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Centrist Project hopes to break statehouse gridlock by electing independent candidates

Author: Ernest Luning - November 6, 2017 - Updated: May 9, 2018

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While it has a reputation for bipartisanship, Centrist Project executive director Nick Troiano says the Colorado Legislature ranks as the most polarized legislature in the country, according to some studies. His group aims to elect independent lawmakers in 2018 in an attempt to encourage what it calls moderate, common-sense solutions. (Photo by Ernest Luning/Colorado Politics)
While it has a reputation for bipartisanship, Centrist Project executive director Nick Troiano says the Colorado Legislature ranks as the most polarized legislature in the country, according to some studies. His group aims to elect independent lawmakers in 2018 in an attempt to encourage what it calls moderate, common-sense solutions. (Photo by Ernest Luning/Colorado Politics)

Despite the fact that more Colorado voters are unaffiliated than belong to any one political party, the state has never elected an independent candidate to the Legislature — a 140-year streak a young organization called the Centrist Project aims to break in next year’s election.

“Independents are a force to be reckoned with, but they’re drastically under-represented in the legislature,” Nick Troiano, the group’s executive director, told Colorado Politics. “There’s a chicken-and-egg aspect — part of it is no one runs for office as an independent because they don’t have the support structure. Our question is, if the infrastructure existed, and if credible candidates were to run, what would happen? Is the electorate ready to support them?”

Armed with fresh polling that shows an overwhelming majority of Colorado voters ready to cast ballots for independents — with nearly as many blaming Democrats and Republicans for partisan gridlock — along with a budding apparatus meant to provide the kind of training, organizing and fundraising support before only available to partisan candidates, Troiano believes the Centrist Project can prove that independents can get elected and, once in office, change the state’s political culture, with just a little help.

It doesn’t hurt that the country is still bruised after last year’s divisive, demoralizing presidential election, or that the White House and Congress appear unable to get long-promised legislation across the finish line. Or that Colorado, by some measures, has the most polarized legislature in the country, even though its electorate is nearly evenly split between Democrats, Republicans and unaffiliated voters.

“Colorado has become a microcosm of the trends we’re seeing nationally,” said Troiano, who ran for Congress in Pennsylvania as an independent in 2014. “The same trends we see in Congress, we see in the statehouse — like during the special session, when a mistake that all parties acknowledge was a mistake couldn’t get fixed. There was no common-sense solution to that.”

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“People really want the West Wing, and they’re getting House of Cards,’” said Andy Szekeres, the group’s national finance director and a one-time top fundraising consultant for Democratic candidates, ballot measures and political action committees. “The folks who love either the Democratic or Republican party of 30 years ago don’t recognize what the parties have become.”

Andrew Short, the group’s Colorado political director, ran the Democratic Senate Campaign Fund, an arm of the state party, for the past three election cycles, including in 2014 and 2016 when Republicans won Senate majorities by a single seat. He says he’s still registered as a Democrat but is sold on the group’s mission.

“I view what we’re doing here as an operation — to save our democratic republic. Our democratic republic is sick, and the Centrist Project is the doctor, and the prescription is electing a handful of independents to get things done.”

The aim, Troiano says, is to elect enough independent senators and representatives to deny either party the majority in both chambers, giving the Centrist Project-backed lawmakers the power to enforce what the group describes as a common-sense approach to governing.

“We anticipate being able to make a direct play at independents actually controlling the balance of power. That’s the end goal. But we think success for us this cycle is, first, showing people are wiling to run and run together as independents, and second, proving something can be done that’s never happened in this state before — and that’s that an independent can win the election,” he says. “We’re not just in this for 2018. We’re in this for the long haul.”

Centrist Project finance manager Kelsie Hower, a veteran fundraiser for GOP candidates, and the group's Colorado political director Andrew Short, who ran the state's Democratic Senate Campaign Fund for three cycles, talk shop at their office in the We Work LoHi co-working center in Denver on Tuesday, Oct. 31, 2017. (Photo by Ernest Luning/Colorado Politics)
Centrist Project finance manager Kelsie Hower, a veteran fundraiser for GOP candidates, and the group’s Colorado political director Andrew Short, who ran the state’s Democratic Senate Campaign Fund for three cycles, talk shop at their office in the We Work LoHi co-working center in Denver on Tuesday, Oct. 31, 2017. (Photo by Ernest Luning/Colorado Politics)

It’s potentially a million-dollar experiment — adding up its small donor committee, the group’s Colorado-focused budget and an independent expenditure committee — to see whether the organization’s assumptions hold up at the ballot box. And, if that works, to find out whether Centrist Project founder Charlie Wheelan’s “fulcrum strategy” will lead to better legislative outcomes.

Just a few independent lawmakers, the theory goes, can wield outsized influence as a swing coalition — particularly in chambers as closely divided as Colorado’s, where Democrats control the House 36-27 and Senate Republicans hold a slim 18-17 lead.

Toward that end, the Centrist Project opened national headquarters in Denver earlier this year and staffed up with seasoned national and state political operatives from both sides of the aisle, as well as veterans of nonprofits.

Troiano said the group plans to field independent candidates in at least five — and as many as a dozen — districts around the state, providing recruits with the kind of campaign support independent candidates have never had. While Troiano says the group is recruiting a handful of candidates for governor and U.S. Senate around the country, its focus next year will be wresting control of Colorado’s General Assembly away from Democrats and Republicans.

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A poll conducted by Oregon-based Triton Polling and Research in late summer showed 28 percent of likely Colorado voters said breaking through gridlock and dysfunction was their top criterion for backing a candidate.

“We see that as the base of support for independents candidates who run as reform-minded candidates,” Troiano says. “It doesn’t really matter to voters of that bloc where you stand on the issues, or even if you align with them on issues. It matters that you’re fundamentally different than the people in office now.”

“This is meant to be a platform for people who want to run and serve independently, which in our view means you put your state ahead of any party, you follow the facts to get things done. That’s our litmus test for being independent,” he continued.

Troiano smiled when asked to name some of the group’s candidate recruits, saying only that they’ll be introduced after the first of the year — the deadline for Coloradans to register as unaffiliated if they want to appear on the November ballot. Likewise, Short wouldn’t reveal which districts the group is targeting, except to say that it’s a geographically diverse mix of battleground seats and those considered safely in the hands of one party or the other.

“Every cycle, the Republicans and Democrats say, ‘These seats are going to figure out who controls the state Senate, and these seats are going to determine who controls the state House,’” he said. “Those days are over. That’s not the case anymore with this organization. I would say to the political operatives in Colorado that we’re the only organization in town that knows what seats are in play right now.”

“We are very competitive in every corner of the state,” Troiano added.

While the head of the state’s Republican Party told Colorado Politics he welcomes the chance to compete with the group’s candidates, a spokesman for the Colorado Democrats sounded a contrary note, warning that the operation could backfire by sending more extreme lawmakers to the Capitol.

“The more the merrier,” Colorado GOP Chairman Jeff Hays said. “Republicans relish competition.” Referring to findings in the group’s poll, he added, “We view these numbers as a challenge to articulate ever more clearly and compellingly that a vote for Republicans is a vote for freedom and prosperity.”

Eric Walker, communications director for the Colorado Democrats, however, charged that the Centrist Project’s approach threatens to derail its stated mission.

“We already have a responsible governing party — the Democratic Party, and when you look at the track record of both parties both in Washington and in the state, it’s clear who the responsible governing party is,” Walker said. “The Democrats didn’t try to shut down the government, the Democrats didn’t try to steal a seat on the Supreme Court, the Democrats didn’t blow up special session with a simple legislative fix here in Colorado.

“In races where there is a Democrat and an unaffiliated candidate both offering a reasonable approach to governing, and the Republican is saying, ‘Let’s burn it all down,’ then the responsible candidates are going to split the vote, and we wind up with a kook.”

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Troiano said Walker doesn’t grasp what the group is doing.

“This is getting away from zero-sum politics. The best-case scenario for us is we’re running an independent to replace someone who’s part of the problem,” he said, adding that he believes Democrats can be as sharply partisan and beholden to their party’s interests as Republicans.

Former state Sen. Al White, R-Hayden (Courtesy Colorado Office of Economic Development and International Trade)
Former state Sen. Al White, R-Hayden (Courtesy Colorado Office of Economic Development and International Trade)

A former Republican state senator and a former Democratic House member — who both mounted unsuccessful legislative campaigns as independents and now sit on the Centrist Project’s steering committee — agree, arguing that it’s time to break the parties’ lock on statehouse majorities.

Former state Sen. Al White, who served a decade as a GOP lawmaker before stepping down to head the Colorado Tourism office, and former state Rep. Kathleen Curry, elected to three terms as a Democrat, say they believe a few independent legislators could make a big difference.

“I’ve come to believe the electorate is ready for something less than the gridlock partisan politics that has been infesting our politics,” White told Colorado Politics. “The polarization that has come with that has put a bad taste in everybody’s mouth. I think people are ready for an opportunity to elect people who are not obligated to one party or another.”

White tried to give northwest Colorado voters that chance last year when he mounted a brief but fruitless run as an independent in a bid to regain his old Senate District 8 seat. After just six weeks, he withdrew from the race, citing an inability to raise any money. “Having a ‘U’ behind my name instead of an ‘R’ was a nonstarter for many of my former funders,” he said at the time.

He told Colorado Politics he was happy to share information about his “brief but glorious attempt” to run as an independent, adding that fundraising was a critical hurdle he hadn’t anticipated.

“People who had given literally thousands of dollars to prior campaigns wouldn’t even return a phone call,” White said. “Quickly it became apparent that the people I thought were actually supporting me because they believed in me would no longer do that because they were concerned what would happen if the Republicans were to lose the majority, if I were successful.”

White’s wife, former state Sen. Jean White, is also advising the Centrist Project, along with past independent candidates, former party officials and business executives.

“At this point, there’s a lot of skepticism,” Al White acknowledged. “But once it’s proven doable, then I think the skepticism among the public of a wasted vote for an independent candidate will disappear into thin air.”

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Former state Rep. Kathleen Curry, D-Gunnison, who twice ran as an independent for the Colorado House, pictured with her dog Rocky, is advising the Centrist Project on its plans to elect independent candidates to the Legislature. (Courtesy Kathleen Curry)

Curry said she has some suggestions gleaned during her two independent runs in 2010 and 2012, first as a write-in candidate after she’d left the Democratic Party during the legislative session, when she came within a hair of winning, and again when she was on the ballot in a redrawn district and got trounced.

“One obstacle out there is just having a network behind you that can help you, whether it’s knocking on doors or making phone calls or distributing signs — all that involves people, and the candidate cannot do it alone,” she said. The organization’s support could be invaluable for candidates strong on policy but lacking political experience and connections, she added.

“My advice comes from having gotten my ass kicked last time,” she said with a laugh. “It has to do with not counting on the U’s to vote for you — you have to earn every vote, and it has to be based on you and what you think you can accomplish. And never bash the party voters. This isn’t about criticizing the parties; this is about helping people who aren’t in a party actually reach success.”

And as the election approaches, Curry said, it’s important to set aside money for an election lawyer and potential recount. “I think that the races are going to be close, and I think you’ll need legal help at the end to make sure the vote count is correct,” she said. “We go right up to the finish line, everyone’s exhausted, and then it’s not over. Have people you trust you can ask legal questions. If it’s a three-way race, it’s going to be tight.”

Troiano said the organization plans to be prepared for the possibility. He added that the group is going to surprise a lot of people over the next year.

“If our ultimate goal is to effect national change at the federal level, we have to start somewhere, and I think the right place to start is a state that is primed to want it and to benefit from it, and that’s ultimately what led us here to Colorado,” he said. “No one else is trying — there’s literally no one else out there who’s trying to do what we’re doing. We bring a tremendous amount of passion and mission-alignment to the cause, but also raw political experience. You need both of those to work.”

Ernest Luning

Ernest Luning

Ernest Luning is a political correspondent for Colorado Politics. He has covered politics and government for newspapers and online news sites in Colorado for more than 25 years, including at the Highlands Ranch Herald, the Jefferson Sentinels chain of community newspapers and the Aurora Sentinel, where he was the city hall and cops reporter. After editing the Aurora Daily Sun, he was a political reporter and blogger for The Colorado Independent site. Since 2009, he has been the senior political reporter and occasional editor for The Colorado Statesman.