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South Shore legislators see a country divided, but remain hopeful

QUINCY – State Sen. John Keenan said he was in Washington, D.C., for a conference during one of President George W. Bush's inaugurations, and was able to get tickets to the celebration.

While Bush was from the opposing political party, Keenan, a Quincy Democrat, said there was still a lot of excitement and pride in witnessing America's celebration of the transfer of power.

"It was very patriotic and it was really inspiring to see the transition, and now we’re in a situation were there's not the same sense of inspiration," Keenan said. "I've seen the country divided before, but never quite like this."

For some local officials, national unity feels like a growing challenge in light of the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. The violence raised new fears ahead of President-elect Joe Biden's swearing-in as the nation's 46th president and prompted heightened security measures at state houses across the country.

But officials also say they have confidence in Biden's ability to bring people together, in part due to the relationships he built on both sides of the aisle during his decades in public service. 

The theme for Biden’s inauguration is “America United,” which was a core message of his campaign as he stressed the importance of unity in overcoming crises the country is facing.

Keenan said he's hopeful Biden's election is a step toward healing, but it will take a lot of work to get at the deep-rooted fears and concerns fueling division in the country. He said we shouldn't condemn those who have taken to the streets to peacefully protest, but encourage dialogue. 

“When understanding takes root, you can find progress to healing,” Keenan said. “It will be a process, no doubt.”

House Speaker Ron Mariano, a Quincy Democrat, said late last week that he was concerned about the advisories from the FBI warning that every state Capitol should remain on alert. He said the State House remained closed to the public, and staffers were asked to stay out of the building Wednesday.

“Watching the riots on TV was one of the most disheartening things I’ve seen in this country in my time alive,” Mariano said. “To see Americans turning on Americans just shows how far the divide has become in this country.”

Mariano said he is hopeful Biden can begin to heal the divide and close the gap between extremist groups and the average American, though it’s a huge challenge. He said Biden’s push to set action goals, particularly related to the COVID-19 pandemic, will hopefully help in that effort.

“I’m encouraged to see he’s kept his eye on the prize and proposed a stimulus package to help us get kids back to school, deal with the deficit we’ll see and help some small business,” Mariano said. “I know it will go a long way to close some of the divide.”

Security remains tight in Washington, D.C., ahead of the event, and Biden’s team urged people to stay home this year in keeping with crowd-size restrictions to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

A major public art display spanning multiple blocks of the National Mall features 191,500 U.S. flags and 56 pillars of light, representing every U.S. state and territory. The “Field of Flags” represents “the American people who are unable to travel” to the Capitol to celebrate the inauguration.

President Donald Trump announced he would not attend the ceremony, though Vice President Mike Pence and his wife will attend. Former Presidents Barack Obama, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton, as well as former first ladies Michelle Obama, Laura Bush and Hillary Clinton, all planned to attend.

State Rep. Tackey Chan, a Quincy Democrat, said he’s hopeful for change and he trusts Biden will rely on his decades of experience to bring people together and make decisions based on a wide range of opinions.

“The impression I’m getting is that there seems to be a greater desire for open communication on all fronts,” Chan said. “I’m expecting that Biden will put the election behind us, and try to solve the problems our country is facing instead of assigning blame.”

State Sen. Patrick O’Connor, a Weymouth Republican, said politics has become more of a sport than ever before in our country, comparing being a Democrat or Republican to being a Red Sox or Yankees fan at the height of the rivalry.

“Some Republicans and Democrats really have a personal dislike for each other, and that’s really sad and it needs to change,” he said. “What happened over the last four years was manifesting for 20 years as the divide grew and grew, and it’s very unhealthy for our country and democracy.”

O’Connor said there are many things leaders need to get to work on rather than continue to argue about, whether it’s ensuring true equality under the law or doing more to protect the environment.

O'Connor said he's glad that bridging the divide is one of Biden's top priorities, and from his years building relationships in the Senate, the incoming president is poised to do that. Despite the unrest in the nation, O'Connor said he remains optimistic. 

“What happened at the Capitol is a national tragedy and that should have never happened, but you have to be hopeful,” O’Connor said. “It’s been said that America is the last best hope, and I truly do believe in our government – Democrats, Republicans, independents, liberals and conservatives. There is so much ingenuity and true belief in patriotism. We lost our way a little bit and we need to find it.”



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