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Jourdan Vian, La Crosse Tribune Reporter

Better Angels workshops in La Crosse to promote civil discourse between conservatives, liberals

While the nation has always experienced political divide, tensions, vitriol and uproar spiked after the 2016 presidential election, leaving citizens unsettled and less than civil to those on the opposite side of the spectrum.

Nearly four years later, the red-blue disconnect is as blatant as ever, but an organization called Better Angels is hoping to be part of solution, gathering Republicans and Democrats at workshops across the country for imperturbable, constructive conversation.

The intent is not to sway views on key issues but to better understand each other and how one’s values and experiences inform their political philosophies. Most importantly, the goal is to recognize our common humanity.



Hosted by Great Rivers United Way, Better Angels will facilitate two free civil discourse workshops in La Crosse, with “Depolarizing Within” offered from 2:30 to 5:30 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 23, at English Lutheran Church, 1509 King St., and a skills training from 2:30 to 5 p.m. Tuesday, March 10, at the Lunda Center, Western Technical College, 319 Seventh St. N.

“United Way is known for connecting people and resources to bring about positive change,” said Mary Kay Wolf, Great Rivers United Way executive director. “Especially when we look at issues such as homelessness, substance abuse and mental health, we want people to focus on what unites them, not what divides them.”


“Depolarizing Within,” led by Better Angels Wisconsin state coordinator Cameron Swallow, will help participants recognize ways they may be “unwittingly contributing to polarization” when speaking with those who share their views, and offer tips on thinking and expressing critically without being dismissive, stereotyping or demonizing specific groups.

“We will (teach) practical techniques for when you find yourself being lit up — how to step back and get your blood pressure down and the temperature down in the discussion and take it into productive territory,” Swallow says.

The skills training will be conducted by Better Angels Wisconsin co-director Susan Vergeront and will teach participants how to engage in non-polarizing discussions with those who disagree with them politically, as well as offer an opportunity to practice the skills onsite.

“We want to see all citizens invested in the political process,” says Mary Nugent, president of the League of Women Voters of the La Crosse Area. “These workshops offer an opportunity for people of any political persuasion to think about the issues that matter to them and to have the skills to talk about them in a constructive manner.”

Better Angels was founded shortly after the 2016 election, when Institute for American Values founder David Blankenhorn, living in New York, called Ohio-based friend and research fellow at the Institute for Family Studies David Lapp, hoping to gather a mix of Trump and Clinton supporters for a weekend of discussion.

The meeting was a success, and the group went on to train moderators across the country to hold Better Angels workshops, named for the line in Abraham Lincoln’s inaugural speech about appealing to “the better angels of our nature.”

Among the organizations and individuals eager to bring Better Angels to the Coulee Region were LeaderEthics Wisconsin, political analyst Joe Heim, UW-L political science assistant professor Anthony Chergosky, English Lutheran Church, Western Technical College and the League of Women Voters of the La Crosse Area.

In a release for the workshops, organizers refer to a spring 2019 poll from the Wall Street Journal and NBC, in which 57% of respondents agreed that social media sites do more to divide the country, and approximately a quarter of them had blocked someone on social media because of their political opinions. A fall 2019 poll from Pew Research found 81% of Republicans and Democrats “find those belonging to the other party equally unfavorable.”

“Civil discourse has always been important and always been needed, but certainly it’s reached a crisis point,” says Swallow, herself a “blue raised by red.”

Though liberal, Swallow leads Better Angels workshops from a neutral stance, as does Vergeront, a conservative. The goal is building bridges, Swallow says, and “re-humanizing” each other.

Most Better Angels attendees, Swallow notes, come ready to accept the premise of the workshops, but, “that’s doesn’t mean everyone comes in arms open and ready for kumbaya and a hug.”

“Some people leave thrilled with a new technique, and some people leave nodding slowly, rubbing their chins and saying, ‘I’m not sure I’m ready to try this yet,” Swallow says.

Swallow admits the quest for political civility “seems slow and arduous,” but she fully believes face-to-face interaction is the most effective path.

“We’re not trying to change people’s minds about the issues,” she says, referencing the Better Angels motto. “We’re trying to change people’s minds about each other.”

To register for one or both Better Angels workshop, visit www.gruw.org/angels.

Peter Thomson, La Crosse Tribune 

Fritz Wiggert of La Crosse braves the cold Feb. 13 at Forest Hills Golf Course as he cross country skis with his golden retriever, Oakley.

Wisconsin Republicans propose $250 million income tax cut

MADISON — Income taxes would be cut by an average of $106 for a majority of tax filers in Wisconsin under a Republican proposal unveiled Friday that lawmakers plan to vote on next week and quickly send to Democratic Gov. Tony Evers.

The nearly $250 million income tax cut is the largest part of the GOP plan that also would reduce personal property taxes paid by manufacturers by nearly $45 million and trim general state debt by $100 million. Republicans are tapping some of the state’s projected $620 million budget surplus to pay for the tax cuts.

“Wisconsin is in great fiscal shape and we should prioritize giving money back to taxpayers,” Republican Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald said in a statement.

It’s unclear whether Evers supports any of the tax cuts. Evers’ spokeswoman Britt Cudaback did not comment on whether the governor would sign any part of the plan, but instead faulted Republicans for not spending more on schools and reducing property taxes.

Evers has proposed spending $130 million to cut property taxes as part of a $250 million school funding plan the Legislature has not taken up. Republican Rep. Joan Ballweg, in explaining why Republicans weren’t increasing school funding, said lawmakers will consider more money for schools when crafting the next state budget next year.

“I think we’ve done a pretty good job funding schools,” she said.

The state budget that the GOP-controlled Legislature passed last year and Evers signed increased funding for K-12 schools by about $565 million over two years. Evers had proposed a $1.4 billion increase. Evers earlier this month called the Legislature into special session to spend $250 million more on schools, but the Assembly refused to take action.

Assembly Democratic Minority Leader Gordon Hintz dismissed the proposal as hastily thrown together in the waning days of the session and ignoring the needs of schools in the state. He also faulted Republicans for saying funding mental health care was a priority but then not using some of the surplus to address it.

The newly released Republican tax cut plan would not reduce personal property taxes as the governor proposed and that Fitzgerald had earlier said was a priority for him as well. Instead, it would increase the standard deduction for income tax filers, thereby cutting income taxes. Reducing income taxes, instead of property taxes, will put more cash directly into the pockets of taxpayers, Ballweg said.

The income tax cut would affect about 64% of all filers, about 2 million people, and result in an average decrease to those who qualify of $106, according to the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau. Married couples filing jointly would see an average cut of $145, while all other filers would see an average reduction of $81.

Wisconsin has a sliding scale standard deduction that falls the more a person makes. The tax cut would increase the standard deduction for each filing type by 13.2%.

Under current law, married couples filing jointly who make less than $23,000 receive a $20,470 standard deduction. Under the bill, married couples earning up to $25,610 would receive a $23,170 standard deduction.

On the high end, currently any married couples earning more than $126,499 get no standard deduction. Under the plan, that income cut off would increase to $144,669.

The Senate plans to vote on the bill Wednesday, followed by the Assembly on Thursday, their final day in session this year.


Ohio State Buckeyes forward Andre Wesson (24) defends against Wisconsin Badgers forward Nate Reuvers (35) in the first half. The Wisconsin Badgers hosted Ohio State in the Big Ten basketball Sunday Feb. 9, 2020 at the Kohl Center. 

Coming Sunday

It was a horrific scene: the decapitated body of 24-year-old Terry Dolowy, set ablaze in a Vernon County ditch.

Thirty-five years after Dolowy went missing on Valentine’s Day, 1985, her killer remains unidentified.

In Sunday’s Tribune, reporter Jourdan Vian takes another look at the case that sent shockwaves through the Coulee Region — and talks with the people who are still searching for justice for Terry Dolowy.

'Moot point' rezoning passes for Grandma's Gateway access points
Grandma's Gateway map

The La Crosse Common Council chose to see the rezoning of two parcels on 29th Street as a “moot point” and not a benchmark for the contested plans for the Grandma’s Gateway trail Thursday evening, after voting in favor of the change.

The two lots will be used as an access point for the new trails scaling up Grandad Bluff, and were previously zoned as residential and were changed to conservancy, curbing all future development on the land.

The access points could have still been built on the city-owned lots with a residential zoning, but changing it to conservancy was part of the regular trail-planning process, according to city officials.

Many people still saw the passing of the rezoning as the final green light for the project, which only had to be approved through the parks department.

“We do not need to move forward quickly with this,” said council member Larry Sleznikow, who oversees the district where Grandma’s Gateway would be constructed. “The bluff is not going anywhere.

The rezoning passed at minimum vote of 9-3. It needed a three-fourths vote due to a high number of petitions signed against it.

“The bottom line is they could put an access point here regardless of what they do with the rezoning,” council president Martin Gaul said, who voted in favor of the rezoning, emphasizing he didn’t want to give anyone a “false hope” that the plans for the trail would change.

Parks director Jay Odegaard said that the parks department is planning on holding a public meeting in the near future to take public input on the designs of the trail.

“We’re trying to change the unsustainable trails into sustainable trails,” Odegaard said at Thursday night’s meeting, emphasizing that Grandma’s Gateway would help them address the damaging rogue trails that already exist on the bluff and would give them more access to it for maintenance.

The plans for Grandma’s Gateway came to light in January, and were met with opposition from some residents on both 29th Street and Ebner Coulee Road, two streets that encompass the bluff.

The city of La Crosse has been working on the plans with Outdoor Recreation Alliance since 2018, when the two groups received a grant from the International Mountain Bicycling Association.

Some residents were initially upset that many of them weren’t told about the trail until later in the process, but also pointed to environmental worries and traffic safety as issues they were opposed to the trail.

The city is optimistic about the trails, hoping it is another piece to a much larger puzzle of more accessibility to the La Crosse area blufflands.

Construction on Grandma’s Gateway is slated to begin this summer.

“This is a work in progress,” Gaul said. “It’s not finishing tonight. It’s starting.”