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We Build Alaska

Dining with the enemy

Shortly after I won my election to the House in 2022, Tom Begich, the minority leader in the Senate at the time, gave me some surprising advice: “Have dinner with Republicans at least twice a week.” This seemed bizarre. I had just worked so hard to defeat Republicans. Why would I eat dinner with my enemies?

Yet, I followed his direction. The result? I have unexpectedly forged friendships with Republicans. It turned out that some of these “enemies” I genuinely liked as people. I like some of them so much that I’d rather have dinner with them than just about anyone else.

Becoming such good friends with Republicans has profoundly changed the way I view politics. People are not evil because of their party affiliation; people are not bad because of which candidates they support. Their entire life experience has led them to this moment to believe what they believe. Just as your entire life experience has led you to this moment to believe what you believe.

Although I was surprised by Begich’s advice, it wasn’t the first time I’d heard it. Heather Lende, author and former Haines Borough Assembly member, spoke at a political strategy meeting a couple of years ago. She gave instructions for handling political enemies: “Bring them cookies.” That December I brought Christmas cookies to an Anchorage Assembly meeting and shared them across the aisle. The people I had thought of as my enemies accepted them with gratitude. At future meetings, we had civil discussions. Not just aimless chit-chat, but substantive, real talk.

I’ll never forget one of those conversations. It was with a woman with whom I had had previous shouting matches. She and I landed on what real listening is: if you are really listening to someone you must accept that they may be right, and you may be wrong. Your mind must be open to change. This is a scary place to be, but if you’re not in that place, then you are not really listening. And many of us very rarely engage in true open-minded listening.

I now understand why Begich gave that advice last year: we are all public servants — Republicans, Democrats, and independents — who want the best for Alaska, and we can only achieve that through really listening to each other. But his advice shouldn’t just be for those of us in elected office. It should for everyone who wants the best for our state.

My charge to you then is to come to the table with people with whom you disagree and listen to them as if they may be right. If you’re a Democrat, invite Republicans to dinner; and vice versa. If you’re an independent, as so many are, have dinner with folks who vote differently than you. Be curious about why they think the way they think. Dining with folks you may think of as your enemies will not be easy. Not at first. It will be worth it, though. You will be better for it, and so will Alaska.

Representative Andrew Gray (D – Anchorage) represents Anchorage’s UMED District in the Alaska State House. He is the co-chair of the Freshmen Caucus, a tri-partisan group of new legislators who meet regularly to solve our state’s problems. He also hosts two podcasts: The East Anchorage Book Club and East Anchorage Matters.

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Teresa W Carns
5 months ago

Thanks, Andrew Gray!

Jjalaska
5 months ago

Is this the same Rep Gray who walked off the floor and hid from his Republican friends and stalled budget plans for 2 days just last session? watch what people do vs what they say.

So smart
5 months ago
Reply to  Jjalaska

I’m sure Andrew and every other human elected to office will screw up royally, Citizenbot. I’m sorry we humans don’t live up to your expectations, especially because you never make mistakes and this comment was so constructive, to start with. You sure showed Andrew with your wit and intellectual prowess, though. Your comment will haunt Andrew in his sleep and he will desperately dream of ways to placate you. No one will have dinner across the aisle, anymore, if it upsets you. You’re the only one who matters. We forgot. We’re sorry, Citizenbot, for everything we did to make you… Read more »

Mark Kelsey
5 months ago
Reply to  Jjalaska

I imagine it’s much easier to be morally inconsistent and hypocritical while hiding, like a coward, behind an anonymous ID. But speaking of watching “what people do vs what they say,” weren’t you recently lauding the petty and thin-skinned Rep. Kevin J. McCabe of Big Lake for filing a dishonest ethics complaint against fellow Republicans? Do you think anyone should take him seriously when he whines about how Rs should stick together?

Mark Kelsey
5 months ago

Good read, Rep. Gray. Thanks for sharing this.

It is rare that solid and sustainable policy-making come about from one-party rule. The best outcomes are usually bipartisan, forged from compromise and good listening. That is the beating heart of public service, although it sadly has become an increasingly rare commodity.