Up here at the roofline of the lower 48, about as far away from the other Washington as you can get without needing to speak Canadian, a political event unlike anything we’ve been witnessing on the national stage lately took place in one of America’s most grounded and venerated institutions, a grange hall.
Four candidates for Okanogan County commissioner seats, two each for Districts 1 and 2, were arrayed behind tables across a small, slightly raised stage like panelists on a quiz show, which it sort of was — the prize being an elective office at about the most fundamental level of local governance.
Andy Hover and Ashley Thrasher, rivals to represent District 2 (which includes the Methow Valley), occupied one end of a stage that probably wouldn’t accommodate an elementary school theatrical production, while District 1 candidates Sheilah Kennedy and Chris Branch were at the other. They did not stand up or move around. They sat, for 90 minutes.
It wasn’t an elaborate setting. The only decorations were red tablecloths (up close they had a kind of Christmasy pattern). The candidates shared microphones and plastic water pitchers. The audience sat in well-used folding chairs or in reclaimed theater seats along the walls, none of them particularly close to the stage. The moderator worked from a small dais while a timer occupied a tiny wooden table set up directly in front of the stage like a little toll both, where the candidates could not miss her red and yellow caution flags. A couple of kids circulated among the attendees before the event began, collecting questions for the candidates. No one was what you’d call real dressed up (except Okanogan County District Court Judge Robert Grim, who could be excused for his judicially appropriate suit and tie even though he was just spectating).
The commissioner candidates were there at the invitation of the Twisp Valley Grange, which not only made its hall available for the candidates’ appearance but also laid out snacks and refreshments that included healthy fruits and vegetables along with homemade baked goods.
It was the latest in a series of such gatherings that have taken place around the county in recent weeks. The candidates’ forum — happily, no one thought to advertise it as a debate — gave Methow Valley residents a chance to hear directly from fellow citizens who want to represent them for the next four years. On a drizzly weekday night, the event drew a full house of constituents who could listen to, observe and directly chat with the candidates in something much closer to a town hall experience than anything we’ve seen in the presidential debates. The moderator asked some prepared questions before selecting queries offered by audience members. Before and after, candidates and attendees mingled.
By present-day candidate interaction standards it was a model of civility. By flame-throwing political theater standards it was colossal bore.
No one said terrible things about anyone else or offered gratuitous personal asides. No one interrupted. Everyone stopped talking when the timer raised her red flag and dinged a little bell, the kind you might see at a church service, to indicate that their allotted speaking time was up. When any of the candidates wanted to object to what another had said, they politely raised a ping-pong paddle to alert the moderator that they had something additional to say. They disagreed or elaborated or explained, but they didn’t hurl verbal grenades or careen off into venal, irrelevant gibberish. Despite noteworthy differences on important issues, they all behaved like polite, respectful people.
For all of this we should be profoundly grateful.
We’re exhausted from the din and darkness of the presidential race, which doesn’t look or feel much like the elective process we have counted on for 240 sometimes-tumultuous years. “Meaningful” political discourse has no meaning. Issues we ought to care about, and hear candidates talk about, are dismissed with self-serving rhetoric or ignored altogether when directly posed.
That wasn’t going to work in the grange hall. People took time out of their lives to be there and came expecting answers. Some had already made up their minds but felt obliged to participate, others came to be persuaded. Whatever their motives, everyone in that small room in a small town on an otherwise unremarkable fall evening was part of something important: direct democracy where it matters most in our lives.