How to survive holiday gatherings with your political-opposite relatives

It was talk about Ronald Reagan that almost sent Patricia Loera, a Democrat, huffing out of the car. She was with her brother Joe, driving home to Ellensburg. A pair of college students on winter break.

"And Joe was a huge Reagan fan. And he kept talking about how Walter Mondale was an idiot," Loera recalls. "And I, of course, was going to vote for Mondale [in 1984]. It got really heated, and I got so angry I opened the door of the station wagon and said, 'I'm going to get out!' "

And so it goes when the topic is politics, a discussion that can quickly ratchet up when extended families gather for the holidays. If you're Alex P. Keaton in a family of liberals — or vice versa — how do you survive? Can things be merry when the topic is Murtha? At Christmas, do you stand under the mistletoe with loved ones who think like you about Iraq, or go head-to-head?

"I don't even go there," says a local political staffer who'll shun the topic in the company of her in-laws-to-be. She's a liberal; they're conservative. "I've been around for six years and if we're watching the news over dinner they make comments. I just keep to myself."

"I grew up in a family where we had discussions about stuff. Good, deep-thinking discussions," says Anne-Marie Lake, a Republican, of Mountlake Terrace. "I joined a family where they have loud yelling matches. And so what I had to do was learn how to yell a little. There are times when you have to yell to be heard."

"It was a lot harder when there was an older generation around," says Paul Apostolidis of Walla Walla, about his family gatherings in Philadelphia. "I had an uncle who was a medic in World War II and who'd use racial slurs. We'd argue about it and at a certain point, we'd just go get more turkey."

Last year's holidays were especially lively when the Durkan family convened in Seattle. Jenny Durkan, who's known Christine Gregoire for more than a decade, was representing the Democrats in their fight to keep Gregoire as governor. Older brother Martin "Jamie" Durkan Jr., a self-described "Dinocrat," has been a close friend of Dino Rossi's and takes credit for being the person who persuaded him to run against Gregoire in the first place. To help win last year's recount effort, he contributed $50,000 to the GOP.

"In the beginning Dino was the big underdog and everyone was rubbing it in," recalls Jamie Durkan, the most conservative of his seven siblings.

"At Thanksgiving they were up 42 votes and he chided me to no end," his sister remembers. "But by Christmas, we were ahead."

Growing up, politics always got batted about. Their late father, Martin Durkan Sr., was a Democratic power broker. Dinner talk included topics such as civil rights or the future of AT&T.

But the conversations always remained courteous.

"In the old West they were able to ensure civility by checking weapons at the door," Jenny Durkan says. "Our family tries to check politics at the door."

Media gives ammunition

If opinions seem to be louder these days, some credit can go to the proliferation of partisan media, which serves up talking points for either side of a political debate.

"[People have] become more confident in their views," says David A. Jones, a political scientist at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Va., who's studied the influence of talk radio.

Informed, yet polite, debates have always been encouraged at the McKay household in Seattle, a family with 12 grown children who include Mike, the former U.S. attorney for Western Washington; John, the sitting U.S. attorney; and Tricia, executive director of the Medina Foundation.

"You don't have the clenched teeth or the storming out," says Tricia McKay, one of the few non-Republicans in a family that leans right. Dad was a surgeon. "And if he thought you were too quiet, he'd call on you. So everybody felt comfortable stating an opinion. It was almost treated as sport.

"And if you disagreed with somebody it wasn't like you were saying 'I don't like you' or 'You're a bad person.' You were saying 'I disagree with you,' so it didn't become personal."

Which is, in fact, a good strategy to employ if you're not the dropping-by-once-a-year-type but rather, you want real relationships with family members.

Dive into controversy, but practice good communication skills, says Carol Stanley, clinical director at Valley Counseling in Renton.

"I encourage people to communicate on those big topics," she says. "If you want a real relationship with someone, you want to be able to talk deeply, with some vulnerability. To share what you are, what you feel, what you think."

Turns to puzzles

A Seattle woman, however, employs another tactic. "We do jigsaws," says Catherine Droden, explaining how her conservative family regards her as "a bleeding-heart liberal."

"I realize I need to just let them be who they are," she says, adding how she's noticed her parents and siblings have pushed back less as she's stopped trying to convince them of her beliefs.

A shared activity helps, which is why she'll pack a puzzle for the family vacation at a cabin over the Fourth of July.

But if it's just dinner, say Thanksgiving at a niece's house an hour's drive away, she'll attend but not stay long.

"My family also doesn't drink, and I like to have wine. So I'll leave my family and I'll go to a friend's. To get that holiday satisfaction, at this point in my life, I'll find something else to do."

Avoiding one another, though, isn't an option for the Loeras, a family of six whose parents are Mexican immigrants. Politics, explains Patricia Loera, is very much a family value. No one misses an election, including local ones, and everyone does what they can to stay informed.

Loera, now an attorney with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in Seattle, remains very much a Democrat. She volunteered with the Al Gore campaign. She worked as legislative director for the National Association for Bilingual Education in Washington, D.C.

Joe Loera, ever the Republican, is a registered nurse at Sacred Heart Medical Center in Spokane. Walk into his house, his siblings point out, and you'll come across a large photo of Ronald Reagan.

He's the staunch conservative in a family of Democrats, although he's tried to recruit. Once, while caring for 15-month-old Marissa, Joe Loera slipped her into a "Viva Bush" T-shirt and e-mailed her photo to his siblings.

"Much to everyone's mortification," he recalls.

The Loera children, all grown now, go home to Sunnyside, Yakima County, for dinner at least once a month. And for every holiday, too.

Issues aplenty

Patricia and Joe always get into it: immigration vs. border control, medical malpractice, the Iraq war.

"Right now the big fight is whether Bush lied," she says.

The debates are entertaining, the family notes, pointing out how stepfather Ramon Saldaña is apt to goad one or the other if the discussions quiet down.

"I love hearing them talk," he says.

But they'll follow protocol if things get too heated.

"We kind of have a rule with Mom," the daughter says. "If she sees it getting out of hand she'll tell us to be quiet. And we listen to what our mother says."

Florangela Davila: 206-464-2916 or

Tips for keeping the peace

"People can have different beliefs without necessarily being in conflict," says Julia Gold, director of the mediation clinic at the University of Washington School of Law.

Here are some suggestions by Gold and Carol Stanley, a family therapist in Renton.

Listen. Before responding to the other person summarize what you've heard the other person say. And then ask if they'd be willing to hear your perspective.

Try not to interrupt when the other person's talking.

Use "I" language instead of "You." (i.e. "I just feel strongly about this." Not, "You are wrong.")

Identify your family culture. If it's not normal to talk politics at dinner, introducing the topic might be unsettling.

Be realistic. There are some things that you can influence and change people's minds about. And clearly some that you can't.