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Conversations Build Community

October 13, 2021 at 4:00 a.m.

For public figures, one of the least pleasant and difficult things to do is to walk into a room full of people when you know the audience is largely at odds with you on one or more issues.

Most people don't relish head-to-head conflict, and particularly in front of a crowd. Sure, from time to time someone, like a Tom Cotton, comes along and seems to find pleasure in righteous indignation and confrontation, at least when he's the confronter. Let's not pretend I hang out throwing back a few suds with the junior senator from Arkansas, but certainly from his public persona and the almost daily press releases sent on his behalf, he seems to be an increasingly sour version of Bill Murray in "Groundhog Day." Except that if the movie was about Cotton, the main character would be shown getting up on the wrong side of the bed every time the alarm clock goes off.

To give him some benefit of a doubt, I'd guess Cotton sees himself more like the Jack Nicholson character in "A Few Good Men," you know, before everything went off the rails under questioning by "snotty" little Tom Cruise. In other words, Cotton's not in the Senate to be liked, but deep down, he believes Arkansans want him and need him "on that wall" to do the nasty business others don't have the stomach for.

If Cotton is indifferent to whether he's liked, he'd be an outlier in politics. Most everyone wants to be liked. More specifically, elected officials want to been seen as having done good work, and re-election is the stamp of approval they most often seek.

It's the kind of affirmation that'll make a man like Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley, first elected 40 years ago, announce at age 88 that he plans to run for another six-year term. He's held a public office continuously since 1959.

All of which brings me to Farmington, as in the flourishing town just west of Fayetteville. It was there last Thursday that the Arkansas Justice Reform Coalition, led by advocates Beth Coger and Sarah Moore, held a fourth event to discuss how Washington County officials ought to spend the millions of dollars the federal government doled out in response to covid-19's public health and economic impacts.

The Republican-heavy Quorum Court, unlike the all-Republican Quorum Court in Benton County, has chosen so far not to hold public meetings to evaluate the best ways to allocate the funding, which should total about $46 million from the American Rescue Plan.

The coalition has held several "community cookout conversations" throughout Washington County. Participation by Quorum Court members has largely been among the sympathetic Democrats. Perhaps Republicans in the first three sessions simply wanted to avoid confrontation. It will undoubtedly be the Quorum Court's Republicans in control of how that money is allocated.

But Thursday night, District 10 and 14 Quorum Court members Robert Dennis and Jim Wilson, both staunchly Republican, attended and engaged in the conversation. It wasn't quite anything like Daniel's lions den, but given Dennis' stance that "the Quorum Court cannot do everything and fix all your problems" and that state law only requires the Quorum Court to provide roads and jails, he certainly had to know he might not be popular.

But he and Wilson showed up. Whether they listened is something only they know. But conversations help, at least in growing some understanding of the different perspectives within a community even if there's no immediate or noticeable shift in positions.

The more people living in the same county ignore each other based on perceptions of party or liberal vs. conservative labels, the less community we will have. Community doesn't come from just living near each other. It comes from knowing each other.

-- Greg Harton is editorial page editor for the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Opinions expressed are those of the author.

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