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Woodford Times - Peoria, IL
  • In the Spotlight: College students take page out of LaHood’s bipartisan playbook

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  • Six college student leaders have broken free from a trap that is polarizing America. That’s not enough to eradicate a great national toxin, but it’s a start.
    Three of the last five years, the presidents of two student organizations — College Democrats and College Republicans — have been roommates at the University of Illinois Springfield. In day-to-day living, they have learned valuable lessons about civil conversations and common ground.
    Two are from the Peoria area. It’s as if they have absorbed the attitude of Ray LaHood, the former congressman and U.S. transportation secretary who preaches that bipartisanship is part of the rich history of central Illinois, going back to Abraham Lincoln. LaHood unsuccessfully led an effort to restore civility to Congress in the late 1990s. He carried on, but the political toxicity and hyperpartisanship in the nation’s capital and in many states have only become more odorous.
    Meanwhile, at UIS the unusual living arrangement began in 2009, when Democrat Matt Van Vossen of Oak Lawn and Republican Ryan Melchin of Hoffman Estates chose to be roommates in their junior year. 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.”
    The two weren’t aware they would be starting a tradition.
    Three years ago, Zach Watkins of Mossville and Sean Miller of Dieterich didn’t know each other before going to UIS but were housed in the same room. Both were interested in politics and went to the first meetings of their preferred student political organizations. As Miller put it, “We came home and I say I’m the president of the College Democrats and he says I’m the chairman of the College Republicans. So that was an interesting night.”
    One time after seeing a Republican’s commercial on television, Miller said, “I said a couple of comments and Zach had a few comments, too, so after about five minutes worth of debate we were just like OK, well, time to do the dishes.” Watkins explains that “every issue has at least two sides, and recognizing the basis of an alternate viewpoint leads to a better understanding of the whole picture. Oftentimes doing so enabled me to see where we had unexpected common interests and encouraged me to work with the Democrats towards those mutual goals.”
    Page 2 of 2 - It gets better. The roommate arrangement among political rivals at UIS goes beyond the heads of student organizations. The secretaries of the two student political organizations — Andrea Carlson of Plainfield, the Republican, and Michelle Tuma of Elgin, the Democrat — chose to be roommates one year and despite their differences of opinion, they still collaborate closely as co-head delegates of the Model Illinois Government team at UIS. Also, two of our brightest and most politically active women in the last decade are still friends several years after graduating.”
    Living together over the years has led these leaders to attend one another’s events and do projects together, such as the time Democrats and Republicans helped to tie yellow ribbons around 400 trees on campus in support of U.S. troops on Veterans Day.
    This year Marc Reiter of Virginia and Jeff Wilhite of Minonk are roommates. Says the Republican Wilhite: “Marc and I have a lot in common outside of politics that makes us great friends. Instead of bickering about differences, we find things to do and talk about that we both enjoy. By putting politics aside when possible and finding common ground, I believe that I have a found a friendship that will not only last through college but far into the future.”
    Adds the Democrat Reiter: “Washington could learn a lesson in civility from individuals like us, who are one-third their age, yet three times more politically tolerant.”
    LaHood undoubtedly would agree.
    Ed Wojcicki is the associate chancellor for constituent relations at the University of Illinois-Springfield and the former publisher of Illinois Issues magazine.
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