“You never really know a man until you understand things from his point of view, until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” — Harper Lee, “To Kill A Mockingbird”
Jason Chaffetz is a white, Mormon Republican congressman representing Utah’s mostly rural, wide-spanning Third District since 2009. Elijah Cummings is a black, Baptist Democrat representing Maryland’s inner-city, Baltimore-based Seventh District since 1996. The diverse duo are members of the House Committee of Oversight and Government Reform, sitting on opposite sides of the proverbial partisan aisle and — on occasion in the past – having lobbed political barbs back and forth.
Chaffetz proposed an idea to Cummings. Rather than get under each other’s skin, they could take Lee’s “climb-into-his-skin” suggestion — visiting each other’s districts, talking with constituents and getting a better feel for the local strengths, needs and opportunities.
It was a different tactic, as Chaffetz told MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” program hosts — seek first to understand, then to be understood.
Last month, Chaffetz spent a day with Cummings in Maryland’s Seventh District, which includes more than half of metro Baltimore as well as Howard County. This week, Cummings returned the favor by spending two days in, around and over southeastern Utah and Salt Lake City.
The Washington Post called them “buddy days.” Cummings said the experience allowed him to be more sensitive to Utah people and Utah issues. Chaffetz labeled the give-and-take tours as learning how to disagree without being disagreeable.
In Maryland, Cummings took Chaffetz to the Center for Urban Families to talk to young adults — many looking to overcome challenging pasts by seeking training and career counseling. Then they went to a town-hall like lunch meeting with inner-city seniors, followed by a stop at University of Maryland hospital to visit HIV patients.
“He got an idea of what I’m fighting for,” Cummings told MSNBC.
Earlier this week, Chaffetz hosted Cummings in the latter’s first-ever visit to Utah. The itinerary included flying over the coal-rich lands of central and southeastern Utah, an evening float down the Colorado River in Canyonlands, a quick visit to Arches, a stop at the LDS Church’s Welfare Square in Salt Lake City and a shared session on KSL Radio’s “The Doug Wright Show” to talk about their experiences and learnings.
While in southeastern Utah, Cummings met with commissioners from several local counties, who took occasion to express views and frustrations over a myriad of topics —the Endangered Species Act, public lands, a proposed national monument and rural economic development.
In a brief exchange with Deseret News and KSL editors and managers, Cummings reiterated the vision he shares with Chaffetz and the desired result of these cross-over visits: “Common ground is not good enough anymore,” he said. “We’ve got to move to a higher ground.”
This Chaffetz-Cummings experience should not be seen as a novel idea or a one-time exchange program. Rather, it should be an effort repeated by these two congressmen and duplicated by other elected officials in hopes of swapping polarizing partisan politics with the understanding, empathy and sensitivity that can be fostered by these types of visits.