Beyond Ideology: Glenn College Fosters Bipartisan Cooperation
March 15, 2022
By Joan Slattery Wall
In the end, we all want the same things: Healthy and safe families. Thriving communities. A growing democracy.
And yet, public servants constantly face challenges and barriers when they try to work together toward those goals.
“I feel like there’s a penalty that’s now in place for trying to work across the aisle, and we need to balance that,” said Frank Whitfield, mayor of Elyria, Ohio.
Whitfield joined 19 other public officials at the 2021 Glenn College Public Leadership Academy (PLA), which each summer brings rising state and local elected leaders from different political parties together in a weeklong, residential program to build better understanding of their colleagues, lasting relationships and a renewed commitment to public service.
“There are very few swing communities where one minute they’re Democratic, one minute Republican,” said Whitfield, who is the first independent mayor of a city that in the past 150 years has been led almost entirely by Democrats. “If you just do public service work within your own bubble, it doesn’t have the same impact.”
The Public Leadership Academy, he said, helped participants first find their commonalities and realize that, as elected officials, they are all aiming toward the same goals to maintain healthy and viable communities for their constituents. The differences come with decisions about how to meet those goals.
Elyria Mayor Frank Whitfield, left, talks to police officers in his community.
Greg Moody, Glenn College director of professional development, explained that participants are recruited through state party chairs and organizations such as the Ohio School Board Association to identify rising leaders from both parties. Attendees in the 2021 cohort included, for example, mayors, county commissioners, state legislators and school board members. Programming for the week focuses on topics designed to create common ground. Participants examine, for instance, constituent engagement, media relations, leadership, crisis response and decision making. However, because of the intensity of the week, differences play out, offering an opportunity to learn about other perspectives.
Brandon McClain, Montgomery County recorder and a Democrat, said PLA allowed him to sharpen his skills in communicating with colleagues across the aisle.
“It was very important for me to have reinforced that even though they may feel differently than I do politically, they still care about their community and still care about their constituents,” McClain said. “PLA provided me with a new set of tools to allow me to open the doors for more meaningful communication pathways, for opportunities for change, opportunities for collaboration and opportunities for more comprehensive solutions for everyone.”
He said getting to know various viewpoints of not just peers but also constituents is a foundational block of leadership.
“PLA highlighted for me once again the importance that good government at its core is balanced government,” he said. “That means there is not just incorporation but a healthy line of debate and constructive discourse in ensuring that all facets are covered and all people are considered.”
Montgomery County Recorder Brandon McClain, left, greets attendees of the ribbon cutting for the Gem City Market, a community-owned cooperative market brought to the Dayton community to respond to food desert concerns.
John Plecnik, a Republican county commissioner in Lake County and associate professor of law at Cleveland State University, appreciated the balance of ideology among the PLA participants.
“People need to hear the other side,” he said. “It doesn’t mean you need to be convinced by it, but you do need to have a better understanding of where they were coming from,” he said. “In any context, if you’re isolating yourself to one point of view, even if you’re convinced by it, that doesn’t make you an effective negotiator.”
Plecnik also learned about statewide resources in a way he hadn’t before through a PLA tour of the Ohio Emergency Management Agency (EMA), which was particularly significant to him because of a nuclear power plant in his county. Crisis management exercises during the week forced him to think about making critical decisions in singular situations where public leaders likely have limited experience.
“I had two takeaways from that: You do need to have a baseline plan and a chain of command for who will decide what, but you also have to have that flexibility because you can’t predict what could go wrong. If you could, it wouldn’t go wrong,” he said.
He also benefited from a session on dealing with news media that reinforced fundamental principles of responding quickly.
The following evening, he sat at dinner with his PLA colleagues when he got a call from a TV station regarding a shooting that had happened at a bar in his county.
“I went outside, got a nice background with a brick wall and gave the interview with News 5,” he said. “Responsiveness matters because they’re not running the story later today or the day after. If I hadn’t gone out and interrupted my dinner, my message might have been replaced by someone else’s.”
Lake County Commissioner John Plecnik, standing, coaches students in the Mock Trial Courtroom at Cleveland State University’s Cleveland-Marshall College of Law, where he is an associate professor of law.
Whitfield said the real vibrancy of PLA came from interacting with people such as Plecnik who bring their experiences from different regions and ideologies.
“He comes from one of those very Republican, conservative communities, but he’s a professor as well so he comes to this from a very pure space where he understands what our democracy is about,” he said.
Spaces like PLA, Whitfield said, provide affirmation and support for reasonable candidates who are looking out for democracy by remaining open-minded and working across the aisle even though they face strong objections from their peers or constituents.
“If we don’t do something about creating a new base (of support) outside of the current structure,” Whitfield said, “we’re going to lose a lot of good statespeople who ultimately are the people protecting our democracy.”