When Pres. George W. Bush left office he had the support of just 7 percent of Democrats. The same percentage of people believed that Elvis was still alive.
Currently, President Obama has less support among Republicans than President Nixon had among Democrats at the very height of Watergate. To say that politics has become hyperpartisan and polarized is to state the obvious. It was not always so.
When Sen. Ken Maddy, who had been the minority leader in the California Senate, passed away in 2000, he was eulogized by the California Journal as "the very essence of civility in public office ... He was, during his time, the embodiment of what an ideal legislator could be: pragmatic, forthright, principled, a problem-solver."
When the nonpartisan Maddy Institute was established by a unanimous vote of the California Legislature shortly before his passing, Maddy wanted a key focus of our work to be on training the next generation of Valley leaders and State problem-solvers. Maddy felt that Valley legislators from both sides of the aisle had the unique ability to bring people together to solve California's challenges.
Since 2001, we have had more than 250 Legislative Scholar interns from California State Universities in Fresno, Bakersfield and Stanislaus, Cal Poly and UC Merced who have worked in 19 federal and state legislative offices learning, firsthand, about the political process and the legacy of the Valley's legislator leaders. Our alumni now work in a variety of political offices, businesses and nonprofit organizations throughout the Valley, in Sacramento and in Washington, D.C.
On Tuesday, in the midst of the current heated debates on the state budget, high-speed rail, public employee pensions and myriad other important public policy issues, the state's most influential elected leaders from different parties and different regions of the state will come together to support scholarships for Valley university students. Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown and Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg will join the Republicans' Senate Minority Leader Bob Huff and Assembly Minority Leader Connie Conway in a Sacramento fundraiser at the Stanford Mansion to benefit The Maddy Institute's Bob Beverly Sacramento Legislative Intern Program for Valley students.
John Burton, chairman of the California Democratic Party and Jim Brulte, former Republican Assembly and Senate leader, will be co-masters of ceremonies. Only someone who was as well liked and trusted as Maddy could inspire such bipartisan cooperation to benefit our region.
A colleague, Dan Schnur, who leads the Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California, observed recently that our politics now resemble two parties screaming at each other from their respective end zones and that they have to scream because they are so far apart. Yet, we find most Americans and most solutions in between the 40 yard lines.
As a result, now more than ever, we need Maddy pragmatists who are trusted by both sides to find workable solutions to the many challenges we face. Maintaining ideological rigidity -- a "my way or the highway" approach -- might work in a dictatorship, but not in a functioning democracy. Our Legislative Scholar program encourages our future leaders to take a problem-solving approach to politics.
To be more effective problem-solvers, we want our Legislative Scholar interns to be exposed to different viewpoints. Perhaps, just perhaps, they will learn that someone they view as their political "opponent" cares just as much about the country as they do, loves their family as much as they do and wants to do what's right just as much as they do. Perhaps they might learn that their political "opponent" is not a bad person at all, but someone who has simply reached a different conclusion or espouses a different solution based on different life experiences.
Maddy understood that the political process is better served and more effective if we assumed the best, not the worst, in those with whom we disagree.
Even in today's hyperpartisan environment, more than a decade after his death, Maddy can still get our state's most important elected leaders, both Republicans and Democrats, to take time out from their political battles to find common ground to benefit the Valley and the state.
That is quite a legacy.
Mark Keppler is the executive director of The Maddy Institute and host of "The Maddy Report" He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.