Lately, much of our political conversation at all levels seems to consist of high-decibel harangues that degrade our civic institutions and the individuals within them. These vile attacks have targeted elected officials, public employees and well-intentioned citizens who choose to speak out at public meetings, on local talk radio or in letters to the editor.
Typically, August would offer a respite from such “gutter level” politics, but if you listen for very long, it’s not hard to hear innuendo and slander: This month, SLO voters are marking ballots on Measure A and Measure B, charter amendments designed to give the council more power to reduce staffing costs.
My purpose here is not to tell anyone how to vote on A or B — my position is no secret. Rather, I want to encourage mutual respect and civility by both sides in this election. If we can do that, we can get an early start on finding common ground after the votes are counted.
I’d like to relate how one simple, serendipitous moment reminded me of how we can all climb “out of the gutter” of political rancor — literally!
On the morning of July 30, both sides of the measures A and B campaign had planned events to rally their troops. The “Yes on A and B” folks had organized a bicycle rally at Mitchell Park, and the “No” forces were gathering at Meadow Park for one last push to walk key SLO neighborhoods.
I bicycled over to the “No on B” rally at Meadow Park, chatted with the organizers and gathered up the materials to “work” a few blocks downtown — coincidentally, the neighborhood next to Mitchell Park where the “Yes on A and B” bicycle rally was under way. I reasoned that I’d need to pay my respects and visit the “Yes” rally — after all, I was on a bike!
I turned the corner toward Mitchell Park, but almost immediately I had to swerve out of the bike lane on South Street to avoid a stream of broken glass covering half a block — the dangerous residue of some late-night drinking party. My first thought was to call Public Works to bring a street sweeper to clean it up before someone blew a tire.
My next thought was, “What the heck, I’ll just clean it up myself.” My “No on B” precinct work would just have to wait.
I borrowed a broom and dustpan from the gas station at South and Broad, and returned to the scene of the crime.
After 20 minutes, I’d swept up most of the glass, but the bike lane was still hazardous. Just then, I noticed a peloton of cyclists headed up South Street directly into the path of the remaining glass. I steered them out of danger, and only then did I notice that the lead riders were all the leaders of the “Yes on A and B” bike rally, earnestly carrying their signs and message around the town. The riders made it safely around the last few shards of glass, and they waved to me as they paraded by, heading back to Mitchell Park.
I swept and dumped the last of the broken glass, returned the broom and dustpan and rode over to Mitchell Park. As I approached their gathering, I announced that if I’d known the “Yes on A and B” bike rally was headed my way, I’d have tossed the glass back onto their path!
Thankfully, they laughed, and even offered me a hot dog.
No matter how deeply divided we may seem on these occasions, we all still inhabit the same city. We see each other in the grocery stores, at Farmers Market, in the workplace and at City Hall.
We will have our differences, but we also can find many points where we can agree. We are all inherently biased, but out of that mix of self-interest we strive to find some concept of the “public interest.”
It offends me that some drunken idiots had littered our bicycle lane with smashed glass. It offends me more when honest disagreement degenerates into distrust and derision.
When we find our streets littered with the smashed bottles of resentment and rancor, let’s all take responsibility to clean it up. The longer we let it lie in the gutters of our political discourse, the more we risk the self-inflicted wounds of verbal violence.
John Ashbaugh is vice mayor of the city of San Luis Obispo.