Finding common ground amid political differences

How do we, as Americans, work together to create political and social change in a highly polarized climate? Perhaps it can start with a good faith conversation about what unites us.

The U.S. political environment is increasingly polarized. Studies by the Pew Research Center have found 85 percent of U.S. adults believe the tone and nature of political debate has become more negative in the past five years, and Americans are deeply divided on issues such as immigration, climate change, and the composition of the U.S. Supreme Court.

In this election year, CMC asked two graduates who have served in elected office for their views on polarization today, how we might bridge our divides, and the value of a CMC education in preparing students for thoughtful and collaborative engagement in public life. 

Tom Leppert ’77 was elected mayor of Dallas in 2007. He resigned his seat in 2011 to run for the U.S. Senate, but was defeated in the Republican primary. Leppert’s distinguished business career has included serving as CEO of several firms in five industries including, Kaplan, Inc., The Turner Corporation, and Castle & Cooke Properties. He also serves as Chairman of the Board of several other companies. Leppert has been a CMC trustee and was awarded an honorary degree from the College in 2008. He endorsed Donald Trump in the 2016 election.

Candace Valenzuela ’06 was elected to the Carrollton-Farmers Branch Board of Education in 2017. She resigned her seat in 2019 to run for Congress in Texas’ 24th District, and will compete in a May runoff election after finishing in the top two during the Democratic primary. Valenzuela grew up in El Paso. Her family was homeless for a period, during which she remembers sleeping for a few days outside a gas station convenience store in a makeshift bed of blankets in a plastic kiddie pool. She credits public schools and social services as a safety net that helped her develop into a top student able to attend CMC. Valenzuela was inspired to run for office by the election of President Trump, which she saw as a threat to many public institutions.

What drew you both to CMC?

Leppert: My father died when I was very young and he left my mom with a lot of problems. She didn't have an education and was the secretary for a small mortgage company in Arizona for 40 years. I would see executives, men who made substantially more than she did, seek her advice or input on major issues. But without an education and being a woman, her opportunities were limited.

I didn’t know much about colleges, but I knew I wanted to go to a small school. Some friends were driving to Southern California and dropped me off at CMC for what was going to be a 15-minute tour. The person who met me happened to be the dean of admissions, so 15 minutes turned to three hours and he admitted on the spot, starting the next month. That day and CMC led me to Harvard, a White House Fellowship, and my first CEO role at 34. I still look back at that day as the foundation for all the opportunities I have experienced.

Valenzuela: I went to CMC undecided. I took Professor Peter Skerry’s Government 20 class. He was also a conservative, and I remember sitting down with them outside the Hub and he said, “You're a gov student. You're a gov major. You have been very passionate about your issues back in El Paso, in Texas, and here—and this is a part of you.” He was absolutely right.

I immersed myself in political philosophy. I ended up doing the D.C. program, and ironically, I didn't feel like D.C. was a great fit for me. It felt like it was cold and transactional. But I still was very passionate about issues affecting folks. My CMC experiences shaped me that way.

How did you develop an interest in running for office?

Leppert: If you had asked me six months before I got into the race about the idea for running elected office, I would have laughed at you. I was actually talked into it by several leaders in the community. I had been actively involved in the community, including serving as the chair of the regional chamber. They came to me and said that Dallas City Government was dysfunctional and I could add some value. I have always seen businesses as having an obligation to the wider community and I decided to enter the race, the last to enter. Seven months later, I was elected with 60 percent of the vote and wide support from all parts of the community.

What you do in elected office makes a difference. Candace, being on the school board, can affect kids—and that is a leverage point for the community, for those individuals and for the families long into the future. If I can set up a city that's strong, if I can improve public safety, if I can have educational programs that contribute to the kids, if we can do some things on the environmental front that make this a better place to live and provide a higher quality of life, that makes a difference. 

Valenzuela: When I graduated, I worked at a girl's group home for a little while. I wanted to do something so different from what I'd experienced in college. I also felt very strongly about giving back. I'd gone from poverty and having intermittent electricity and heat at home to a place where I had maid service. And it was very difficult for me. Working at a girl's group home. … I got to see the inner workings of a lot of systems that I hadn't been exposed to before—even in my own poverty, I had a lot more stability than a lot of these young ladies, and that was something I carried with me.

Candace Valenzuela ’06
Candace Valenzuela ’06

But it all kind of came together when I saw a candidate like (Donald) Trump talking about rapists and criminals coming over from Mexico. I mean, my great-grandfather came from Mexico and he fought in World War I. He put his life on the line. And generations after have done the same. I didn't just see that as insulting. I can be insulted. I'm a big girl. I saw it as an existential threat, because as soon as you start dehumanizing folks like that, what comes next?

At one point, somebody was saying, “You know, we need somebody to look at running for school board.” And I looked for somebody else, too—someone with more experience. But I'd been working in different roles around education—public, private, and charter—for years. And I had this government background. I said, “You know, I love this. There are things that I need to fix and I am in love.” It's almost the same love when I first walked into a CMC classroom as a prospective student and listened to the discourse they had in those rooms. I said, “I don't completely follow what's going on here, but I need to.” Badly.

So, I filed, and people told me I couldn't do it. They patted me on the head, almost literally, and said, “You're going to have to run, like, five times.” I knocked on people’s doors. I asked them what issues their community was facing, what issues their students were facing. And I ended up defeating an 18-year incumbent.

What are some of the challenges you worry about in our polarized climate?

Valenzuela: I believe accessibility to running for office is in jeopardy. I’m serving (on the school board) alongside amazing people with varying backgrounds. Their political careers are capped by the lack of access to money. If you don’t have personal money or fall into line in an ideological sense with donors, you will be eaten alive by somebody who is willing to go to large corporations and do what they want. The lack of campaign finance reform and fiscal transparency is an obstacle to discourse. It’s a problem for both sides.

Leppert: The system in Washington is broken. We’ve created a system in which a lot of good people do the same bad things. Because of gerrymandering, there is almost complete unanimity (on party lines). Very few Congressional seats are even competitive in a general election. This has forced candidates on both sides to focus only on primary elections and move to the extreme to avoid being “out primaried.” We can begin to fix it by changing the way we vote in primaries. In addition, our representatives in Congress spend far too much time fundraising, and their votes are more for election survival than addressing problems.

Valenzuela: The death of local journalism is a major concern. As newspapers die, there are no reporters looking at school board meetings like mine, or covering city councils. It is at that level where people begin to get involved in government.

Leppert: How do people get access to information now? The local newspaper is a dinosaur. On TV, a lot of the large players are playing ratings games and are tilted, catering only to the segment they target. There is no accountability, no desire to be fair. We ought not to kid ourselves. There is no intent to be objective.

Given how often you interact with the public and discuss politics, do you feel there’s been a breakdown in civil discourse and the free expression of ideas? What role can higher education play in shaping those principles in young people?

Leppert: When I was at CMC, I found that everyone had the opportunity to put their opinion forth. There was a sense that the value of a college education grew with perspectives from all angles, all parts of the spectrum. CMC was probably more conservative, but there was no shortage of students who were liberal, who put forth a lot of innovative, creative ideas. That was important to me.

Valenzuela: CMC gave me a great framework to know what good government looks like. I got that working on my thesis with professor Mark Blitz. In our study of Hobbes, Kant, and the European Union, my thoughts on democratic ideals and practices formed. It really gets me when people who oppose my ideas accuse me of never having read the Constitution. I’ve read the Constitution! I’ve read the Federalist papers and the anti-Federalist papers! This is my foundation, too!

We need to protect dialogue. College is a time to explore ideas, good and bad. When I was in college, Twitter did not exist. Mark Zuckerberg and I were in college at the same time. Now, kids are documented to death. Everything they say or do has the potential to be televised across the world. You’re supposed to be able to make mistakes in college. It’s a time when you might have great opinions or terrible opinions. We should teach a little more about forgiveness rather than condemnation so kids feel safe to express themselves.

You’ve both mentioned the need to fix our broken political system, promote dialogue, and get both parties working together. Is common ground possible? Where can it begin?

Leppert: Candace and I were just talking about the importance of fiscal transparency. She's very focused on those issues with the school board. That was a big part of what I was doing as mayor. I think there's a lot of common ground in that. That’s not Republican, Democratic, liberal, or conservative—that's just good government.

Valenzuela: Knowing where our money is going, how it's being managed, making sure that information is accessible, voting information in particular. I had to govern from the minority in terms of my own perspective. And I was fine with it. I wasn't always going to get the things that I wanted, but ultimately when you have the same driver, you can move forward together. People want to do what’s best for our kids—that transcends party lines.

Leppert: I’ve spent a lot of time on education, and that’s probably an area where people can be engaged constructively. We can disagree on policy; that gets us to better policies. We should agree on the importance of education—and how it addresses the most important challenges for the future. We may advocate different policies for how to get there, but we can work together.

Do you have hope for the future? What keeps you inspired?

Leppert: In this country, you still have more opportunities than any place in the world, or that you've ever had in history. You can constructively criticize. But I don't want to lose sight that we have a great deal here, and the opportunities and rights afforded to people are unlimited and far beyond any other place. Candace and I both desire to improve lives. We want to make our country better.

Valenzuela: That's also one of the reasons I'm compelled to do what I'm doing. HUD got us temporary housing. Food stamps made sure that my mother was able to feed me and my younger brother—who was an infant when we were homeless and fleeing from violence. Public schools are the last thing that you would ever expect to be under attack—yet they are, from various angles and levels.

We do have a lot to love about this country—and we need to be thinking about the level of jeopardy some of those institutions are in and what we need to do in order to fix them.

This story can be found in the spring CMC Magazine. Read the full issue here.

—Peter Hong