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Former Sens. Portman, Heitkamp talk 'civility in polarized times'

two people pose for a picture while seated behind a table
Tana Weingartner
Former senators Rob Portman and Heidi Heitkamp prepare to speak with UC students on Monday, Feb. 5, 2024.

Some University of Cincinnati students heard Monday from former senators Heidi Heitkamp (D-North Dakota) and Rob Portman (R-Ohio). The pair spoke during a lecture at UC's Portman Center.

Beforehand, they discussed their concerns about the increase in small donor fundraising to the political process.

"The way people raise money these ways online requires them that, if they want to be successful, to throw out the red meat to make it more strident," Portman said. "There's always a group out there willing to give $20, $30, $40, $50 bucks [individually] time and time again. That's now the major source of fundraising for at least a lot of my former colleagues."

He said the style of ignoring issues in favor of "outlandish" comments and "very partisan" positions may be good for fundraising, but it pushes people to the outside and isn't how he thinks politics should be conducted.

Heitkamp said she thinks certain political reforms — like something called Final Five Voting — could help.

RELATED: Portman Center opens at the University of Cincinnati

"The current system may be irreversibly flawed, but there are models out there that we could look at to lower the temperature and increase more of a policy discussion during campaigns."

Portman said primary elections are important and more people need to vote in them.

"The primary system tends to elect people who are more extreme right now, partly because people don't vote in primaries," he said. "There's a stat out there that says 8% of the people are electing 83% of the members of Congress, and that's because the people (who) show up in the primaries (are) a relatively small part of the electorate. We've got to all of us refocus on these primaries."

Portman disagrees with the idea that incivility is the way of the future, despite it frequently dominating in the media.

Heitkamp said she hoped students would leave the lecture having seen, "two people from opposite sides of the political spectrum who respect each other, and who worked hard for the benefit of what they thought was the best outcome for the country. I hope that that gives them hope, that once again, we can can get there. And I think, to offer them some paths forward on how we can bridge some of the divides that we have in this country."

UC is a financial supporter of Cincinnati Public Radio.

Senior Editor and reporter at WVXU with more than 20 years experience in public radio; formerly news and public affairs producer with WMUB. Would really like to meet your dog.