Debbie Smith 1956-2016

The first message received in our newsroom about the death of Washoe Sen. Debbie Smith came from a Republican, U.S. Rep. Mark Amodei. It said in part that because she had “a huge heart for children and families, Debbie fought tirelessly to ensure every child in Nevada received a great education.”

Democrat Smith would have been pleased. In these days of polarization and vitriol in politics, she worked hard in the legislative halls to avoid breaking off dialogue between Republicans and Democrats. In this case, she served in the Legislature with Amodei.

But grace notes were not played in every forum. Even death did not shelter her from the meanspiritedness of our age, the malignant brain tumor that killed her becoming grist for the ideological mill. Reader comments contained findings of fault like “she should have resigned and tried to recover and spend time with her family. Not to be seem [sic] as a political martyr”; “DemocRATs, by definition, are brainless, so whatever disease she had may have been malignant, but I doubt this parasite suffered long”; “her support of government-funded education.”

This last was an accusation to which she would have happily pleaded guilty. To the end, she was working to fund education, as a member of a committee planning a measure to appear on this year’s ballot.

In the Assembly, she succeeded Jan Evans, her good friend and neighbor who lived on the same street in Sparks. That said a lot about her—first, that she knew her neighbors, and second, that she practiced politics as a neighbor.

Smith was often fearless, speaking up on issues like gun background checks and gun bans against domestic batterers on which, if she had been more concerned with protecting her political career, she would have stayed silent. And her districts, not always in agreement with her, usually rewarded her candor.

She tried to deal with the damage STAR Bonds (Sales Tax Anticipation Revenue) are doing to public schools.

What she was not willing to do was demonize those with whom she disagreed on this and other issues. Like a lot of folks, she didn’t understand the rancor some Republicans use to advance their positions.

This is not one of those “both sides do it” matters. Independent voices have spoken up against a polarization that is created mostly on the right. Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute, who with Thomas Mann of the Brookings Institution has documented the asymmetrical nature of polarization, has written that it is time for journalists to stop creating a false equivalence “which in many ways is a larger ingrained journalistic habit that tries mightily to avoid any hint of reporting bias, is the reflexive ’we report both sides of every story,’ even to the point that one side is given equal weight not supported by reality.”

Like most people, Debbie Smith didn’t really understand those who spread divisiveness in politics. She just did her best to cope with it and set a better example. Her soft answers may have turned away some wrath, but wrath kept becoming more and more the norm in the Nevada Legislature until it looked pretty much like Congress.

A good way to remember Debbie Smith might be to criticize without rancor, to return some decency to the practice of politics, some gentleness to the way we conduct ourselves in public life. But that would require submerging ideology to maturity, forbearance, and civility.