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The Durango Herald - Nonprofit calls for shift from political extremism

June 27, 2023

Division and extremism are rampant in American politics, but one nonprofit organization with roots in Grand Junction is calling for unity and a return to moderate, civil discussions between Democrats, Republicans and unaffiliated voters.

Bernie Buescher, former Democratic Colorado secretary of state, said he remembers a time when Democrats and Republicans worked together despite their differences to pass legislation and improve the circumstances of their constituents. He proposes an “aggressive” push from the center to restore civility and move away from political extremism.

He and a small bipartisan group of colleagues started Restore the Balance, a Grand Junction 501(c)(4) nonprofit, in early 2022 to do just that. After receiving more community support than he ever expected, he is now trying to grow the movement in other Colorado communities, including Delta, Montrose, Gunnison, Glenwood Springs and La Plata County.

The nonprofit doesn’t actively pursue donations, but it managed to collect between $35,000 and $45,000, mostly from Mesa County residents, since it was founded last year, he said. Mostly, Restore the Balance generated recognition by publishing op-eds in the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel and by producing voter guides about local elections where candidates were scored based on their answers to questionnaires focused on their ability and willingness to work with officials across the aisle.

He hosted a Restore the Balance interest meeting in Durango last week, which was attended by Democrats, Republicans and unaffiliated voters, including La Plata County Commissioner Marsha Porter-Norton; Planning Commissioner Charly Minkler; La Plata County Democratic Chair Anne Markward; and Karen Zink, a Republican and certified nurse practitioner and founder of Southwest Women’s Health Associates.

Attendees from the left and right of the political aisle said they are tired of the “circus” that American politics has become, and a change in course is needed.

Durango woman Janalee Hogan said she has listened to the words of her mother all her life to “never be a level puller” when it comes to elections.

She said she has always avoided voting straight down a ballot for one party or another, and bases her votes on how she feels about particular candidates.

Ellen Roberts, a former Republican state legislator, said she left politics because the toxic environment was only getting worse. She served in House District 59 from 2006 to 2010 and then served in state Senate from 2010 until her resignation in 2016.

Porter-Norton, a county commissioner, said she appreciates civil dialogue because it helps build relationships and skills.

“It’s so easy to sit at your computer and say, ‘Yeah, I agree with Restore the Balance.’ But it’s so much more valuable when you’re in a room with somebody,” she said.

Buescher said political discourse should be respectful and fact-based.

He said he has adopted a new approach to political discourse for when he encounters someone with “semi-outrageous” takes on an issue. He asks people to share their experiences and then he shares his experiences, which often differ.

“What I’m doing is not challenging their beliefs. I’m asking them to share their experiences,” he said. “Because frequently, we can move back toward being fact-based. That’s one thing that Restore the Balance has taught me.”

He said the organization aims to “restore the center in a vibrant way, in an aggressive way, in a powerful way.”

Basing discussions on facts is all well and good. But how can that be successful if some people are holding discussions in bad faith or are operating with a different set of “facts”? Buescher said that is a key question and one that is difficult to answer.

“I still read a bunch of philosophy, and Plato struggled with exactly that issue,” he said.

Disagreements about the objective facts of a given issue are what makes political discussion so difficult these days, he said.

“There are folks that have found ‘facts,’ typically, I think, on the darker side of the internet, that most of us don’t agree with,” he said. “That doesn’t mean they’re bad people.”

He said he was impressed by La Plata County residents who were excited to take action.

Some residents appeared keen on the idea of taking up Restore the Balance’s cause locally in La Plata County. Buescher said about 10 to 12 attendees approached him after the meeting to say they would spearhead grassroots efforts to combat political extremism.

He said if any community wants to champion the Restore the Balance name, he wants to ensure messaging is tight and on the same page, and the majority of any fundraising dollars should be spent on local efforts.

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