2017-01-16 / Front Page

Seeking to understand over coffee

People air opposing views on politics, election
Times Record Staff

LESLIE MANNING of Bath discusses politics and the election of Donald Trump at the Make Shift Coffee House at Curtis Memorial Library in Brunswick. 
NATHAN STROUT / THE TIMES RECORD LESLIE MANNING of Bath discusses politics and the election of Donald Trump at the Make Shift Coffee House at Curtis Memorial Library in Brunswick. NATHAN STROUT / THE TIMES RECORD BRUNSWICK

For Craig Freshley, the divisions in last year’s election were more than just a difference of opinion, but a failure to understand the other side.

“I have never seen our country so divided,” said Freshley. “I’m 55 years old and I’ve lived through a lot of elections, and I think that we are more polarized now than I can ever remember. In this election in particular, we had one candidate that won the popular vote and we had another candidate that won the Electoral College vote. People are not only very passionate about their own position, people are passionate against the other side more than I’ve ever seen. That’s troubling to me.”

Freshley felt motivated to do what he could to bridge that divide, and in November, formulated the idea for Saturday’s Make Shift Coffee House in Brunswick.

Freshley is a facilitator with Good Group Decisions out of Brunswick where he helps people reach agreements or understanding. He decided to use his special skills as a meeting facilitator to bring people from both sides of the political spectrum together.

“I work with a lot of different groups to try to help them come to agreement, and I see that in our county and in our state we have a lot of disagreements and I’ve seen how disagreements get resolved when people understand each other,” said Freshley. “So I decided to have this forum just so we can understand each other, and that’s the only purpose.”

With the help of volunteers, Freshley set up a room at the Curtis Memorial Library in Brunswick. A crowd of about 60 people showed, inspired to share their own experiences and to hear from those who might disagree.

After an hour of socializing, Freshley opened up the meeting with questions written by attendees to be answered by people with the opposing view. The guidelines asked people to speak from their personal experience, and to avoid criticism or confrontation of others and their opinions. The purpose of the evening, Freshley noted, was to understand where people were coming from, not to win a debate.

“I’m not expecting agreement or unity,” Freshley said. “I’m not expecting people to change their minds about their conclusions. I’m not asking people to change their votes. It is my hope that people have a better understanding of where each other is coming from, so that conclusions and votes are not based on misunderstanding.”

Over the course of the evening, the conversation veered from a discussion about taxes to the role of government. Still, the conversation often returned to the subject of Presidentelect Donald Trump, how he came to office, and how people should react.

“Unfortunately, we’ve created this battle to the death, cage match-style form of politics where you end up with brawlers like Donald Trump being successful because they’re the ones that do the fight,” said Aaron Chadbourne, senior policy adviser for the Office of the Governor. “They keep it interesting, and they’re willing to take on the system. And I think that’s one of the lessons that I take from the rise of a Paul LePage or a Donald Trump, is that they’re willing not to have sacred cows in government. They’re willing to call the baby ugly. Now, they might fudge the details, but they’re doing it and it resonates with people who really do think that government’s not working for them.”

“I spent a lot of time walking precincts this election cycle … and I heard from people who voted for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012 who were voting for Donald Trump,” said Leslie Manning of Bath. “Now some of this is the year of the anti-incumbent. It’s a throw the bums out kind of mentality — they didn’t do what they said they were going to do.”

Many argued that the solution to contentious national politics and undesirable candidates is getting involved with politics at the local level.

“Fundamentally, I think what we have in Maine is quite special. When you go to your town hall meeting or when you go to city government, we have a local form of government, a local form of conversation were you have to own up to your comments in the grocery story,” said Chadbourne. “That’s why an event like this is appealing to me, because that’s where you form those personal relationships.”

“Thomas Jefferson suggests that we get the candidates, we get the presidents we deserve,” said Manning. “And the question that I think I have is why is it that people who care so deeply about their communities and about our culture and our lives together are themselves not ready, willing or able to run for public office?”

While this was the only Make Shift Coffee House planned, Freshley said that if the interest was there, he’d be willing to host another.

“If this goes well and we have the volunteer energy to do this again, we’ll do it again.”

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