Archived Story

Politics requires civility, compassion

Published 9:13am Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Column: Pothole Prairie

Civility in politics. It’s important. Let me tell you all about a story that illustrates this point.

CNN.com has a wonderful in-depth piece on local politics gone awry in Mesquite, Nev.

The first settlers came in 1894 but the desert city never incorporated until 1984, as a result of growth. It is the first stop in Nevada on Interstate 15, and with two casinos, the city marketed itself as an alternative to Las Vegas. By 2006, it was one of the fastest growing cities in America.

The recession hit hard, and the casinos closed. The city, with a 2010 census count of 15,277, now has many empty homes and supposedly lost 6,000 people. Times are tough.

But politics in this hard-scrabble town can be tough, too. This is how CNN.com described it: “Politics can be a bruising contact sport in Mesquite. Hyperbole, name-calling and mud-slinging become the norm during ‘silly season,’ as locals call the springtime municipal elections that come every two years. Political memories are long and old grudges are carried over.”

The council members and mayors in Mesquite serve four-year terms. The people of Mesquite have never elected a mayor for more than one term. Susan Holecheck wanted to change that fact in the 2011 election. She faced three challengers, one of whom was two-term council member Donna Fairchild.

Fairchild had submitted her expenses to the city, and one of the items was $94 for a trip she did not take. The matter had fueled a fight between Fairchild and Holecheck, and things were getting nasty.

Fairchild insisted it was an honest mistake and felt the mayor was using it against her. Supporters of the mayor would call and leave angry and anonymous messages on her voice mail.

On a Monday prior to a Tuesday council meeting, Fairchild went to lunch with friend Melanie Giarratana. During the lunch, Fairchild received an email message of what actions the city intended to take.

“They were playing hardball,” the CNN story says. “If Fairchild quit the City Council, she’d avoid a criminal investigation. But she could never again seek public office in Mesquite. By evening, the City Hall gossip mill was buzzing. The mayor was getting her way. Donna Fairchild was resigning.”

But Fairchild, someone who cares a lot about appearances and feeling like she was in a corner, didn’t resign. She shot and killed her husband of 21 years while he slept, then typed farewell messages before turning the gun on herself.

“This whole town has turned completely upside down,” Giarratana told CNN. “I don’t know if Donna’s death was the catalyst, but the mayor is gone, the police chief is gone, the city manager is gone and we have a new City Council.”

All this over $94.

Reading the story, it reminded me of how grudges over political fights, elections and projects won or lost years or even months ago can really get in the way of good ideas and effective government. It made me think of how a junior high mentality on a city council, a county board, a school board or any panel is like a monkey wrench thrown into the gears.

I probably shouldn’t come out and say any local government body compares to the nastiness in Mesquite, because none do, but every local government body in every city in America has had its ups and downs. Every local government body has had times where civility was lost in favor of junior high behavior. Every local government body has had big fights over petty matters.

Still, I have to say this. Who from Albert Lea reading that Mesquite story cannot think of the felony charges brought against former City Manager Jim Norman? His career was ruined over $2,300 spent on the city credit card during his first month on the job.

People in power must wield that power with sensibility, empathy and an ability to appreciate other views. They also must be good sports when they win and when they lose and not let grudges grow into wars.

I agreed with this paragraph in the CNN story: “Resident Yoli Bell suggested in a signed letter to the editor that the Fairchilds might still be alive if the controversy had been handled with more compassion.”

Perhaps more compassion is what our leaders at various levels of government could use.

Tribune Managing Editor Tim Engstrom’s column appears every other Tuesday.