A black Republican and a black Democrat walk into an old church in Virginia…
It sounds like the first line of a bad joke, but it was the start of an insightful conversation Sunday in Charlottesville, Va., which is still grappling with the fallout of August’s white supremacist, pro-Confederacy protests.
Into a former church-turned-homeless shelter came Donna Brazile, the first African-American woman to chair the Democratic National Committee, and Michael Steele, the first and only African-American chairman of the Republican National Committee.
The conversation between the two was sponsored by the Common Ground Committee , whose mission is to “bring light, not heat, to public discourse,” and supported by The Christian Science Monitor and Listen First Charlottesville as part of the National Week of Conversation.
As moderator, I knew going in I’d be in the midst of legends: As Al Gore’s campaign manager, Ms. Brazile was the first woman to run a presidential campaign. Mr. Steele, the former lieutenant governor in Maryland, was the first African-American elected to statewide office there.
I came prepared to prod these big personalities away from opposite sides of the aisle and into some negotiated common ground. On what could they agree?
Almost everything, as it turns out. The topics ranged from the government’s role in the political structure to its role in criminal justice and economic equality. The two agreed on the problems and had few differences in their proposed solutions.
I was struck by how in sync they were, but maybe I shouldn’t have been.
Brazile and Steele are longtime friends, from the same generation and with a shared Catholic faith. They credit their solid upbringing for their successes.
From where I sat, it felt as if their positive energy flooded the room, which held both pain and promise.
In the back sat Susan Bro, the mother of Heather Heyer, who was killed last August when a driver barreled his car into a crowd of counterprotesters. Ms. Heyer was the only fatality of that weekend’s protests.
Ms. Bro came on stage after the conversation ended. I offered to usher her past the throngs waiting to meet Brazile and Steele, but she said as a teacher, she wasn’t one to cut lines.
Her grief was palpable as she talked to me about continuing her daughter’s legacy through the Heather Heyer Foundation.
Then I met Renaldo Pearson, a senior adviser to the faculty deans and social engineer-in-residence at Harvard University. Mr. Pearson is a leader in the Democracy Spring, whose goal is to fix the role of big money in politics and protect voting rights. He wants to dismantle the political status quo – and he’s so electric and engaging, you can see how he just might do it.
I am a skeptic bordering on a cynic, but there was a passion and purpose in the room that inspired me. There’s the angry, bitter politics we see on CNN, Fox, MSNBC, as well as in 280-character bursts on Twitter.
But Sunday, I was reminded that behind the politics are people. Sometimes, those people genuinely like and respect each other. And when they do, it’s not hard to find common ground.
• Wendi is a Monitor contributor who graciously accepted the Monitor’s invitation to moderate the Charlottesville event. She is editor and publisher of MLK50: Justice Through Journalism and was a 2016 fellow at the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University. You can read her work for the Monitor here and here.