Independents gather for national conference in New York City

On Saturday, hundreds of Independents from across the country gathered in New York City for the CUIP’s National Conference of Independents entitled, “Can Independents Reform America?” 

The conference was organized by the Committee for a Unified Independent Party, which is perhaps better known by its online portal at IndependentVoting.org.  Founded in 1994 by independent community organizers and third party activists, the organization now has local affiliates and chapters in over thirty states.  The daylong event, which was hosted at New York University, featured: a presentation by the group’s president Jackie Salit, a panel discussion on “breaking into a partisan system,” numerous “dispatches from the movement” in which representatives of state affiliates reported on their ongoing activities, an open forum for questions and comments from the audience, and even a mock trial that pitted the parties vs. the people.  

Despite the fact that Independents constitute the fastest growing segment of the American electorate and already outnumber both Democrats and Republicans in more than ten states, they are systematically excluded from our nation’s political process.  As numerous speakers at the conference pointed out, Independent voters are disenfranchised by the closed primary system preferred by partisans in states across the country, and Independent candidates for elected office face institutional barriers erected by Democratic and Republican party lawmakers at the local, state and federal levels.  

In one of the “dispatches from the movement,” former Arizona State Representative Ted Downing elicited a gasp from the audience when he revealed the pettiness of those institutional hurdles. Downing ran for State Senate as an Independent in 2010, having previously served in the Arizona House of Representatives as a Democrat.  As a non-partisan candidate, Downing learned that Independents not only face an uphill battle to simply obtain ballot access, they even have to pay more money in postage than their Democratic and Republican rivals.  “It’s in the postal code!” he exclaimed.  Though registered Independents now outnumber registered Democrats in the state, he noted, they remain hamstrung by the “bankrupt political structure” of the two-party system. 

Other such dispatches featured short talks by representatives of the organization’s affiliates from Kentucky, Texas, Illinois, Iowa, New York and Colorado among others.  In what was perhaps the most stirring moment of the conference, Joelle Riddle appeared to hold back tears as she and Kathleen Curry told the story of their falling out with the Colorado Democratic party and how they were effectively “pushed out of the system” for refusing to tow the party line.  Riddle, a former county commissioner, and Curry, a former state representative, were both excluded from the ballot in the 2010 elections after cutting ties with the party in 2009 and seeking re-election as Independent candidates.  As the Durango Herald reported earlier this month, the duo have since:

     “launched legal and political battles to overturn party registration deadlines and change campaign-finance laws that keep independent candidates from raising as much money as candidates affiliated with a political party.”

The conference panel discussion focused on the ways in which Independents are changing the dynamics of traditional two-party politics, on the interconnection between political and social reform and on the question of whether the party system should be considered a political anachronism.  The make-up of the panel reflected the CUIP’s center-left orientation as well as its founding coalition of Independent and third party activists.  

Centrist political commentator John Avlon kicked off the discussion arguing that the Democratic and Republican parties have effectively rigged our political system in their own favor and that, given the growing Independent movement, the choice between the two is no longer reflective of political reality in 21st century America.  Theresa Amato, who managed Ralph Nader’s presidential campaigns in 2000 and 2004, concurred, and made a case in favor of easing ballot access restrictions to expand the choices afforded to Americans in the voting booth.  Jim Mangia, a founder of the Reform Party, and Bradley Tusk, who served as campaign manager for Michael Bloomberg’s Independent bid for mayor of New York City, urged Independents to become more involved in issue advocacy, and act as a countervailing force in concert with other groups opposed to the policies forwarded by the two-party establishment.  

The panel also included veteran Independent activist Lenora Fulani, a co-founder of CUIP and former presidential candidate, Michael Hardy, who is perhaps best known for his work with Rev. Al Sharpton’s National Action Network, Cathy Stewart, the Chief Organizer for the New York City Independence Party and political analyst Douglas Shoen.  Following a lively open forum which featured an array of questions and comments from attendees, the day’s events concluded with a well-received mock trial in which the people challenged the primacy of the party system. 

Interestingly, though the Independent movement is not as pronounced in California as it is elsewhere in the country, the state has already begun to implement a number of the reforms advocated at the National Conference of Independents, such as the top two open primary system and the creation of independent redistricting commissions.  

For information on the California chapter of the CUIP see IndependentVoice.org