Listening Thursday night to P.G. Sittenfeld, a Democratic Cincinnati city council member, and Mike Wilson, the founder of the Cincinnati Tea Party, sit onstage at Hebrew Union College might, one would think, produce some partisan sparks.
It did no such thing.
Instead, the crowd of about 200 in Mayerson Hall, heard two young men talk about their backgrounds, their early family lives, about the influences that led them toward politics, and about the need to listen – really listen – to what people of opposing ideologies and political persuasions have to say.
And, in the second of a series of head-to-head discussions sponsored by Beyond Civility – a non-partisan organization aimed at raising the level of political discourse here and nationally – the people in Mayerson Hall may have been surprised to hear that the two, while they came from totally different backgrounds, did not grow up in families where political talk was the order of the day.
It was a discussion moderated by Bea Larsen, former president of the Cincinnati Bar Association. Cincinnati Public Radio is a media partner of Beyond Civility.
“The culture of our family was not political,’’ said Sittenfeld, who was first elected to council in 2011 at the age of 27, the youngest ever elected to that office. “It was more civic-minded. In our family, the ethic was that every bit of your spare time was to be spent volunteering, to helping others.’’
Wilson, who is 36 and who laid the groundwork for what became the Cincinnati Tea Party at his kitchen table in 2009, talked about his mother, who worked retail jobs, and his father, who was a laborer when he was born – living in a two-bedroom apartment before they could afford to buy a house in Colerain Township.
His early years, Wilson said, centered around a younger sister who suffered from a brain tumor, having surgery at 14 months. Three-quarters of the tumor was removed, but it came back later; and his family ran through $5 million in health insurance caring for their daughter.
“It was very hard; it was very tough,’’ Wilson said.
Politics was not part of the daily discussion at the Wilson household, he said.
“I came from a household that was as resolutely non-political as possible,’’ said Wilson, who ran for state representative in 2010 and 2012 as a Republican and lost both elections to Democrat Connie Pillich.
His first memory of a political event, Wilson said, came when he was not yet five years old and watched the inauguration of President Ronald Reagan “on a black and white TV set in the kitchen.”
Sittenfeld, whose parents were in the audience, spoke of his upbringing.
“My folks were born into middle-class families in Kansas City,’’ Sittenfeld said. “They came to Cincinnati not knowing a soul. My father worked for Procter & Gamble for a while. My mother became a school teacher; and my dad ran the Fine Arts Fund.’’
Wilson went to St. Xavier High School and the University of Cincinnati. Sittenfeld’s education came at Seven Hills School, Princeton University; and he went on to Oxford in Great Britain as a graduate student.
At Princeton, Sittenfeld said, he met and became friends with students who “were very conservative and very smart. One thing I learned was that if someone has clearly thought through an issue, it is harder to dismiss what they have to say. You listen to that person, even if you do not agree.”
Neither of them had particular political heroes growing up.
Sittenfeld said that, as a youngster, he had dreams of being a professional basketball player and read a biography of former senator Bill Bradley, written by one of his Princeton professors, and was impressed by the fact that Bradley – after being a star basketball player in high school and being picked for the NBA – took time out from his basketball career to become a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford. Later, Bradley became a star player in the NBA and represented New Jersey in the Senate after his playing career.
Bradley, Sittenfeld said, “was good at what I wanted to do more than anything else, and yet he had the courage to go off and do something else. That made an impression on me.”
Wilson, too, said he had no particular political heroes, but said that, in 1994, he was impressed by Newt Gingrich and his “Contract with America,’’ a document that helped the GOP take over the House that year and made Gingrich speaker.
“Here was someone who was willing to put down on paper exactly what he intended to do; he went on record with a list of things he wanted to accomplish,’’ Wilson said. “It didn’t all work out, but I remember it impressed me at the time.”
Beyond Civility has two more discussions scheduled. On March 12 at Xavier University, two former Cincinnati mayors - Democrat Jerry Springer and Republican Ken Blackwell - will take the stage. On May 20, at CET, former Cincinnati council member Amy Murray, a Republican, and Cincinnati council member Yvette Simpson, will be the panelists.
For more information on Beyond Civility, visit www.beyondcivility.org.