Here's a crazy concept: Democrats and Republicans can be friends.
Thad Nearmyer and Michelle Smith are living proof of that. Both serve as chairpersons of their respective political parties in Jasper County and for the past three years or so have been actively promoting good relations between local voters from opposite sides of the aisle.
One month ago, Nearmyer and Smith were named the 2019 Better Angels Friends of the Year by Better Angels Iowa, a group whose mission is to advocate civil dialogue between elected and constituent party members, especially in a time where discourse revolves largely around politics.
The award itself — which was bestowed by former congressional candidate Christopher Peters, who volunteers for the Better Angels Outreach Project — is more so an emblematic recognition than an actual trophy. Nonetheless, the two local party leaders are certainly worthy of this informal accolade.
Between organizing the annual bipartisan soup supper fundraiser and promoting a presentation by Better Angels Iowa in September, Nearmyer and Smith are making positive strides to better acquaint Democrats and Republicans with each other and develop respectful communications.
Peters said in a Facebook post, “Thanks for being such great role models.”
Both Nearmyer and Smith don’t always agree, especially when it comes to political issues; and yet the pair still respect each other. As national leaders continue to squabble and trash their competing party, Nearmyer and Smith only seem to double down on their objectives get along and set an example.
"I personally feel like just because my neighbor is a Democrat doesn't mean I should hate them," Nearmyer, a Republican, said. "We should treat all humans with respect no matter their political party or their race or sexual orientation or whatever. You should treat everybody the same — and well!"
That is what Nearmyer and Smith are ultimately working towards. Knowing that politics has become a somewhat volatile subject to bring up in conversations, they hope their fellow party members can at least get along and see past others’ political ideals or find some kind of understanding.
“I don’t want people to think we haven’t argued,” Smith said with a laugh. “But then at the end of the day it’s like, ‘OK I’ll talk to you later.’”
Both party chairpersons can bond over similar causes, too. The annual bipartisan soup supper, which entered its third year in 2019, regularly raises money for the local food pantry. Are they still friends even when they share different views or have an argument? Absolutely. Will they still do their jobs as party leaders? Yes.
“We’re going to run candidates and we’re going to work hard and we’re going to knock doors and raise money,” Smith said, noting there is an interest in parties working together. “What’s the first thing any candidate that has come through this year has said? ‘When I make it to Washington, I’m going to work across party lines.’”
The two party chairs get along surprisingly well, like two peas in a pod some days. Nearmyer noted that they are “very similar in a lot ways” but also “very different in other ways.” He likes her frank attitude and her honesty. She likes his laid back demeanor. The two also share a similar sense of humor.
Their friendship and their willingness to get along with each other has caused some friction with a few supporters. Nearmyer and Smith shrug their shoulders and shake it off; they believe that kind of hostility, particular in politics, is largely amplified by social media websites and news commentaries.
“That sentiment is out there that we shouldn’t get along with them, we shouldn’t collaborate with them, we shouldn’t be eating a meal at the same table with them because they’re the ‘enemy’ — I don’t think that politics should be that way,” Nearmyer said. “Politics shouldn’t come between friends or relatives.”
Seeing dissent from high-level lawmakers only fuels Nearmyer’s and Smith’s efforts. They regularly correspond with each other and have even attended Democratic presidential candidate town halls in Newton. Although Smith was unsuccessful in swaying Nearmyer, the two don’t take it personally.
“There’s not one right, one wrong,” Smith said. “It does take the mix to improve the community. Just because you disagree with somebody doesn’t mean they can’t open your eyes to a different way of looking at something and actually solving a problem. You can’t solve the world’s problems by yourself. It does take other people.
“And let’s face it, to those people who are so worried: I don’t go to Casey’s when I get my pizza and be like, ‘Are you a Democrat or a Republican?’ I really don’t care.”
Contact Christopher Braunschweig at 641-792-3121 ext. 6560 or firstname.lastname@example.org