Can Political Foes Be Personal Friends? A GOP and a Dem County Chair Test a Theory

Heads probably turned as we entered the early 1900s red brick town house in Warrenton, Virginia on a warm September morning. It happened to be the headquarters of the Fauquier County Republican Committee. Its chairman, Greg Schumacher, was welcoming me along with his Democratic counterpart, Max Hall.

This isn’t the first time these two have met. In fact, they’ve been meeting regularly this year to get to know each other despite the heat of Virginia’s upcoming state legislature elections.

Greg and Max had already collaborated on letters to their local paper about issues they felt important to democracy: urging neighbors not to tear down others’ political signs and standing by the 2022 Fauquier County election results. “Through that process, we decided to meet periodically, just talk and build a relationship. We both thought, given the polarization in our environment, it should be known that we’re meeting and having good conversations. That we didn’t meet for a duel!” Greg explains with a chuckle.

It’s not always easy, and they admit that, during election season, they will prioritize campaigning for their respective candidates. But they definitely agree these conversations are meaningful.

“From my perspective, one of the important aspects is to help to de-demonize the other side. If we can sit and have a coffee without heckling, that’s a good thing,” Max explains.

Both share the belief that cross-party cooperation can help their community. “If issues come up between the two parties or there is some sort of an incident, the first time you call in the other person you don’t want it to be a crisis. You want to already trust each other somewhat to be able to say, ‘can you help me de-stress this?’” Max offers.

The two began by identifying commonalities: both graduated from West Point, have a sense of humor, and have wives named Cathy/Kathy. Those shared experiences combined with shared personality traits. For such cross-divide conversation to work, Greg says, you “have to be open and willing, not begrudging and seeking contention.”

For others thinking about taking on the challenge of cross-party conversations, they offer advice. “Be intentional, and don’t set expectations. We’ve kept it open, just seeing where it goes. There are corollary benefits — like times we’ve run into each other on the street, shaken hands. People who saw us later said, ‘You shook Greg Schumacher’s hand? Wow. If you two county chairs can do that, maybe I can do it.’” Max recounts. “I’m a big believer in baby steps. It’s not always big accomplishments.”

They’re keeping it low-key now that it’s election season. But for the future, they’re considering more baby steps, such as conversations about divisive issues or joint projects such as putting flags on graves for Memorial Day. “And if a tornado comes, all the political division is out the window. We’d just come together,” Greg adds. “Polarization comes from not having relationships with people from the other side, from not even seeing them as people it’s possible to have relationships with. But there is more richness to us than our political beliefs.”

Two political party chairs, even in the throes of an election, are finding richness indeed.

Melinda Burrell, PhD is a humanitarian aid worker who studies polarization and trains on the neuroscience of communication and conflict. She is on the board of the National Association for Community Mediation, which offers resources on cross-divide engagement.