A group of independent candidates are running to be the first unaffiliated lawmakers elected to the legislature in Colorado history. The slate of independents was brought together by Unite Colorado, which is trying to build the structural and financial support these candidates need to beat the two-party establishment.
Among these candidates is Steve Peterson, who is running in the historically "deep red" State Senate District 30. Peterson is in a unique position because, if elected, he alone could become the most influential vote in the Colorado Legislature.
It won't be easy. Peterson says that not only does the Republican Party control all things local in his district, but it caters to the more extreme factions of conservatism and the party's base.
"It's such a right-leaning area that the Republicans typically have zero chance of getting beat by a Democrat, and therefore they only have a party to please," Peterson explained in an interview for IVN.
"As you would guess, politicians rise up through the ranks because of the loyalty to their party -- because of their absolute blind adherence to the party platform, and not because of their quality or ability to motivate people or lead people or be visionaries."
Meanwhile, he adds, the Democratic Party is doing nothing to reinvigorate their base, which has left many voters dissatisfied with their options, because they don't feel like they have a voice in the current political system.
"I feel like a lot of where we are at today is the nature of the duopoly. I think competition makes all sides stronger, and my competing for the seat that I have chosen to run for is all about re-injecting competition into the process," says Peterson.
Unite America and a Historic Opportunity
Unite Colorado sees a golden opportunity to transform the political landscape in Colorado and strengthen representation by electing the state's first independents to the legislature.
The Colorado Legislature is so narrowly divided between the Republican and Democratic Parties that it would not take only a handful of independents to deny both major parties a majority and leverage that power to bring all sides to the table on important policy issues.
In the State Senate, the Republican Party currently has a two seat majority, 18-16-1. There is one independent, Cheri Jahn, who dropped her Democratic Party affiliation earlier this year, fed up with party-centric politics. She, however, is term limited, and there are no independents running in her district in 2018.
Peterson says looking at her district, current odds favor the Democrat in November, and if the political makeup of the Senate holds after the midterms, all it would take to deny both major parties a majority is one person.
In other words, one independent could become the most influential policymaker in Colorado -- holding that crucial swing vote, and Peterson is excited by the prospect.
"It would not just help me with my own objectives and agenda, but it would be a great relief to the members of both parties who are -- for whatever set of reasons -- slightly uneasy with their position in the party," Peterson explains.
"Not all members of the Republican caucus and not all members of the Democratic caucus are content with all that's done. They would like to vote their conscience, they'd like to stray from the doctrine of the party, and can't do so without fear of losing their seat or their committee assignments or lots of other potential outcomes that are not favorable to them."
Peterson says he has spoken to plenty of Republicans and Democrats in the legislature who got into politics for the right reasons, and they are frustrated by the current state of party-centric politics -- Cheri Jahn being an excellent example of this.
He believes these politicians are excited by the prospect of having legislators who are not beholden to a party because they would then be forced to "play a different game," one where stronger collaboration is at the heart of political success, not party fealty.
"I think there are a lot of people that, though they won't support me publicly are sort of secretly hoping I can find a tail-hold as literally the first independent elected in the State Senate," says Peterson.
"These people who are in the legislature now -- lots of them take party positions because they have to, but private conversations over a beer or burger have shown me their not quite comfortable either, and these are of course the people I intend to recruit into my own coalition."
Peterson's goal is to help strengthen representation and the overall political process in Colorado by joining discontented Republicans and discontented Democrats together to "forge a brand-new, very exciting political faction."
Arguably the biggest hurdle independents have to overcome in most races in the US is convincing voters to reject the two-party narrative that a vote for any candidate outside the Republican and Democratic Parties is a wasted vote or will give the election to the candidate they least want to win.
But Steve Peterson believes things are changing.
It is not just the structural and financial foundation that organizations like Unite Colorado provide for independent candidates, but the quality of the candidates themselves. This, he believes, makes the biggest difference in the end.
"What's determinative is when you get a guy like Neal Simon who raises his hand in Maryland, and says 'I want to make a go at this,'" says Peterson. Simon, who has the background, the resources, and community support that would have made running as a Republican or Democrat easy, but chose to run as an independent.
And when Peterson talks to voters who might be worried about wasting their vote, or electing the "other side," or are comfortable in their own partisan world, he asks a version of the Dr. Phil question: "How's that working out for you?"
“At the end of the day, Republicans have issues that are important to them, and so do Democrats, and yet time after time, despite the promises, despite the rhetoric, the people who care about those issues see nothing or almost nothing getting done, and people are starting to become skeptical that maybe that’s the plan. Maybe that’s what the parties truly want.”
Many party members might say they want to do something about Issue A or Issue B, but at the end of the day the parties need those issues as campaign fodder for every election cycle to rally the base or fundraise or to get voters angry at "the other side."
In the current political environment, the blame game is a much more enticing campaign tool than actually solving problems, and the biggest losers are voters.
"Those sort of plays are wearing thin," says Peterson.
"The role of a good independent is to simply stand up and remind people of the way that the game is being played. And when people see that and they feel their frustration and they recognize that there is no way for that frustration to resolve itself if we keep playing with the current rules, they start to think about their role in the process a little bit differently."
Are voters thinking about their role a little differently now? There is evidence that points to yes.
Part of what marks a successful and viable campaign is the ability to fundraise. Unite Colorado reported on May 8 that its slate of candidates raised nearly $130,000 in Q1. The candidates outraised their Republican and Democratic opponents combined, including Steve Peterson.
Not a bad haul. And according to Unite Colorado, every candidate on its slate has refused contributions from special interest political action committees, in line with one of the principles of the group's "Declaration of Independents" to put the public interest first.
Pioneers in the Independent Movement?
In my conversations with Unite America Executive Director Nick Troiano and Steve Peterson, both men used the same word to describe Coloradans: Pioneers.
Residents of the state are not just pioneers in the sense that they are innovators and trailblazers, but to Peterson there is something deeper embedded into the state's history:
"A pioneer is someone who comes to a new place and sets down roots, and starts building schools and churches and infrastructure and institutions and community, and what that forces a person to do is maintain engagement with people who don't share your identity, and don't share your view of the future, and therefore in the marketplace of ideas, there is competition among pioneers, and there is understanding and common ground finding."
He says he wants to remind people of this, and get Colorado back to this pioneer spirit.
Will Colorado voters pioneer a new path for their state come November?
Peterson and other independent candidates running in the state are offering them an alternative to the status quo -- a status quo that has left millions of voters -- including party members -- frustrated and disillusioned.
Be sure to check out the full interview with Steve Peterson in the podcast above. Steve and I talk about the need for redistricting, which is a priority issue for Steve, along with more on his candidacy, the state of politics in Colorado, and the growth of the independent movement. Check it out!
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