Peter Smith is an independent candidate running in Colorado State Senate District 32. He is the youngest candidate running for state office and would be the youngest member of the state legislature if elected in November.
Peter is a Millennial -- a label most candidates his age would treat as an albatross around their necks. Not Peter. He embraces the label "Millennial" as much as his "independent" political identification.
Millennials, from his perspective, are leading the independent revolution against the two-party duopoly.
Witnessing First-Hand Party Betrayal
Peter Smith's district is located in Central and Southwest Denver. It's an economically diverse district that includes wealthy neighborhoods like Washington Park, and lower income areas in the Southwest.
On any electoral map, SD-32 would be painted with a deep shade of blue. The current seat-holder, Democrat Irene Aguilar, won re-election in 2014 with 64.3% of the vote in a three-person race. In a two-person race in 2012, she won with 70.1%.
However, the voter makeup of SD-32 reveals an opening for an independent candidate as unaffiliated voters are the second-largest registered voting bloc -- trailing Democrats by only a few thousand voters.
It is also a district that, according to Smith, voted heavily for Bernie Sanders in the 2016 Democratic presidential primary. Yet voters watched as the superdelegates, including the father of another candidate in SD-32, swung the process for Hillary Clinton.
"My voters, especially my younger constituents are really irked by it, and I think it was a mixture of them getting excited about a candidate, watching the party they identified with stifle the candidate, and then watching how bad the two major party candidates ended up being -- I just think people have no more excuses to stay on the two-party train," Smith said in an interview for IVN.
He says he tried the Democratic scene. He went to the party events. He tried to interact with the party, but he saw the deep roots establishment politics had in his district.
Candidates were getting the party endorsements because of their name or who their parents were, instead of the best candidate for the office. It was the same type of favoritism seen with the national party.
"The party has already picked the favorite before the voters have had a chance to chime in, so I started to look into some other options," he said.
"I realized that the best way to connect with my constituents, both young and old, right now due to how upset everyone is with how politics is going is to come at them as an independent. It's much less abrasive. People are much more open to me, whether they are Democratic, Republican, or an independent, to listen to what I have to say at their doorstep rather than if I had the baggage of one of our parties."
He added that running as an independent was a chance to connect with his voters more, and he really believes people are looking for a third -- maybe even a fourth option, which public opinion surveys support.
Will Millennials End The Duopoly?
There are two things I noticed immediately when I went to Peter Smith's campaign website.
The first thing was that he doesn't shy away from the "Millennial" label.
Most political consultants and advisers would tell him to distance himself from the word "Millennial" and downplay his age. For older voters, "Millennial" is a word that comes with many negative stigmas:
"Millennials are lazy."
"Millennials are entitled."
"It's the 'Me' generation."
"Millennials are hyper-sensitive snowflakes." (Too much?)
"I am proud to be a Millennial," Smith said in our interview. "We are the largest voting bloc in this next election, and I don't think we are all self-hating. Those stigmas are passed along through media and culture, and are not all accurate."
"At the same time, I am sick of these stigmas, and I am proud to be a Millennial. And I am going to run as a Millennial because that is what I am. Our generation is about to take a serious grasping hold of this country; we're about to run it. We have had more access to more knowledge, and due to our political stances, we're so over the double talking and the vanilla politicians of the past. We're going to be very effective."
He says there are other young candidates running who do shy away from talking about their age because they are afraid of the perception that comes with it, and play into what the political parties want.
"If the political parties are shying away from supporting the word 'Millennial' then I am going to challenge that. My campaign is really about challenging what the two parties have come to be throughout the last 50 years," Smith exclaimed.
Smith says history shows that when the torch is passed to a younger generation that is a bit more radical and does things differently, good things have come of it. He believes this is going to happen after the 2018 elections:
"Once the Millennial generation takes control of both parties and a third independent movement comes out, we are going to have a lot clearer policy, and we are going to be able to deal with issues like our infrastructure and our rising cost of living that have been ignored for so long because both these parties are completely bought and paid for by corporations and super PACs."
Taking Positions As An Independent
The second thing I noticed when I went to his website was an extensive list of issues and policy positions that is not always common with independent campaigns.
His issues page runs the gamut, from lowering the cost of living to gun safety reform to reforming the two-party system to increasing subsidies for hemp farmers and making it easer for marijuana growers to bank and conduct business.
The negative perception from many voters when independents don't go into specifics on their website is that the candidate doesn't really stand for anything. But then many people also want to fit independents into a partisan box. (e.g. "Oh, they are really just a Republican in disguise." "Sounds like a closet Democrat to me.")
There is also the popular notion that independents always have to fall in the center of the ideological spectrum or be completely neutral. Smith doesn't believe this is true, and is very clear about where he stands on the issues.
"The beauty of being an independent is that we come in all stripes and shapes. We will be different," he remarked. "I have people tell me I am a 'closet Republican'; I have people who tell me I'm a 'radical liberal.' I am all over the place."
He says that his positions on under-development and over-regulation in the housing market in Colorado, for instance, is "Republican-esque." But his positions on infrastructure spending and affordable housing fall more to the left on the political spectrum.
"I don't have to mussel myself because the donor or the party doesn't like what I am saying," he explained. "I don't have to taper any part of my agenda because the party is planning a more watered-down version of what I want or my constituents think their community needs."
The Most Crucial Swing Vote in Colorado
A victory for Peter Smith would make history on multiple fronts:
- He could be the first independent ever elected to the State Senate (perhaps the whole legislature);
- He would be the youngest serving member of the legislature at 26; and
- He could deny both major parties a majority in the Senate, thus becoming one of the most crucial swing votes in the legislature.
The Colorado State Senate is currently comprised of 18 Republicans, 16 Democrats, and 1 independent. Cheri Jahn, the single independent, is term-limited and thus will be replaced by either a Republican or a Democrat after the 2018 elections.
If the current makeup stands and Smith wins, the numbers would remain the same (since Cheri Jahn's district will likely return to the Democrats). Due to how the districts are gerrymandered, it is not likely Colorado will see any seats switch parties unless another independent wins.
However, another independent running for State Senate posed a scenario in which electing just one independent to the chamber could be enough to get disenchanted Republicans and Democrats to form a caucus of lawmakers interested in putting problem solving ahead of party politics.
As evenly divided as the legislature is, Peter Smith would have a crucial swing vote, something he says he thinks long and hard about every day.
"I have determined I must be an honest broker between both sides in the Senate that listens to BOTH parties instead of participating in clique-based partisanship," he said in our interview.
"The more I think about it the more I believe that it is appropriate that the deciding vote be a member under 30 years-old who thinks independently of either party. The previous generation has done an awful job taking care of and shepherding Colorado into the future my entire life. Now, it is time to let my generation oversee each piece of legislation voted into law with transformative eyes to MAKE SURE that my generation is thrown a life raft, and the next generation is taken care of more progressively than mine."
He added that policymakers have to start learning from their mistakes and "invest in education, mend our crumbling infrastructure, and address affordable housing now before we spiral even more out of control."
Transforming Our Two-Party System
As I mentioned already, one of the topics on Peter Smith's issues page is reforming the two-party system. The need for broad structural reform is something most Americans agree is needed at both the state and federal level.
Smith says while growing up in Greece and having family in the UK, he had an opportunity to see how other democratic systems operate and says it is time we move to a more accountable and representative system.
"The only way to get anything more equitable is proportional representation," he said. "There must be a place for more than two parties to hold office. It's lowering vote thresholds. It's lowering percentages to win elections."
He believes a comprehensive reform movement is needed, but says the first thing is to give voters a viable third option in elections.
"If we have a first-past-the-post system, it will always favor a two-party system. That is why we designed it that way so that we could silence the factions that were rising around the time we created the system," he remarked.
Would Colorado be willing to experiment with some type of proportional representation system? Smith believes so, and says that creating that type of coalition government is needed for better cooperation across party aisles.
People Come First, Not Parties
As we neared the end of our discussion, Smith explained to me that his opponents are not keeping their focus on where it needs to be. He says they are out fighting Donald Trump or pushing for universal health care.
Meanwhile, his district and other parts of the state are in the middle of a housing crisis and Colorado's infrastructure is crumbling. It's a precarious combination that will have devastating consequences if not effectively addressed by state policymakers.
"If you can't drive to work, and you have no place to live, all the other political issues tend to wash away," Smith remarked.
He believes that prioritizing these issues in particular will help stabilize his community. It is about putting the immediate needs and concerns of voters before party narratives or issues that can be put on hold.
Smith needs 600 signatures to qualify for the general election. He had until the middle of July to collect them, and feels confident that he will be on the November ballot. You can find out more about his campaign by visiting his website.