Part I: Building a Bipartisan Bridge
The first installment of a two-part interview series about bipartisanship in Manchester city government.
The political discourse and vitriolic barbs of the past two election cycles have been particularly harsh and divisive, both in New Hampshire and the United States as a whole. The discussion has been elevated or diminished, depending on your perspective and/or party affiliation, following the recent shooting of a Congresswoman and others in Tucson, Arizona.
Almost all observers agree that bipartisanship in this country has been on a steady decline for decades, and in the wake of the Tucson tragedy many Americans have expressed nostalgia for more civil times. As recently as the1980s then-President Ronald Reagan and Speaker Thomas “Tip” O’Neill shared very little in common regarding public policy decisions, but were sure to have a chat over a pint at the end of a hard fought debate. The notion that we can agree to disagree seems like a long lost political tradition. Or is it?
NH Journal did not have to venture far to find a ray of light in the vulpine world of politics. We recently spent some time in Manchester, and sat down with Republican Mayor Theodore “Ted” Gatsas and Democratic Aldermen Joyce Craig and Mike Lopez, three elected officials who have been on the front lines of a move towards bipartisan, common sense governance in the Queen City. Though these individuals come from different ends of the political spectrum, they are united by the desire to do what’s best for their beloved City of Manchester.
One item that Mayor Gatsas and the two Aldermen are in complete agreement about is that civil, effective discourse is not a complicated recipe. The key ingredients are common sense, openness, mutual respect, and putting the city first.
Mayor Gatsas elaborated, “ I think that common sense is probably the first thing that, if you can bring to the table everybody will pay attention…My door is always open for any Alderman that wants to come in here and have any conversation with me that they want.” He continues, “The more dialogue that you have with people, you can agree to disagree, as long as you’re looking at the same facts and you’re not hearing rumors.”
Longtime Alderman Mike Lopez agrees, and brings a historical perspective to the discussion, “I’ve sat through three mayors now and I can truly say that I am very happy with the non-partisanship that has been developed since [Gatsas] has been Mayor – and I would tell that to anybody. He’s been very open, he doesn’t hide things from us like previous individuals have done, he doesn’t throw stuff at us just to throw stuff at us and see where it’s going to stick. He gives us facts and figures for us to try to make an intelligent decision.”
Alderman Joyce Craig, a relative newcomer and former School Board member, echoed Lopez’s sentiments about the Mayor, “He’s come in, there’s great transparency, there’s great communication, he’s brought us all together with the common goal of furthering Manchester. Things haven’t been playing out in the paper because they’re not happening.”
The focus on Manchester and Manchester alone was something all three officials brought up, crediting that with lessening the emphasis on party politics. I look at Manchester and Manchester only,” said Lopez, “I make my decisions based on what I feel is good for Manchester and will move us forward.” Addressing critics within his Party that question his working relationship with the Republican Mayor, he stated, “I support his ideas if they’re good for the city – why shouldn’t I support them?”
Is Gatsas’ secret to success having served on the Board of Aldermen for a decade prior to his 2010 mayoral election? “I had a big advantage, I was an Alderman for ten years before I was a mayor, so I worked with a lot of these people, and I would agree with them and disagree with them, and many times there was a 13-1 vote and I was on the short end of it,” he says. However, Alderman Lopez, who served with Gatsas for the majority of that time, thinks it’s not quite that simple. “I think when he became Mayor, everybody expected him to act like an Alderman, and that didn’t happen…he’s very inclusive and transparent.” Gatsas is particularly proud of his lone soldier reputation; Lopez quips, “He never won nothing,” and Craig chimes in, “He’ll remind you of that too.”
Both Gatsas and the Aldermen took pains to emphasize that bipartisanship doesn’t mean surrendering what they believe in; it means having discussions and debates in a respectful and productive manner. As Mayor Gatsas puts it, “Have there been votes, or situations the Board and I disagreed on? Sure. Have there been things that I’ve vetoed? Yeah there have been. Have they overridden my veto? Yes they have. But again, it’s just about voicing opinions and having dialogue and understanding where we are.”
Amelia Chassé also contributed to this report.