Our very own contributing RP, Oregon State Senator Jason Atkinson, was featured in yesterday’s Christian Science Monitor’s cover story, “The Myth of the Maverick.” Here’s an excerpt:
It’s presidential election time – which means Americans are, yet again, in the season of mavericks.
It has become a ritual of American elections for politicians to pretend as if they’re anything but politicians, and polls suggest voters like them better when they believe that. But this isn’t simply a political phenomenon. From business to medicine to technology, America loves a visionary outsider willing to follow a dream – and break a few rules, maybe even make a few sacrifices, on the way.
“There are some people who are wired differently to say, ‘Hey, I’ve got this thing in my heart, this opportunity in my profession, and I’m going to shake things up,’ ” says Jason Atkinson, an entrepreneur-turned-Republican state senator in Oregon. “That leadership style is quintessentially American”…
Though you probably haven’t heard of him, Senator Atkinson is something of a local maverick in Oregon – or at the very least not a stereotypical Republican. Earlier this year, for example, he cosponsored bills to ban plastic bags in Oregon stores. But his most personally meaningful maverick moment came last January, when his friend Gabrielle Giffords, a Democratic congresswoman from Arizona, was shot at a public meeting in Tucson.
The shooting came just months after the 2010 elections – marked nationally, as well as in Oregon, by militant rhetoric and bitter fighting, Atkinson remembers.
“We had just come off of very, very dirty campaigns, and there was a lot of really raw emotion,” he says. “You had a lot of very upset and wounded people serving in the Oregon Senate.”
The Giffords shooting resonated with Atkinson, who had himself been accidentally shot nearly three years before. Atkinson weighed whether to speak out against the extremity of political rhetoric, locally and nationally.
“Nobody wanted to say anything because everybody understands the anger” that was in the air after fierce campaigns on both sides, he says. “If you say something, you know you’re going to get beat up on talk radio, and by the critics…. But in my mind, something had to be said.”
Without consulting party leadership, Atkinson gave an impromptu, impassioned speech on the Senate floor asking for greater civility in politics. He wanted to see a conversation between politicians about ideas, rather than reducing debates, as he said in his speech, to “the idea that I am right, and you are evil.”
If his fellow politicians were listening, they missed his point. “The blowback for that decision was nothing I had ever experienced,” he says. He received hate mail and threatening telephone calls. “For weeks I had the sheriff’s office parked outside my house,” he says.
Some of that backlash, he thinks, was simply because some politicians thought they could score points by disagreeing with Atkinson. But he thinks there may also have been something else: guilt.
“The big bullies in politics don’t make up 50 percent of one side and 50 percent of the other, so why is that driving everything?” he says. “I think there was a pretty big chunk of guilt.”
Nearly one year later, though, he also thinks that speech made a difference. For starters, the sheriff’s cars are gone and people are being a lot nicer to him. “People who talk to me now want me to think they’re being civil. It’s kind of like, you don’t swear in front of the pastor,” he says with a laugh.
He’s also received dozens of invitations to speak about civility to groups across the state. He’s been sought out for conversations about meaningful bipartisanship. The local conversation, he says, has begun to change.