In a country as heavily partisan as the United States, it is very rare to find politicians whose allegiance lies outside the Democratic and Republican machines. Rhode Island Governor Lincoln Chafee, elected as an independent, represents one of the very few exceptions to this rule; that said, not all voters, or even third party advocates for that matter, are particularly enthused with their gubernatorial incumbent. This sentiment has led Ken Block, a political activist and government watchdog, to launch his own gubernatorial campaign, a decision that was announced earlier this week.
Block, the founder of the Moderate Party, is a familiar face to voters. He first became politically active in 2007, when he recognized state taxes were spiraling out of control; it placed an incredible and unjust burden on residents, and nothing was being done to solve the predicament. The Republican Party, with its frequent promises of smaller, less intrusive government, perpetually failed to provide any substantial relief; a pre-occupation with divisive social issues and an inability to resonate with centrist or liberal voters bogged the GOP down, effectively turning Rhode Island into a one-party state.
“In Rhode Island, we have a particularly unique political situation,” said Block. “The legislature is eighty-eight percent one party—Democrat in this case—and it has been this way for eighty years.”
Determined to promote fiscal responsibility in any way possible, Block joined like-minded activists in forming a third party, which successfully petitioned for ballot access by submitting over thirty-four thousand signatures from registered voters, anxious to see a true alternative.
“I realized what we didn’t have in Rhode Island was a place for fiscally responsible folks to come to that didn’t have a healthy dose of social conservative issues as well,” said Block, who became the party’s 2010 gubernatorial contender in an attempt to meet the mandatory five percent threshold that would enable the Moderates continued ballot access. On Election Day, he received six percent of the vote, something skeptics never saw coming; his lack of funds, name recognition, or campaign time assured an uphill battle, but the outcome of the election proved there was demand for a centrist candidate.
Following his surprise showing, Block remained politically alert, assuming the role of government watchdog. He used his computer programming company to expose waste and fraud in social service spending, a service provided for the taxpayers’ benefit free of charge. His continued crusade for open, accountable government earned Block the respect of conservatives and progressives alike; his other mission, the elimination of the so-called “master lever,” which allows voters to simply pull one switch and automatically vote for all candidates from any given party, has also earned praise from advocates of election reform.
“Thirty-five states have rid themselves of this ballot mechanism already,” said Block. “There is a whole body of academic evidence that proves [the harm] the master lever inflicts on candidates and voters. We were able to get 2,600 Rhode Island voters to send emails to the legislature asking them to get rid of the master level. We got one hundred people to come testify to the judiciary asking them to get rid of it and not a single person testified to keep it.”
Now, due to what Block refers to as Rhode Island’s “opaque legislative process,” his supporters are waiting to see what the Senate President, the ultimate gatekeeper regarding which bills are permitted to reach the floor for a vote, will do regarding the “master lever.” In the interim, Block has announced a second gubernatorial campaign; with his higher public profile and increased respectability, the Moderate Party’s likely nominee seems poised to turn next year’s election into a three-person race.
“Coming into this race, I have had some pretty staunch Republicans and Democrats indicate they are going to vote for me this time because of the fight I fought since the last race,” said Block, who believes he can overcome partisan thinking. “A whole bunch of people across the country do not engage in politics; they don’t vote. Those who do often identify strongly with a party and breaking through that partisan lens and forcing people to think about their choices is a challenge for all of these candidates. I have invested an extravagant amount of time and energy trying to break through and show people you can vote this way and it will be okay; it will be much more than okay, because its your best choice!”
Block believes the fact his campaign will be waged with the Moderate Party, a new, independent entity, will bode in his favor. The Republicans are largely stigmatized in Rhode Island, historically viewed as un-electable due to their national level’s staunch social conservatism, something Block had no desire to affiliate himself with. Thus, his campaign, in stark contrast to the GOP, is wholly economic, not based in support or opposition to any of the so-called social issues (gay marriage, abortion, etc.), something that allows him to appeal to a broader portion of the electorate, namely taxpayers who can no longer stand under the crushing burden of big government.
“Social issues just divide the electorate,” he said. “We have bigger issues to worry about…in Rhode Island, we really have one of the worst economies in country. Businesses choose not to come here. We have significant challenges with our public schools and the quality of education our kids are getting. Those are the core building blocks of happiness; you want to have a job and have your children to get good education. If you can’t pull that stuff together, then its hard to make a case that anyone should live here.”
Should he be elected, Ken Block would not be the first third party governor in recent memory. Lincoln Chafee’s victory in 2010 was not without precedent; fifteen years ago, Jesse Ventura was elected Governor of Minnesota with the Reform Party; independent Angus King become Maine’s Chief Executive four years earlier; Lowell P. Weicker was elected in Connecticut as the nominee of a third party during the 1990 election. All were moderates who appealed to the forgotten political center, the key demographic in Ken Block’s campaign.
Though it will be a difficult task, the Moderate Party may just make history next year by electing Ken Block the seventy-fifth Governor of Rhode Island.
“There are the commonalities with all these races,” said Block. “The challenges you have to overcome are the same….in 2010, I had as many well-known liberals indicate they voted for me as well known conservatives, and that’s the point!”