A chance meeting by two young women in Springfield has blossomed into a direct challenge to the ugly partisanship that is polarizing America.
The two women are from the western suburbs and met during freshman orientation three years ago at the University of Illinois Springfield. Ignoring their opposite political leanings, they decided to become roommates. Michelle Tuma of Elgin, a Democrat, and Andrea Carlson, a Republican, became officers that year in the student groups called College Democrats and College Republicans. They also became great friends and served this month -- three years later -- as UIS's co-head delegates at Model Illinois Government.
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It gets better. The university's unusually large 37-member delegation to MIG, which won the competition this month in the State Capitol, comes largely from active members of both the College Dems and College Republicans, and Tuma and Carlson explain that they're all friends. "We have a lot of friends with a range of political ideologies, and we all get along great without shying away from our opinions," Tuma says.
It gets even better. At UIS, the presidents of the College Democrats and College Republicans have been roommates three of the past five years, including this year, and in their day-to-day living they have learned valuable lessons about civil conversations and the perils of partisanship.
Carlson is helping to create a conservative Young Americans for Liberty chapter at UIS and strives to bring conservative speakers to campus. Her Democratic friends willingly go to listen because they learn from each other. Living together over the years has also led these students to do projects together, such as the time Democrats and Republicans tied yellow ribbons around 400 trees on campus in support of U.S. troops on Veterans Day.
The fact that a few dozen college-aged political rivals can be roommates and work together to address problems is not enough to eradicate America's partisan toxin, but it's a start.
It's as if they're channeling the first president of their alma mater, the late Robert Spencer, a political scientist and former Vermont state senator. Spencer believed it's impossible to be a good citizen and a cynic because we owe our adversaries the presumption that they have a basis for their argument. Plus, Spencer argues, a democratic form of government assumes that people have a capacity for friendship.
Proving Spencer was right, Democrat Matt Van Vossen of Oak Lawn and Republican Ryan Melchin of Hoffman Estates chose to be roommates at UIS in their junior year, when they were presidents of the College Democrats and College Republicans. They had been friends since they were freshmen, and that was more important than their political leanings.
"The most important life lesson I took away from living with Matt," Melchin says, "is that politics does not have to be personal. Matt and I had our share of debates during the time we lived together, but we never allowed them to get to the point where we did not respect each other's point of view."
Meanwhile in Chicago, the word "Springfield" has become a synonym not for "capital city" but "bad state government." That is unfortunate, but downstate where I live, we cannot stop Chicago politicians and editorial writers from abusing "Springfield" in this way, just as Chicago civic leaders can't stop many downstaters from routinely blaming all of the state's problems on Chicago. Historical Chicago-downstate demonizations persist.
What has changed, however, is that seasoned politicians everywhere are no longer able to shed their Democratic and Republican blood on the House and Senate floors during the day and then enjoy one another's company in restaurants and bars at night. Conventional wisdom is that this used to happen all the time, but bitter partisanship prevents it from happening very often today.
But maybe, just maybe, as the partisan toxin grows like bad yeast in Washington and Springfield, some students on the smallest University of Illinois campus are quietly sinking roots that will give rise to a new and improved way of getting along in America. Adults, take note.
• Ed Wojcicki, an author and former publisher of Illinois Issues magazine, handles government relations for the University of Illinois Springfield.