National Press Club

Independents tout centrist approach at NPC Headliners Newsmaker

July 14, 2017 | By Louise D. Walsh |

Executive Director at The Centrist Project, Nick Troiano joins a panel of elected representatives and details plans to form a caucus of centrist senators and representatives at the federal level that could steer Congress.

Executive Director at The Centrist Project, Nick Troiano joins a panel of elected representatives and details plans to form a caucus of centrist senators and representatives at the federal level that could steer Congress.

Photo/Image: Noel St. John

Breaking from traditional party structures can help politicians solve the problems that have put Republicans and Democrats at loggerheads, a panel of politicians from Alaska, Maine and Iowa said Wednesday at a National Press Club Headliners Newsmaker event.

Alaska Gov. Bill Walker, an Independent, recalled how often he and his Democratic rival for governor agreed with each other in their primary debates.

“We liked our state a whole lot more than we liked politics,” said Walker, a lifelong Republican who dropped his party registration in 2014 to merge his campaign with Byron Mallott, his Democratic rival. Mallott ran successfully on Walker's unity ticket to become lieutenant governor.

Joining Walker on the NPC panel were Iowa State Sen. David Johnson, Alaska State Rep. Jason Grenn, Maine State Rep. Owen Casas, and Centrist Project Director Nick Troiano..

In Iowa, Johnson became the first serving Independent legislator in 45 years after leaving the GOP in 2016 during his fourth term. He made the move in protest over now-President Donald Trump’s campaign. He left his party, he said, after Trump mocked a disabled reporter and attacked a federal judge because of his ethnic heritage.

Casas, who served in Iraq as a Marine, said he expanded his thinking about politics in college, which prompted him to ask himself, “How does my state [Maine] fit into this great country?”

Casas said he concluded that party affiliation wasn’t necessary to read and understand policy. After losing his first race, he and another Independent won in 2016, prompting three incumbents –– one Republican and two Democrats –– to drop their party affiliations. Now neither party controls an outright majority in the state legislature.

Grenn, a fourth-generation Alaskan and lifelong Republican, said like many first-time candidates, “I ran because I was frustrated.” Running as an independent forced him “to go door-to-door nightly for five months” in his Anchorage district. Once elected, he became part of “a tri-partisan coalition” seeking common ground and “someone willing to talk with all parties.” Grenn and another Independent helped flip control of the statehouse from the GOP to a new “bipartisan governing majority.”

Troiano pointed out that a non-traditional party with a positive agenda produced President Emmanuel Macron of France and a near super-majority of parliamentary candidates. “If two to three [more] independents are elected to the [U.S.] Senate,” he said, “it would change American politics forever.” That would deny either party an outright majority, and the coalition could use its swing leverage to force both sides to compromise.

Like other panelists he cited structural and financial obstacles, but said the biggest barrier is psychological. People only invest time, money and votes, he said, if they believe candidates are electable. He sees hope for 2018 because the time is ripe, he said, for alternatives to both parties. Forty percent of the electorate, he noted, identify as independent voters.

The Centrist Project, which assembled the panel, is the brainchild of its founder, Charles Wheelan, who wrote “The Centrist Manifesto”, a call to action for Americans fed up with the current political system. Wheelan is a former correspondent for The Economist and senior lecturer at Dartmouth College’s Rockefeller Center. The project’s website says it “aims to strategically elect independent candidates to office who can break through political gridlock and serve as a voice for all those in the sensible center –– not as a traditional third party, but as America’s first Unparty.”

NPC moderator Jamie Horwitz asked Walker what would keep independents from becoming the representative of big oil, for example, or another special interest group? No clear answer emerged, but Walker said it’s “easier not to be pigeon-holed” as an independent. Left lingering was the opening question: Will a movement to elect more Independents break partisan gridlock or complicate problems in a dysfunctional political landscape?