You can’t tell by looking. You also can’t rely on stereotypes and assumptions. Take the recent public service announcement by San Mateo County Assemblyman Rich Gordon and his Republican counterpart Assemblyman Brian Jones of Santee. The pair joined forces to let the public know they can go online for a number of Department of Motor Vehicle services, which is admittedly important and maybe a little interesting — who actually likes going into a DMV office? — but on paper looks about as low on the news priority list as one can get on an average day. At least, that’s the assumption.
But the PSA is just the frosting on a slice of politics a lot more interesting than using the Internet for name changes and learner permits.
The two men couldn’t be more different if they tried. Gordon is from Northern California, a Democrat, gay. Jones is from Southern California, Republican, conservative, religious and it may go without saying not a big fan of same-sex marriage. Jones wasn’t available to offer his two cents on the unlikely friendship but Gordon expects his assumptions about him were probably as narrow as his own. When Gordon hears somebody is an evangelical Christian, his guard goes up and he assumes they won’t be welcoming him with open arms so he can only imagine what Jones initially expected from “the gay guy from Northern California.” And yet, Gordon said, when Jones’ constituents ask him if there is anybody in Sacramento with whom he gets along he has to admit it might be the first openly gay person he’s ever known. This doesn’t mean their philosophies meet somewhere in the middle. They’ve never voted alike and their perspectives are pretty polar opposite, Gordon said.
In fact, in Gordon’s first year, Jones joined other Republicans walking off the Assembly floor during a gay pride recognition event.
That said, the men developed a social relationship and while they might not agree Gordon said he respects Jones’ values because those are who he is.
While both served on a budget committee, the pair learned about the DMV’s online presence and figured out pretty quickly it was a useful service that nobody knew about. A PSA was in order but what happened next is probably a good example of why nothing ever seems to get done at the capitol — each party has a small television studio for filming that exact type of PSA but the Republicans wouldn’t OK Gordon in their space and the same went with the Democrats toward Jones. Whoever said the Hatfields and McCoys had anything on partisan squabbling?
Long story short, Gordon and Jones opted to film in an actual DMV office but could only do so after hours when there are no actual customers. Staff, friends and a few DMV employees were called to play the role of clients. Gordon’s husband, Dr. Dennis McShane, is even in the background filling out a form. His day as an extra also gave Gordon the chance to introduce his other half to Jones.
Does all this mean that Jones is ready to throw his weight behind more traditionally liberal causes or that Gordon is itching to lean away from his Democratic platform? Not necessarily.
But Gordon says while he can’t speak for Jones, the conservative lawmaker has certainly helped him overcome some of his own stereotypes about people unlike himself.
A year after Jones joined his fellow GOP-ers in walking off the floor, Gordon said he fully expected a repeat performance at the next recognition ceremony. Instead, Jones stayed.
“He told me, ‘I know you,’” Gordon remembered.
Isn’t that often the first step of changing one’s mind about a long-held perception, knowing somebody and finding out that a label doesn’t begin to scratch the surface?
Gordon thinks his friendship with Jones proves that differences are sometimes less important as people get to know each other.
He’s right. Respect doesn’t have to mean agreement. And thinking you know what somebody is all about doesn’t mean you know who they are at all.
Maybe that’s what people and legislation have in common. Both are usually much more than skin deep.
Michelle Durand’s column “Off the Beat” runs every Tuesday and Thursday. She can be reached by email: email@example.com or by phone (650) 344-5200 ext. 102. What do you think of this column? Send a letter to the editor: firstname.lastname@example.org.