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Left to right: Delaware Representatives Michael Smith and Madinah Wilson-Anton, and State Senators Sarah McBride and Brian Pettyjohn, speak with Biden Institute Executive Director Cathy McLaughlin about Delaware state government as a model for effective civil discourse as part of the Biden School’s Stavros Niarchos Foundation (SNF) Ithaca March event.
By: Mike Morris, SNF Ithaca Graduate Fellow
The topic of Delaware state government as a model for effective civil discourse made for engaging conversation this spring at the University of Delaware’s Joseph R. Biden, Jr. School of Public Policy and Administration. The dialogue took place March 15 as part of an event entitled, “Civil Discourse in the Delaware Legislature: A Model for the Country,” hosted by the school’s Stavros Niarchos Foundation (SNF) Ithaca Initiative. It featured insights from Delaware State Senators Sarah McBride (D) and Brian Pettyjohn (R), and Representatives Michael Smith (R) and Madinah Wilson-Anton (D).
The lively discussion, moderated by executive director of the Biden Institute Cathy McLaughlin, opened in Mitchell Hall among an audience of University students, faculty, staff and community members with a question to the legislators about what spurred their interest in public service, initially.
“For me, it was recognizing how many people complain about public policy, and how few decide to do something about it,” said Sen. Pettyjohn, who was first elected to town council in Georgetown, Del., in 2008, then became mayor in 2010 before successfully being elected to his current Senate seat in 2012. “I wanted to be someone who did something to improve matters.”
Likewise, others’ paths to public office were driven by a similar desire to make a difference. “I wanted to make life better for people like me, within and beyond the LGBTQ+ community,” said Sen. McBride, an advocate for gender equality who grew up having to conceal her gender identity from others. This motivation led her to roles in the Obama Administration and with the Human Rights Campaign, before running for state senate in 2020.
Rep. Smith recounted how a childhood full of struggle and family tragedy informed his perspective as a “community guy,” someone who strives to make better for his neighbors. In 2018, encouraged by his role model–then U.S. Representative and now former Governor of Delaware–Mike Castle, Smith ran for a House seat representing Delaware's 22nd District.
For Rep. Wilson-Anton, it was directly witnessing the work conducted at Legislative Hall as a Biden School Legislative Fellow. The Legislative Fellow program sends UD students to Legislative Hall to staff the general assembly and committees and receive an up close look at policymaking in the state. “Seeing legislative decision-making firsthand made me feel like more could be done for my own district,” she said–a realization that prompted her to do just that. In 2020, Wilson-Anton ran for office, going on to win a House seat representing the 26th district.
“The anecdotes and advice shared by the legislators served as great inspiration for our students who aspire to public service,” said Maria Aristigueta, dean of the Biden School and Charles P. Messick Chair of Public Administration. “It was encouraging to hear more about their career paths and how they each endeavor toward civility in their work, each day.”
Civil discourse as a necessity for effective public policy was also a sentiment shared among the legislators–underscored by their collegiality with one another and interaction with attendees. Throughout the evening, all four could be seen engaging in small side conversations and quick laughs, and offered snaps or applause for what each other had to say.
Rep. Smith, who spoke proudly of coaching community sports for his children, likened his approach to team sports: “Regardless of the different values or perspectives members might hold, ultimately, we’re on the same team.” A view he shares with Rep. Wilson-Anton, as the two have worked on issues together in the past.
“I appreciate everyone’s willingness to engage in real and civil dialogue,” she said. “Even when we disagree on policy or ideology, we understand that each of our colleagues is working to do what they believe will best serve the constituents they represent.”
The size of the assembly in Dover, Del.,–only 62 members in total–also lends to civil discourse among the public servants, improving their ability to “reach across the aisle.”
“Legislative Hall is ultimately a workplace, and not a particularly large one at that,” said Sen. McBride. “Knowing that helps me in my approach among all my legislative colleagues–to do so with respect and civility–just as coworkers everywhere would be expected to.”
What’s more, is the amount of bipartisan legislation that is passed in Delaware. “The majority of bills pass the Senate with bipartisan support, if not unanimously,” said Sen. Pettyjohn. “You need civil discourse to allow for that level of collaboration and decision-making.”
And then there’s Return Day, a long-standing tradition and official state holiday in Delaware, observed on the Thursday after Election Day in November every even year, where members of both parties travel to Georgetown, the seat of Delaware’s Sussex County, to hear an announcement of the election results and then perform a ceremonial “burying of the hatchet”--signifying the end of the campaign season and bringing literal meaning to the proverbial expression that means “to make peace.”
The event closed with words of encouragement from the speakers for the students in attendance, imploring the practice of civil discourse, researching and learning about issues directly, and participation in causes that matter most
According to Sen. McBride, “Civil discourse is not just a philosophical aspiration–from a practical standpoint, there is no greater tool [than civil discourse]. Listening with a baseline of respect is the only way to build coalitions.”
March’s event is one of several addressing the importance of civil discourse in today’s society hosted by the Biden School’s SNF Ithaca Initiative this spring. Established in the fall of 2021 with a generous grant from SNF, the SNF Ithaca Initiative seeks to increase the quality and quantity of civil discourse and civic engagement by instilling core democratic values on UD’s campus and beyond through special event programming, seminars and more.
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Established in 1961 and named in 2018 for the University of Delaware’s most distinguished alumnus, the 46th President of the United States, the Joseph R. Biden, Jr. School of Public Policy and Administration prepares students with the knowledge and skills necessary to engage in research and public service activities to improve the quality of life in communities around the world. The Biden School’s faculty, staff, students, and alumni create and use interdisciplinary, nonpartisan research, and empirically based analysis to inform effective decision-making and policy and to improve leadership and administration. The Biden School partners with organizations from all sectors to discover innovative and equitable solutions to the critical challenges of our time.
In the fall 2021, the Biden School launched a new civil discourse and civic engagement pilot program supported by the Stavros Niarchos Foundation (SNF). Called the SNF Ithaca Initiative, the program is named after the home of Odysseus—one of Greek mythology's greatest leaders, whose talent for persuasive discourse was revered in ancient Greece. For Odysseus, Ithaca represents not only the beginning of a journey but the ultimate destination. Likewise, the SNF Ithaca Initiative will serve both as the beginning of our students' journey toward becoming effective citizens and as the ultimate destination for students from across the country to come together and develop the civil civic engagement skills that will strengthen our democracy.
The Stavros Niarchos Foundation (SNF) is one of the world's leading private, international philanthropic organizations, making grants to nonprofit organizations in the areas of arts and culture, education, health and sports, and social welfare. SNF funds organizations and projects worldwide that aim to achieve a broad, lasting, and positive impact for society at large, and exhibit strong leadership and sound management. SNF also supports projects that facilitate the formation of public-private partnerships as an effective means for serving public welfare. Since 1996, the Foundation has committed more than $3.2 billion through over 5,100 grants to nonprofit organizations in more than 135 countries around the world.