What if talk about challenging the status quo was more than talk and the November election saw three presidential contenders running neck and neck? That was the prime question when Americans Elect (AE) held its Regional Delegate Leaders Conference (the first of six) in Omaha. Three dozen people (some committed, some skeptical, all curious) met to plan how to upend the presidential nominating process and take the White House.
Unsure who I would find among other delegate leaders, I found a cross-section around the veggie tray at the opening mixer: two white-haired Republicans from Texas discussing the respective merits of their ostrich skin boots; several businessmen in jeans listening to one in a (Brooks Brothers?) suit with open collar explain his product; Army vets of both sexes discussing their frustrations; college students of the Campus Leader subset mixing with volunteer activists of all ages from both parties. Jeffrey Proud, PhD, 67 was there as a delegate leader and presidential candidate, advocating better management and better integration of technology in government.
If three dozen people plotting to defeat Messrs. Obama and Romney seems presumptuous, remember that AE has a heritage full of moxie. The predecessor to AE, Unity08, in 2008 took the Federal Election Commission to court to challenge the rules set up to preserve the Republican/Democrat duopoly. In a landmark decision, (Unity08 vs. FEC), the D.C. Court of Appeals ruled in March 2010 that the FEC must allow new parties to raise cash to gain ballot access and start a campaign.
During the post-victory glow, AE was born with a bold plan to capture the presidential prize in 2012. Getting the plan and the brand clear in the public mind remains the biggest challenge. One of the first questions for staffers was “Why do the leaders keep insisting we are not a party when everyone thinks we are? We look duplicitous.” Answer: only in states where no organization except a traditional party can get on the ballot, do we have an AE Party, but unlike typical parties, we do not have a hierarchy or doctrine. Simply put, AE is a process (online primary/convention) by which registered voters of all parties can come together to pick who they really want for president without the constraints of party machinery and litmus tests.
The other bedrock AE concept is broad spectrum pragmatism. No one can be nominated for president without a running mate from the opposite party. That pair will have ballot access in D.C. and 50 states.
As to organization, AE is flat and decentralized. The paid staff at the conference had no issue positions and no marching orders for us volunteers. (Rahm and Romney would go nuts!) We discussed mission: make everyone aware they can directly nominate the president, and tactics — up to us. National Engagement Director Alice Skelton said the best possible outcome would be if we charged ahead on our own initiative and she had to field complaints about us.
More than anything, the staff encouraged stories — telling everyone how we got connected. So we rehearsed. Almost every person began, “I have been a lifelong Democrat (Republican), but . . .” or “Over the years I have switched parties, but . . . ” After the “but” would come anecdotes of frustration with today’s politics. Most amusing was Mark Strauss, Davenport IA, who had a talk with Mitt Romney on his lawn until things got testy and Mark ordered the governor off his property.
These were ordinary people with remarkable stories. Aaron Wilder from Oklahoma City, who will turn 18 in March, grew up in a politically aware GOP family, but got involved with the Democratic Party early. While in middle school, he worked on Governor Brad Henry’s re-election campaign. In high school, he was a paid staffer with Organizing for America and vice-president of College Democrats of Oklahoma. Last year, he helped preside over the state convention for the whole party. While presiding and looking out on the 300 delegates, he was stunned to realize this small group was deciding for the all the Democrats in Oklahoma! When he heard about AE on the Colbert Report (Colbert, seriously?), he was hooked by the open nomination concept.
Aaron is still a partisan and is undecided whether to stay with the Democratic party. If Obama can accept AE as a needed breath of fresh air, he will stay. If Obama attacks us as a threat, Aaron will bail.
Others faced the same question. Alice Skelton told me that she gave up a 25-year career in party politics to join AE. She is certain her consulting firm will never get another contract from the party.
Above all, we wondered, will the public actually rush to the first open convention? The answer became obvious. No one knew anyone who was happy with the current political process — except politicians.
Ray Harlan is a retired Air Force officer, international trainer, and writer. He is also a delegate leader for Americans Elect and lives in Aurora.