizations lining up to support the initiative, there are signs that it’s making inroads, not just in the State House but across Maine and perhaps beyond.

Among those pushing the civility campaign are the Maine AARP, the Maine Municipal Association and the Maine Development Foundation.

So, too, are former U.S. Sens. Olympia Snowe, a Republican, and George Mitchell, a Democrat, both renowned for their decency and willingness to compromise.

Snowe said in a recent magazine piece that it is “imperative that we ensure this is an aberrational chapter in our history” and that voices urging cooperation soon prove louder than those pushing polarization.

Mark Hews, the state coordinator for Maine Revives Civility, said he’s hoping to bring civility education into Maine schools by getting it into the curriculum, perhaps as part of the community service requirements many districts have.

State Sen. Matthew Pouliot went to Washington, D.C., in 2014 to build on the state’s civility goals as a facilitator. Staff file photo by Joe Phelan

Hews said the goal is to have “a lot of people really trying, sincerely, to try to change the conversation” throughout the Pine Tree State to allow open, respectful debate on the issues of the day.

Sen. Matthew Pouliot, R-Augusta, said that back in 2014, former State Treasurer Terry Hayes invited an Arizona institute to come to Maine and train interested lawmakers about how they could promote civility in the Legislature and beyond.

With help from a number of facilitators, the effort flourished.

Even though Maine “has had its challenges,” Pouliot said, there has been a growing and strong desire among lawmakers to revive civility and lock it in with rule changes that encourage bipartisanship.

That sort of cultural change, he said, needs to become “just the way we do business.”

Some saw one recent decision by the Legislature as a good step forward.

Yellow Light Breen, president and chief executive officer of the Maine Development Foundation, said that for a number of years, lawmakers have talked about what they could do to break down partisan barriers.

MIXED-PARTY SEATING CHART

A suggestion that always came up, he said, was to change the arrangements so that Republicans and Democrats weren’t seated by party in their own areas.

Yellow Light Breen, CEO of the Maine Development Foundation, praises the Legislature’s move to seat legislators so that opposing parties are co-mingled. Staff photo by Michael G. Seamans

“Well, guess what. This year the Senate president and the House speaker have intermingled the party seating” in both chambers at the State House, Breen said.

Senate President Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, said mixed seating will foster a sense of congeniality, mutual respect and trust among members of opposing parties.

“The people of Maine sent us here to solve a host of complex problems that interfere with their ability to lead happy, healthy and successful lives,” Jackson said last month when he ordered the change.

“By focusing on the values and goals that unite us, we will be more likely to move the needle on critical issues.”

A seating chart is hardly a cure-all for a civil society that’s grown ever less civil, but legislative leaders feel it’s a start.

After taking in the 2014 program by the Arizona-based National Institute for Civil Discourse, Pouliot was among those determined to promote its pro-civility agenda.

He was so impressed that he traveled to Washington, D.C., in 2014 so he could become a facilitator, an assignment he’s embraced so thoroughly that last week he ventured out to Oregon to speak with state legislators there trying to follow Maine’s lead.

Maine civility backers persuaded the Maine Development Foundation a few years ago to add civility training to the program it has long put on for incoming legislators to help get them up to speed.

“We need to be able to forge bipartisan consensus and stick with it,” Breen said, rather than having policies seesaw depending on who’s in charge.

This month, the foundation held the sixth civility seminar in Maine for about 30 legislators.

That makes Maine a leader nationwide.

Maine House Speaker Sara Gideon of Freeport has embraced much of the agenda pushed by civility advocates in Maine, though as leader of the Democrats and a potential candidate against Republican U.S. Sen. Susan Collins in 2020, she is also fiercely partisan.

“Maine has done this work more than any other state,” Breen said. He said the National Institute for Civil Discourse has recognized the Maine Legislature as “the most committed to civil discourse.”

That the idea has taken root in Augusta is obvious in the words that House Speaker Sara Gideon, a Freeport Democrat, spoke to colleagues in December.

She told them to “believe in each other’s goodness and intentions” and to keep in mind that even when they disagree, their positions are grounded in “values, family, religion, life experience.”

She warned that listening to other points of view “can be extremely uncomfortable,” but working through differences “is ultimately the way we have achieved anything and everything with lasting significance in this country.”

Legislators can never forget, Breen said, that like the New England Patriots, “we do expect you to do your job.”

AMONG ‘HOTTEST TOPICS’

When the civility institute in Tucson decided a couple of years ago to establish pilot programs in four states to try to foster more civility at the grass-roots level, it picked Maine, Ohio, Iowa and Arizona.

Hews said Maine was probably chosen because of the ongoing program aimed at state legislators.

The idea of the extended initiative, Hews said, is to help many more people “have more productive” conversations, ones that could address their disagreements without having the talk dissolve into something unproductive.

The institute hired Hews, who hails from Aroostook County and worked for the U.S. Department of Agriculture for 32 years, because of his experience working in rural areas to help create sustainable development.

He’s been traveling the state ever since, trying to teach people how to engage with one another more productively.

“It’s just in the way you do it – with respect,” Hews said.

Maine Revives Civility is working closely with a couple of major organizations that have embraced its call: the Maine Municipal Association and the Maine AARP.

Eric Conrad, editor of Maine Town & City, a monthly MMA magazine, wrote in its January issue that “one of the hottest topics in local governance these days is civility.”

One reason is because Mainers seem both angrier and more skeptical when dealing with municipal officials than they did in the past, Conrad said.

Lori Parham, director of the Maine AARP, said the senior-focused group got involved because as a nonpartisan organization, it has a responsibility to “try to be a voice of reason” in a political landscape suffering such “big, divided extremes.”

To try to make things better, Parham said, Maine’s AARP is offering workshops and talks to help people find a path to more useful conversations, to boost those who want to be engaged.

ADVICE: LOOK IN THE MIRROR

People have to demand greater civility of themselves, not just their politicians, Pouliot said.

For many Mainers, the vitriol that is flung around by commentators and candidates isn’t really the worst of it.

It’s when the problem doesn’t just hit home, but actually comes home.

Civility advocates aren’t the only ones who worry that politics has become so heated that parents can’t talk to their own children, that holiday meals require something of a truce and that social media posts are as likely to contain potshots as pictures.

Hews said he’s been asking people to make a personal commitment to civility in their own lives, to do more to engage others, and to lead the effort to “start rebuilding the experience of having a dialogue.”

Hews hopes all the talk of civility leads back to something long embraced in the roots of the very word itself.

The Latin word civicus, he said, “means good citizenship.”

What that entails, he said, is that all of us are citizens and that what goes on, for good or ill, is about “more than just us personally.”

“We have a larger responsibility to make this work,” Hews said.

Steve Collins can be contacted at:

[email protected]

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