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caption: Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner, Bill Finkbeiner and the dogs they argue about. 
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Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner, Bill Finkbeiner and the dogs they argue about.
Credit: Amy Radil

Why These Political Odd Couples Get Along So Well

How do families with such different political views get along?

Republican Rob McKenna said Thanksgiving meals can be tricky because in-laws and distant relatives might be more sensitive.

“You don’t want anyone to feel beaten down, silenced, outnumbered,” he said. “You don’t want people to feel like they can’t participate in the conversation, if you handle it wrong.”

McKenna, the state’s former attorney general, has two daughters who are Democrats.

“Democrats are delighted to find out that both my daughters are Democrats and secretly hope that my daughters will convert me,” he said.

His daughter Madeline McKenna was in the public eye as student body president at the University of Washington.

McKenna said family matters usually take center stage but politics do come up.

“We’re not the Kennedys with people coming to the table having assignments like read the following New York Times’ article,” he said. “But we’ve had some conversations. Madeline and I disagreed over raising minimum wage in Seattle to $15.”

His daughter supported it; McKenna said he feared raising wages would make it harder for young people to get their first jobs.

Valerie Manusov, a professor in Department of Communication at the University of Washington, said disagreements can serve a purpose.

“Conflict is the opportunity to grow and learn,” she said.

But she said you can’t gloss over that people often feel surprised or hurt over political differences.

“When we discover that someone we care about who we presume is very similar to us is not similar to us, it can really create a lot of cognitive dissonance,” she said.

For Kristin Row-Finkbeiner and Bill Finkbeiner of Kirkland, politics were never a secret.

They met 20 years ago when he was a state representative. She had come to talk to him about environmental issues.

“We were farther apart politically when we first met than we are right now,” Rowe-Finkbeiner said.

“I think you need ground rules,” Rowe-Finkbeiner said. “One of the ground rules that we’ve always had in our family is, ‘You can hate the policy, you can debate and yell about the policy. But you can’t hate the person who’s proposing it.’”

Rowe-Finkbeiner is an author, CEO of the group MomsRising and self-described progressive. Her husband, Bill Finkbeiner, is a Republican who leans independent.

They live with their teenage children and two boisterous Portuguese waterdogs (a breed popular with the Kennedy and Obama families).

They agree on paid family leave for employees. They disagree on how high taxes should be.

But Finkbeiner said people often assume incorrectly that they’re given to Crossfire-style shouting matches over dinner.

“You sure couldn’t do that in a marriage long-term,” Finkbeiner said.

The Rowe-Finkbeiners said their starting point is not to demonize parties or politicians and to assume they have good intentions. This message of tolerance has rubbed off on their kids, who decorated their doors with campaign stickers for both President Barack Obama and Sen. John McCain in 2008.

But Finkbeiner said across the lake in Seattle, people seem to take political disagreements more personally.

“It’s identity politics a little bit, like, ‘This is a little bit of who I am,’” he said. Beyond Seattle, he said everywhere “people are sort of separating into tribes.”

The Pew Research Center finds that fervent liberals and conservatives are likely to read different news sources and to rarely encounter dissenting views. Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner said the holidays provide a rare opportunity for those “tribes” to connect.

“It’s more important than ever before in order to maintain our democracy to actually have conversations across the table,” she said, “and talk about policies without responding in a way that shoots the messenger, which unfortunately at the Thanksgiving table is your relative!”

She jokes that their family argues about the important things, like whose idea it was to get their second dog. The Finkbeiners make political harmony look easy – they say keeping a sense of humor is key.

Rob McKenna echoed that sentiment.

“All of that is secondary to the love we have for each other as a family,” he said. “That love, that foundation, makes it easier to talk about some topics because you don’t feel threatened by the disagreement.”

That’s the ethos Phil Bevis and Annie Brulé have brought to their business partnership. They met five years ago at a poetry festival.

Standing in Bevis’s bookstore, Arundel Books in Pioneer Square, they recalled their politics were comically at odds.

“When Annie and I met, and she was a tree-hugging, Vashon-raised, anti-coal, kayak-sailing activist,” Bevis said. “I was on the state board of the GOP.”

Brulé added, “And I had just finished climbing Mount Rainier to send a message to Gov. Gregoire about shutting down the coal plant in Centralia.”

But they hit it off and decided to start a publishing business together, Chatwin Books.

Like the Finkbeiners, Bevis said he gravitates toward discussions rather than debates.

“I come from a really ‘blue’ family,” he said. “But at our dinner table conversations when I was growing up, my parents would ask questions about what we thought of the news of the day. It wasn’t dad sitting at the head of the table with the answer for everything. That really shaped my perspective.”

Brulé said a trip to Greece changed how she thinks about talking about politics. Her host family had deep differences over the economic problems there, but the feeling over family dinner was one of camaraderie.

“I realized, these people are heavily disagreeing with each other, they don’t see eye to eye at all,” she said, “and yet there was a complete lack of tension in the air.”

Brulé said that’s the spirit she’s now trying to cultivate – and a worthy goal for any Thanksgiving dinner.