by: Thomas H. Little, Ph.D. and SLLF Director of Curriculum Development and Research

If you have read any of my blogs over the last few months, you will know that I greatly lament the loss of the bipartisan cooperation that once defined legislative politics in the nation’s capital and around the country. I have written with great frustration about some legislators who seem more interested in scoring political points than solving policy problems and finding it beneficial to tell people “the lies they want to hear instead of the truths they need to hear.”

However, because I like to think of myself as a “glass half full” kind of guy, I have also written about examples of bipartisanship over the last year in America’s history as well as modern day legislatures in North Carolina, Minnesota and Michigan.

Today, I want to talk about a unique take on the challenges of legislative bipartisanship offered by New Mexico Senator Bill O’Neil. Senator O’Neil, a novelist and poet, wrote a one-act play, Save the Bees, that chronicles the behind-the-scenes relationship between an older Democratic senator named Chapman — modeled after himself — and a younger Republican friend named Luke, who is based on fellow legislator Senator Cliff Pirtle. Set in an otherwise empty Senate chamber and replete with Greek chorus figures, the play centers on the question of whether the divide between the two men and their political parties can be bridged.

O’Neil’s literary work evolved from a vote he cast against a ban on pesticides thought to be harmful to bees. Planning to vote for the ban, O’Neil changed his mind after hearing the arguments put forth by Republican Senator Pirtle. Many of O’Neil’s constituents and normal supporters were enraged and let him know it. This experience got his creative juices flowing, resulting in “Save the Bees.”

In the play, the characters explore that idea by deliberately voting against their own parties on contentious issues such as abortion and gun rights — just to see what will happen. It’s not pretty, but sometimes it’s pretty funny. Sometimes it’s not. Chapman and Luke read some of the emails they have received from angry constituents after casting their unexpected votes. The point of the play, noted O’Neil, is to question whether lawmakers can leave their allegiance to a political party at the door as they enter the House or Senate chamber to discuss and vote on legislation.

With a combination of passion and humor, the two “senators” explore the challenges presented by primary elections, gerrymandered districts, social media, “echo chambers” and the expectation of unquestioned loyalty to one’s party and ideology. Some of the nuances of the play (and the legislative process) might go over the head of the average citizen, but legislative geeks like us will find the opportunities and challenges presented in this fictionalized legislature to be spot on. Two actors recently presented the play in Santa Fe with a Q & A session afterward by Senators O’Neal and Pirtle. If you would like to watch a video of that performance for $5, here is a link.

If you want to do more than watch a video about bipartisanship, I want to invite you SLLF’s next program, Engaging Differences to be held in Washington, DC on April 21-23. Working closely with the National Institute for Civil Discourse and StoryCorps, we have put together a program that will not only inspire you to get to know and work with others who have different perspectives than you do, but will also equip you with tools and strategies to do so more effectively. Look for your invitation in the coming weeks.