To Charlie Keller, re: “civil discourse”

Dear Charlie,

You mentioned that in terms of maximizing the Congressman’s outreach, a private meeting with, for example, four unhappy Democrats is not nearly as worthwhile as, say, an event with 100 professors at the W&L Law School. That’s a reasonable argument. But you may be missing some of the picture.

After Mr. Goodlatte met with three leaders of SAW (Staunton-Augusta-Waynesboro) last month, Jenny Kitchen posted a summary on her blog. She said: “At the end of the meeting he mentioned that he appreciated the civil discourse… Over all he is a very easy person to talk to, I just don’t agree with him.”

That’s literally the most positive description I’ve read about Mr. Goodlatte this year. And it was written by someone who adamantly opposes his political positions. Because SAW communicates with the range of other district 6 activist groups, Jenny’s comment also reverberated up and down the valley. A compliment from an opponent shared among other opponents—that carries a hell of a lot more weight than a visit with a high school class in Front Royal or with Buddy the Eagle in the Waynesboro Wildlife Center.

It’s also good strategy. Talking civilly with Democrats dampens the outrage so many constituents are feeling. You surprised me when you said you look at sites like Daily Kos. I get their email updates in my inbox (I presume I signed some petition back in December), but I’m turned off by their biased headlines and never click their links. These are often fundraising emails, so I understand why stoking outrage is useful.

It would be hard to feel outrage at a Bob Goodlatte who seeks out real conversations and listens sincerely with the goal of finding common ground. But that’s not the image Mr. Goodlatte currently has. Frankly, from a partisan perspective, that’s good for Democrats nationally. The more unreasonable the chair of the House Judiciary Committee appears, the better for the Democratic party in November 2018.

But I’m more opposed to political polarization than I am to the GOP. Civil discourse undermines the easy demonization that is the norm in our country right now. Civility, while good in itself, isn’t my end goal. It’s a means of achieving communication and eventually mutual change. I believe that only in our current environment of extreme polarization could Donald Trump have become president. I believe he’s a bad president not simply for Democrats, but for the country over all, and, ironically, Republicans especially.

If the Congressman truly appreciates civil discourse—and I believe he does—he could do more to promote it. I think if Republicans and Democrats sit down and sincerely listen to each other—from DC down to grassroots—the better off the country will be. I hope the Congressman will help begin that change.

I suggest a series of Facebook conversations. Mr. Goodlatte’s constituents—both Democrats and Republicans—would deeply benefit from seeing him talking meaningfully with non-Republicans. I don’t suggest live events—the opportunity for ambush is too high—but please consider recording conversations and releasing them afterwards. Since he already knows and had a good meeting with Jenny Kitchen, he might begin there. I just ask that he use his position to model civil discourse and reduce the demonization on both sides.

Thanks again for hearing me out.

Best,

Chris Gavaler

PS. Don’t worry, my next 200 emails won’t be to you. I just wanted to follow through on our conversation and what I see as real potential for progress. I will return to using the “Contact Bob” form on the Congressman’s website–though I do hope now that you have an actual person attached to my name, you will have more reason to take them seriously.

To Charlie Keller, Bob Goodlatte’s DC Chief of Staff

Dear Charlie,

Again, thank you for meeting with me on Tuesday. I think both the tone and substance of our conversation are exactly what constituents need from their elected officials right now. I hope very much that we can expand our exchange to include other residents of Lexington and Rockbridge county and of course Mr. Goodlatte himself.

We agreed that a traditional town hall would be unproductive from the Congressman’s perspective. I personally wouldn’t want to stand in front of a thousand angry protestors waving signs and hurling insults at me either. Instead I propose Mr. Goodlatte meet with a smaller, civil, and balanced group of one hundred local residents.

Instead of a venue like the Rockbridge Country High School auditorium, which can seat an enormous crowd, we could meet in the community center where our Delegate Ben Cline holds his annual town hall. It comfortably fits about one hundred people.

I am a member of a local activist organization called 50 Ways Rockbridge. I suggest 50 Ways co-host the event with the Rockbridge Republicans. Each organization could then give out fifty tickets in advance, guaranteeing a balanced audience.

As far as keeping the tone civil, the other 50 Ways organizers and I can deliver that. Please ask Debbie Garett and Pete Larkin how they have been treated at the monthly Open Door meetings. I believe they will tell you that attendees are passionate but respectful and never disruptive. I have only heard Debbie address the room as a whole once, demanding that others not interrupt questioners with shouted comments. That was at the most recent meeting when members of the Rockbridge Republicans attended for the first time this year. But the new attendees quickly adopted the norms of the room, and the meeting continued respectfully.

I met Roger Jarell, the chair of the Rockbridge Area Republican Committee, afterwards. We and a few other folks stayed after Debbie had to leave, and the conversation was both civil and productive. I’ve since reached out to Roger about co-organizing events. I haven’t heard back from him yet, but I have to imagine he would be excited to host Mr. Goodlatte too.

I may be over optimistic, but I think we can model a town hall format that would be attractive to other members of Congress too—something much closer to real conversations. That means no signs and shouts from constituents and no evasive half-truths from Representatives. As I said, our conversation on Tuesday was personally so useful and satisfying to me because you responded with real substance.  We were able to speak back and forth and hear in a meaningful way what the other was saying. That is exactly what our country needs right now, and I would like to see it start in Lexington. I hope you do too.

I look forward to hearing from you.

Thanks,

Chris Gavaler

To Charlie Keller, Bob Goodlatte’s DC Chief-of-Staff

Dear Charlie,

Thank you so much for meeting with me yesterday afternoon. I appreciate the hour you spent with me, especially since my appearance at the Congressman’s office was unscheduled. Even more importantly, I appreciate your willingness to engage in a sincere conversation.

Of all my concerns, it’s been the absence of meaningful responses to my letters, phone calls, open door questions, and meeting requests that I’ve found most frustrating. Every other staff member I’ve interacted with–from interns on the phone to Mr. Goodlatte’s chief-of-staff in person–quickly repeat a nearly identical, conversation-ending statement that they cannot speak for the Congressman. Though you’re his DC chief-of-staff, I understand you don’t speak for him either, but you were still willing to talk substantively about the issues I raised, offering thoughtful and detailed insights that challenged my assumptions. This is exactly the sort of exchange I’ve been seeking and advocating for, one useful for all involved.

As I said, I’ve never met the Congressman, and so my understanding of him is shaped almost exclusively by his public statements. You indicated that the difference, for example, between Mr. Goodlatte using “evil” and at another time merely “despicable” when describing what atrocities require military intervention was unimportant, but please know that for the thousands and thousands of us who do not and cannot know the Congressman personally, such differences are defining. He is his words. I imagine the drafting of specific language for any given policy might seem relatively insignificant to you, but please understand that for the rest of us, the concern isn’t academic. The Congressman’s rhetoric is his character. When a press release or newsletter column includes an inaccurate or adversarially partisan or distortingly simplistic statement, Mr. Goodlatte himself seems untruthful or unfair or simple-minded.

I was pleased that you could so easily list several recent examples of bipartisan bills that the Congressman has supported. I would like to think I’m paying close attention to Mr. Goodlatte, so I’m embarrassed to admit that most of them went past me unnoticed. That suggests that I may be viewing the Congressman from my own distortingly partisan perspective–in which case, I need to do better. But please also note that all of the bills you mentioned are comparatively minor. When the House is voting on such massive legislative issues as health care, tax reform, annual budgets, and executive investigations, small acts of bipartisanship are likely to slip by unnoticed. So let me reiterate one of my requests: please, in the Congressman’s next newsletter column, brag about these accomplishments and how the Congressman is actively reaching across the aisle and looking to bridge our far too-divided country. Such a change in tone, while a tiny gesture, is a first step toward reversing DC’s decades-deep trend of demonizing opponents. Since Mr. Goodlatte holds one of the safest seats in Congress, he could and should be leading this change.

While I am willing to accept that the impression is inaccurate, the Congressman’s statements too often create the impression of a party loyalist incapable of addressing concerns that do not benefit the GOP. You indicated to me that you believe that impression is false. I ask then that you find ways to communicate a more accurate impression. You said that at least Mr. Goodlatte is no Steve King–and there we certainly agree. If Mr. King were my Representative, I would have given up writing thoughtful letters to him months ago.

As far as the impression I am creating, you suggested that I stop writing daily emails because it makes me seem “crazy” and so not someone the Congressman would have any reason to engage with in meaningful conversation. As I said yesterday, I was surprised that anyone in Mr. Goodlatte’s office is even aware of me, let alone of my blog which you also mentioned. I assumed my letters were vanishing into an anonymous heap. I think you said his office received 25,000 this month–so my 30 seem hardly noteworthy. But I do ask that you appreciate the sincerity of my writing. You described three-sentence rants rattled off by angry constituents after glimpsing something on TV. I attempt to craft logical, well-informed challenges to the Congressman’s positions. If, as you said, I repeat topics–yes, investigations into the Trump administration do keep coming up–it’s always in response to an additional piece of information or delving into a more specific subtopic.

I would be delighted to write the Congressman a compliment someday. I would like to be able to thank him for adjusting one of his positions or acknowledging a more nuanced understanding of an issue or condemning a fellow GOP member who a reasonable person would see has made an unreasonable statement. I was delighted to hear that your wife is a Democrat. It might be silly, but it gives me unexpected hope. It erases the impression that Mr. Goodlatte is surrounding himself with people who have no lines of communication with and understanding of non-Republicans. It suggests that more sincere conversations are possible.

Finally, I want to thank you again for your offer to help with my daughter’s visa. It was quite an experience stepping inside the Russian embassy yesterday morning, and for a moment it looked like her summer position in a Siberia language camp was going to fall through. But happily the visa request is proceeding, and she should have it in time for her flight in June.

I’ve already gone on longer than I ‘d expected, so forgive me if I write again tomorrow to follow-up on the possibility of a town hall in Lexington that we discussed too.

Many thanks,

Chris Gavaler