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Jason Atkinson seeks to place public service above partisanship

'We have to turn off ... the idea that I am right, and you are evil,' the Oregon politician says.

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“We’d just come off some extremely contentious debates where Republicans completely belittled the Democrats in campaign ads, and Democrats did scare-tactic campaigning stuff,” going so far as to put cross-hairs on abortion doctors and to suggest what electing Republicans would lead to, Atkinson remembers.

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“I called both sides on the carpet,” he says. “The fallout was amazing.”

His office filled with hate mail, even threats.

“I actually had to have the sheriff park outside our home for about six weeks,” he remembers. “Almost all of the anger came from my party, and I was just dumbfounded. ‘Did you guys not listen? What’s the deal?’ But that’s politics. It’s sad, but that’s politics.”

So you’d think anyone with Atkinson’s “rebellious or romantic” idea of public service would give it up.

“I just believe in being in the arena,” he says. “It costs huge amounts of opportunity for me … but it’s done good things. I guess believing in it for me is enough.”

And it’s that word, he thinks, we need more of in our national political conversation -- not just for civility, but for the politicians themselves to do the job that we choose them to do.

“If you look at politics right now,” he says, “whoever’s running for whatever, they’re not enough. They’re not conservative enough, they’re not moderate enough, they’re not environmental enough, they don’t have enough experience. Whatever it is, they’re not enough. And if you’re not careful, those are traps for the candidate, on a personal level after the campaign is over.”

So what does it take to overcome those traps? How much, really, is enough?

Atkinson says it isn’t very much it all.

“My premise is that 10 percent holds the other 90 percent together,” he insists. He’s been running an experiment on this idea for almost a decade, asking students at the end a graduate seminar he teaches to agree or disagree with his premise.

“It’s the easiest pass/fail you’ll ever have,” he laughs. “But if you write yes, you have to tell me who they are.”

Almost all of his students say yes – and almost none of them list a politician the rest of us have ever heard of.

“It’s almost never the grand-standers or the people who would sell their own mother for a headline,” he says. “There is a 10 percent, and I would bet no one’s ever heard of them.”

Jason Atkinson blogs about public service at therecoveringpolitician.com.

Jina Moore met Atkinson at ACT II, a conference of AGLN alumni, on a trip to Aspen, Colo., whose airfare and accommodations were financed by the AGLN.

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