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Politicians must tone down rhetoric, says state Sen. Atkinson

When state Sen. Jason Atkinson was running for Oregon governor in 2009, he sometimes seized his audience's attention by befuddling them with the words "American porches" before offering an explanation.

The insightful two-word phrase on the shifting of Americans' focus from their front porches to their television sets first came from the lips of the Republican senator's friend, Gabrielle Giffords, the Democratic U.S. representative from Arizona who was shot Saturday in Tucson.

Giffords was shot in the head during a rampage at a town hall meeting in a grocery store in which six people were killed and 14 wounded. Giffords, 40, remained in critical condition Monday at Tucson's University Medical Center but was responding to verbal commands, according to The Associated Press.

"Gabby taught me this phrase," Atkinson said. "What we meant by porches was that one of the worst things that ever happened in America was the invention of the garage door opener. People come in their houses through their garages and turn on the TV and got out of the habit of sitting on their porches and talking to their neighbors.

"We know TV personalities more than we know our neighbors," he said.

Atkinson said Monday in a speech on the Senate floor that the Tucson shooting should serve as a catalyst for change in the tone of political discourse across the nation, starting in the Oregon Senate.

"We have to turn off the national appetite for bad news," Atkinson said, "the idea that I am right, and you are evil."

Atkinson was inside his closet at his Central Point home on Saturday packing his shoes for his trip to Salem for the beginning of the 76th state Legislature when he heard on the news that an Arizona congresswoman had been shot.

"I said, 'It better not be Gabby,' " he recalled.

Atkinson and Giffords became friends when they both were in the Aspen Institute's inaugural class in 2005 for the Rodel Fellowships in Public Leadership program based in Washington, D.C. About 22 other lawmakers also participated in the program that year, including Michael Steele, the national Republican Party chairman.

Atkinson said the bipartisan group later went on to campaign for each other and reunite at least four times a year despite belonging to different political parties.

He said the group of 2005 Rodel fellows is an example of what needs to happen on the larger political landscape.

Instead, TV media and political personalities' demonization of their opponents has fueled fear and anger in the country, he said.

"The whole Keith Olbermann anger thing, all the sarcasm is the lowest common denominator," Atkinson said, referring to the MSNBC political commentator.

Olbermann denounced violence and the threat of violence and called for a change in political rhetoric hours after the shooting on Saturday's "Countdown with Keith Olbermann" on MSNBC.

Atkinson also condemned political tactics such as Sarah Palin's political action committee's use of a map depicting gun-sight images over congressional districts of House Democrats Palin wanted to win for the GOP in 2010.

Atkinson's Democratic colleague in the Oregon House, Rep. Peter Buckley of Ashland, agreed.

"We disagree on issues, but we are not enemies," Buckley said. "We are Americans. We are Oregonians. We have different opinions. That language that demonizes opponents, I think, is what inflames the possibility of a violent action."

Atkinson, who has received death threats in the past, said what happened to Giffords and her legislative aide Gabriel Zimmerman, who was killed in the shooting, could happen to any lawmaker.

Atkinson was never the target of an assassination attempt, but he was shot in the right leg in July 2008 after his friend's .38-caliber derringer accidentally discharged. Lasting effects from the wound and his wife Stephanie's battle with thyroid cancer later cut short his bid for the governorship in 2009.

"You can either be bitter, or you can be full of hope," he said. "Hope is not an active enough verb for me. We will return to civility."

Other Southern Oregon lawmakers, including U.S. Sens. Jeff Merkley and Ron Wyden and Rep. Greg Walden, issued statements during the weekend expressing shock about Saturday's violence and extending condolences. Their staff members also said the tragedy would not prevent the lawmakers from continuing to interact with their constituents.

"There is much we still don't know about what happened (Saturday), but one thing is for certain — heinous acts of violence have no place in our society," Merkley said in a statement. "As we grieve for those we have lost and those who are struggling to hang on, we must come together as a nation and stand strong against violence."

Reach reporter Paris Achen at 541-776-4459 or e-mail pachen@mailtribune.com.