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After months of divisive debate, can Americans find a path forward together?
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By the time Abraham Lincoln was inaugurated as president on March 4, 1861, seven Southern states had seceded. The American Civil War began a little more than a month later.

In mentioning the unstable state of the union when Lincoln was elected, Central Washington University political science professor Todd Schaefer said he doesn’t think the Nov. 3 presidential election will lead to civil war, despite what some fear.

“There could be violence and there’s concerns, but yes, we should remember that we’ve had contentious elections before,” said Schaefer, who specializes in elections.

It seems there’s no escape from the acrimony surrounding the contest between President Donald Trump and his Democratic opponent, Joe Biden. Family members have stopped speaking to each other. Friends have become painfully aware of how some of their views differ. People who don’t usually discuss the big three — politics, religion and money — are jumping into heated arguments with complete strangers on social media.

A global pandemic, racial injustice and protests had already stretched people’s nerves to the breaking point. With the election a little more two weeks away, it feels like there’s little flexibility.

There is no doubt the pandemic has affected the political climate. Along with opposing views on how the pandemic should or shouldn’t be handled, Schaefer suspects some of the months-long efforts to contain the spread of COVID-19, such as stay-at-home orders and severely limited social opportunities of all kinds, have compounded the divisions among us by preventing the face-to-face discussions that are usually more civil than arguments online and on television.

“We’re in a very stressful time with COVID-19. People are dying. People are stuck at home,” Schaefer said.

Spending so much more time at home has undoubtedly prompted many to spend even more time in “social media bubbles” that reflect only their political views, hearing more emotionally charged rhetoric driven by politicians. In today’s media environment, people can self-select what they want to see, creating their own bubbles and fueling a divisive “us vs. them” mentality no matter what the topic is.

“We’re probably going to have record voter turnout this year. People vote when they’re ticked off,” Schaefer said. “In a way, it’s like the politicians know if they get us riled up ... motivate us by getting us angry and scared, hate and fear is a more powerful motivator.”

Civil conversations

Schaefer promotes respectful and thoughtful political discussions in his classes. Many others are doing what they can to promote civility and respectful conversations between people with different views in the broader community.

Emily Jacobs of Ellensburg helped found and lead a group called Civil Conversations shortly after Trump was elected. Participants met for about a year and a half over coffee or pizza and discussed controversial issues such as gun control. Before those discussions, though, they intentionally spent time getting to know each other as people.

“I think anyone can do this. You just have to be willing to try,” she said.

That group has since stopped meeting, but Jacobs is gauging interest in a Central Washington affiliate of Braver Angels. Originally known as Better Angels, the organization was inspired by a quote Lincoln made at his inauguration in which he appealed to the “better angels” within people to try and stay together as a country.

Its website describes it as a national citizens’ movement to bring liberals and conservatives together at the grassroots level — not for centrist compromise, “but to find one another as citizens.”

Braver Angels created Red/Blue workshops in which several Republican-leaning and Democratic-leaning citizens get together for a half-day or full-day of structured conversations. Independents also are invited.

Jacobs participated in a Red/Blue workshop where she recalled someone saying they all believe in America; it’s just what they think needs to happen is different. The ways they’re going to do that are different, Jacobs said.

“I really thought that was so true. When we talk about taxes, social responsibility, climate change, ultimately we want America to be better; we just have different approaches,” she said.

Years in the making

Fallout from the 2000 presidential election, made notorious by the prolonged Florida recount and its hanging chads, led to a resurgence in party identification becoming much more than a psychological affiliation, Schaefer said. Political parties have become almost like lifestyles for some, and the population is more polarized.

“Being Democrat and Republican is more like a religious affiliation,” he said. “We’ve had this kind of sorting ... people’s identities are getting linked to that.”

A survey conducted by the Pew Research Center in July and August shows that few Trump or Biden supporters have close friends who back the opposing candidate.

And while there’s still a large chunk of people who call themselves independent, “a number of independents are leaners,” Schaefer said. Those in the middle who support candidates in both parties, “there are fewer of them,” he said.

The rise of partisan media outlets since the Florida recount debacle and the ascent of social media mean people can search out only the information they want to hear and can have online friends whose views exactly mirror theirs.

“It’s like they don’t have to listen to the other side if they don’t want to,” Schaefer said. “They don’t want to hear the other side; they don’t have to hear the other side, then they’re going to get all this anxiety about the other side winning.”

“The two parties have moved father apart but they’ve also made it that their followers will think it will be a disaster,” if the other party’s candidate wins, he said.

Social media has also made it acceptable for people to say horrible things about each other, he said. It’s easy to argue with someone you don’t know.

“I think there are some people who enjoy it,” Schaefer said. “I get enraged too. I have to step back.”

What can be done?

As Schaefer noted, just because you can say something doesn’t mean you should. Jacobs encourages people of diverse views to speak, but nicely. And listen to each other.

Jacobs’ job is with the National Association for Interpretation, a professional organization for people who work at parks, museums, nature centers, zoos, botanical gardens, aquariums, historical and cultural sites, commercial tour companies and theme parks.

Those roles have generally involved providing information to visitors and visitors listening, with little if any interaction. It wasn’t a conversation. Over the last few years the profession of interpreter has moved toward starting to have conversations with visitors.

“This is especially true at controversial sites,” Jacobs said.

Her side interest in bringing people with differing views together stems from a best friend in college. They were “complete political opposites” and would get into passionate debates. Then they’d head to lunch together, like lawyers who had just battled it out in court then went out for coffee.

“One of the things I really appreciated about him — yes, he was passionate about his beliefs, but we also really listened to each other,” Jacobs said. “Kind of from that root is sort of where my interest began.”

Common ground is out there, but it might take some work outside one’s comfort zone.

“My whole thing was I think we’re all a little red, we’re all a little blue,” Jacobs said. “What if we embrace the purpleness instead?”

Yakima Valley voters share their thoughts on picking a president
  • Updated

With ballots arriving in mailboxes this week in the Yakima Valley, people have started voting.

The first day of ballot returns was nearly double what Yakima County saw in the first few days of the 2016 presidential election, when turnout was 71%.

It’s hard to avoid discussions these days about President Donald Trump and his Democratic challenger, Joe Biden. Six Yakima County residents shared their thoughts on the two presidential candidates and their choice this year. Among the issues they mentioned: The economy, health care, jobs and immigration.

Amanda Ray / Yakima Herald-Republic 

Cindy Reed poses for a portrait at her boutique, Farmgirl Pickings, Tuesday, Oct. 13, 2020, in Yakima, Wash. Reed is supporting President Donald Trump in the 2020 presidential election.

Cindy Reed

Age: 55

Residence: Cowiche

Reed, who identifies as a conservative Republican, is the owner of Farmgirl Pickings, a vintage/farmhouse inspired boutique in Yakima. She will be voting for Trump.

Protecting our constitutional republic! We are not a democracy; we are a republic with separate but equal branches of government, set up in an attempt to prevent abuse of power. It is what makes us uniquely free.

Why are you voting for your chosen candidate?

He kept his campaign promises. He has fought to protect our rights, place constitutional judges and revealed corruption.

The most impactful — creating strong economic confidence. He has accomplished this by bringing back manufacturing jobs. Before COVID-19 we had record low unemployment for women, Black, Latino and Asian Americans. This resulted in higher wages and record Dow Jones highs, benefiting all of us.

Has your opinion of President Trump changed in the past four years?

No! He has worked tirelessly to improve the lives of the American people. As a businessman he understands with less government and free markets we harness our ingenuity and creativity, developing products, services and jobs. A strong job market results in better, independent lives for all Americans.

Also important is his strength. He stands up for our great country — no apologies!

Amanda Ray / Yakima Herald-Republic 

Marlene Spencer Simla poses for a portrait in front of the Yakama Nation Cultural Center in Toppenish, Wash., Friday, Oct. 16, 2020. Simla is supporting Joe Biden in the 2020 presidential election.

Marlene Spencer Simla

Age: 81

Residence: Toppenish

Simla, who identifies as a Democrat, is retired after 44 years with the Yakama Nation as an early childhood educator and child welfare specialist. She will be voting for Biden, who was her first choice among the Democratic candidates.

What issue is most important to you as you fill out your ballot?

Voting. Right there, you can make a choice. You choose who is going to represent your goals, your wishes, your dreams. If you don’t vote, who knows?

Why are you voting for your chosen candidate?

Who is calling the shots? Do you have particular concerns? Who is making rules, regulations and laws for you to live by? Who truly cares about your health and all things are responsible for clean water, fresh air and your livelihood? You have the right to choose pursuant to the 15th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

I care, too.

My strongest concern is to get the current guy and his family out of the White House. I truly object to my tax dollars to support this group. We have many issues that need strong action in this Yakima Valley and for a healthy global economy.

Amanda Ray / Yakima Herald-Republic 

Dr. James Stevens poses for a portrait outside of his dental office, Stevens Health Alliance in Sunnyside, Wash., Wednesday, Oct. 14, 2020. Stevens is supporting President Donald Trump in the 2020 presidential election.

James E. Stevens

Age: 74

Residence: Sunnyside

Stevens, a Sunnyside dentist, identifies as an independent. He will be voting for Trump.

What issue is most important to you as you fill out your ballot?

The Second Amendment.

Why are you voting for your chosen candidate?

As always, my vote is not for the candidate — but for the survival of the American way. The American way: life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness; it is one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all. The American way is represented by our flag and Donald Trump.

Has your opinion of President Trump changed in the past four years?

I voted for: Bill Clinton — instead of the environment he championed national health care. G.W. Bush — caved in to big business. Barack Obama — promised “change” for all races to feel empowered as American citizens. Instead, he created division; disappointments one and all.

Trump has fulfilled his promises and more.

Evan Abell / Yakima Herald-Republic 

Gregg Charcas poses for a portrait at his home on Friday, Oct. 16, 2020 in Yakima, Wash. Charcas is supporting Joe Biden in the 2020 presidential election.

Gregg Charcas

Age: 41

Residence: Yakima

Charcas, who identifies as Democrat/independent, is an educational interpreter for the deaf. He will be voting for Biden.

What issue is most important to you as you fill out your ballot?

Equality and human rights.

Why are you voting for your chosen candidate?

I support Biden because the issues important to me are equal protection under the law, universal health care, expanding voter participation and reducing America’s carbon dependency, which his campaign supports. We need to move our country in a direction working for the people and not special interest groups opposing these issues.

Was Joe Biden your first choice? If not, who was and why?

Pete Buttigieg was my first choice. He is highly intelligent, accomplished and has military experience. He also appeals to a younger and more diverse demographic. Many of the candidates, including Biden, had positions congruent to my own. I will be voting for Biden as confidently as I would have Buttigieg.

Courtesy of Wayne Worby 

Wayne Worby poses for a portrait. Worby is supporting President Donald Trump in the 2020 presidential election.

Wayne Worby, 74, of Selah

Age: 74

Residence: Selah

Worby, who identifies as an independent, taught for 31 years at Selah high and middle schools. He’s a substitute teacher in the Naches Valley School District. His family has been involved in the tree fruit industry since 1979, growing cherries on 17 acres. He plans to vote for Trump.

What issue is most important to you as you fill out your ballot?

My biggest concern is the economy. The COVID-19 virus has taken a front-row position as a spoiler as businesses were shut down and the economy crashed. The stimulus package spending and government debt are going to affect most if not all policies going forward if not addressed.

Why are you voting for your chosen candidate?

Both of the party candidates, Republican and Democrat, are not without flaws. I voted for Trump in 2016 and will do so again in 2020. He deregulated and his tax policies provided a climate of growth for businesses and personal income. In the election of 2016 I voted against Hillary Clinton as much as I voted for Donald Trump.

Has your opinion of President Trump changed in the past four years?

No. For the most part, Donald Trump has fulfilled his campaign objectives from 2016 despite a constant undermining of his presidency by the Democrats. When elected in 2020 I believe his experience will once again bring prosperity to all citizens. Nothing in the Democratic Party leadership indicates that the next four years will be any different if they retain current members of Congress in positions of power.

Amanda Ray / Yakima Herald-Republic 

Dave Fonfara poses for a portrait at his home in Yakima, Wash., Wednesday, Oct. 14, 2020. Fonfara is supporting Joe Biden in the 2020 presidential election.

David Fonfara

Age: 73

Residence: Yakima

Fonfara, who identifies as independent, plans to vote for Biden, who was his first choice among the Democratic contenders. Fonfara, who is retired, served as Sunnyside city manager from 2000 through 2003. He also served as a member of the city of Yakima Planning Commission, including a couple of years as chairman.

What issue is most important to you as you fill out your ballot?

Since the days of my youth my ideal of America was a country that best represented a unity of spirit and a commonality of purpose in pursuit of liberty and justice for all. Today my ideal has been shattered — what I see is a nation deeply divided by racial tension, economic inequality, and a clash of uncompromising elected ideologues (Congress) owned by big money special interests. I am hopeful that this divisive issue of national discord will be significantly reduced by my vote for president.

Why are you voting for your chosen candidate?

I will vote for Joe Biden because of my belief that he possesses the leadership ability that can best bring our fragmented nation back together. Presidential leadership requires that a person possess the qualities of empathy and compassion. It requires an individual who listens and learns, leads by example, and makes tough decisions with humility and grace. I want a person in the Oval Office who is color blind to red states and blue states, (and supports) immigration policy, voter rights and economic/educational opportunities.

Sex education on the ballot: Four things to know about Referendum 90
  • Updated

Voters will decide the future of a new law Nov. 3 that sets up a comprehensive sexual education curriculum in Washington.

Referendum 90 asks voters to decide whether school districts must adopt or develop comprehensive sexual education curriculum consistent with state standards. Students can be excused at their parents’ request.

Voting in favor of Referendum 90 will maintain the new policy for sex education in all public schools. Voting no will nix it.

Here’s what you need to know about it.

What’s the history of this new law?

In the spring, Democrats in the Legislature passed Senate Bill 5395, which requires all districts statewide to teach comprehensive sexual health education to ensure access to all students. It was signed into law by Gov. Jay Inslee.

Prior to the new law, a sex education curriculum was optional for Washington school districts.

Schools that did have it were required to follow the 2007 Healthy Youth Act. They couldn’t teach solely about abstinence and had to cover contraceptives and methods of disease prevention. Instruction and materials needed to be medically and scientifically accurate, inclusive and age-appropriate, and align with disease prevention guidelines outlined by the state Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction and the Department of Health in 2005. This kind of instruction is considered comprehensive.

In 2018, 14 secondary schools across 10 of 15 districts in Yakima County provided information on their sex education curricula to the state Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction. Roughly half had policies in place that reflected the Healthy Youth Act, according to OSPI.

The new bill, developed and modified over two years, encourages districts to use a curriculum approved by the state, but it also allows them to develop their own curricula in alignment with state standards. Lessons are required to be inclusive and age-appropriate.

At the beginning of the school year, schools are required to notify parents about plans for sexual health instruction. Parents or guardians have the right to view materials and opt their student out of any or all material, without exception.

After the bill was approved, a coalition of Republicans and religious conservatives gathered signatures to place the bill on the November ballot, allowing voters to decide whether to uphold or reject the new policy.

Implementation of the law has been placed on hold pending the election results.

What would the law change?

The law makes it mandatory for all public K-12 schools to teach comprehensive sexual health. Parents or guardians maintain the individual right to opt students out.

According to state school Superintendent Chris Reykdal, the requirements could be taught in as few as six lessons over the course of a K-12 career — although his office maintains that more instruction would be preferable. At a minimum there must be one lesson between kindergarten and third grade, one in grade four or five, two in middle school and two in high school, according to the bill.

In K-3, the curriculum would cover social-emotional learning concepts like how to cope with feelings, set goals or get along with others, according to the OSPI website. No sexuality content is required by the bill at the K-3 level.

In older grades, existing STI/HIV requirements would remain. According to the bill, schools would also cover:

  • A person’s physiological, psychological and sociological developmental processes.
  • Developing skills to communicate, reduce health risks, and to choose healthy behaviors and relationships.
  • Health care and prevention resources.
  • Developing meaningful and non-exploitative relationships.
  • Understanding how family, peers, community and the media influence healthy sexual relationships.
  • And affirmative consent, as well as recognizing and responding to risks of violence, including bystander interventions.

The law emphasizes that there is no intent to integrate components of sex ed into “curriculum, materials or instruction in unrelated subject matters or courses.”

Why are proponents in favor of the bill in Yakima County?

Those in favor of the bill, including OSPI, say evidence shows that sexual health risks and violence are challenges teens in the state face.

Statewide, Department of Health data shows the number of adolescents with sexually-transmitted infections has been on the rise since 2014, for example. In 2017, Yakima County had the sixth highest rate of chlamydia and gonorrhea statewide, and in 2016 had the highest rate of gonorrhea in all of Washington.

In 2016, Yakima County also had the highest rate of teen pregnancy out of any county statewide — 54.9 per 1,000 women ages 15 to 19. The rate was more than double the state average of 24.4 per 1,000, according to the Department of Health.

And statewide, there have been more reports of unwanted sexual contact and dating violence among eighth- and 12th-grade respondents to the Healthy Youth Survey. Lessons in things like affirmative consent and bystander training are intended to help address this, according to OSPI.

“People who have medically accurate, age-appropriate sex ed are less likely to experience an unwanted pregnancy or get an STI,” said Paul Dillon, vice president of public affairs for Planned Parenthood of Greater Washington and North Idaho, referring to guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “The education helps provide young people with education about healthy relationships so that they’re better able to respect personal boundaries and ask for consent and learn how to say no.”

Dillon added that research suggests Latinx youth are more likely to have misconceptions about sex and contraception.

“So integrating sex ed in public schools increases equity and access to accurate information,” he said, pointing to the large community of Latinx youth in Yakima County as an example.

He said LGBTQ youth also deserve to see themselves positively reflected in sex education.

The National Association of Social Workers, Washington Coalition of Sexual Assault Programs, Washington Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, Washington Education Association and the Sexual Violence Law Center are among supporters of the sex ed bill, encouraging voters to approve Referendum 90.

The group Approve 90, Safe & Healthy Youth Washington, had raised $1.5 million as of Friday, according to the Washington Public Disclosure commission.

What do the opponents say?

Those opposed to the bill say it takes away local community and district say in what students should be taught. If districts develop their own curricula, it would add financial burden and detract focus from other core subjects. They also say it threatens to sexualize kids from a young age. Much of the emphasis has been placed on concern over K-5 students being taught content inappropriate for their age.

Kathlen Wierschke , who has a graduate degree in social work and represents the Reject Referendum 90 campaign in the Tri-Cities, said opponents aren’t against sex ed.

“We’re not opposed to sex ed. It’s going through our schools. Some of our kids, a lot of our kids have already had sex ed,” said Wierschke. “There is a place and our kids need to be taught, and we do recognize that some parents don’t teach this to their children, so we understand the need for it to be taught in a different setting.”

She said there are good points to the curriculum. But she said she has concerns about some of the topics in OSPI-approved curriculum. For example, she said, teaching kids the anatomical name of body parts is understandable. But in at least one state-approved curriculum, she said there was explanation of body parts creating pleasure when touched. Wierschke said this is inappropriate for young kids, and could make the victims of sexual abuse feel an unwarranted sense of shame for not having had that response when they were victimized.

She said that while there is the option for school districts to create their own curriculum, it would require time and cost of small districts that couldn’t afford it. She said the bill’s minimum requirement of six lessons across K-12 would not provide enough time to address all of the requirements, making the burden greater than it might sound.

Wierschke also said she thought language translation requirements should have been written into the bill so that parents and guardians were guaranteed to have access for review in their own language, making it more feasible for them to opt out their students as desired.

She said districts should be strongly encouraged to offer sexual health education, but that no new requirement should be rolled out statewide.

“I don’t believe in any forced mandate,” she said. “Is there more our kids should be knowing? Probably … But I think it should be left to the parents and the school board to decide whether they’re going to implement (comprehensive sex ed) or not. And multiple districts around the state have done that. Forcing the remaining districts to do that, I don’t think is OK.”

Reject Ref-90, known as Parents for Safe Schools, has raised $366,000, according to the WPDC. The campaign has been endorsed by the Washington State Republican Party, My Family My Choice, and the state House and Senate Republican caucuses.