NEW YORK, 2:07 – For a full eight hours last Saturday, voters from across the country who decided they would be neither part of the Democratic Party nor the Republican Party huddled together in the Skirball Auditorium at New York University to discuss a central premise.
At roughly the same time most media attention fell to the political conservatives gathered at the D.C. confab known as CPAC, a cluster of independents gathered on a cold New York day to strategize if, indeed, they could reform America.
It’s a question that many are pondering, particularly as the task got increasingly harder after Jan. 19, 2009. Exhausted and exhilarated, many progressive voters who had rallied to some degree for a new era in government for and by the people drifted back to the sidelines. While President Obama warned the heavy lift of the 2008 elections was just the first of many, his exhortation seemed to fall on deaf ears – much like his promise to push for school reform through non-Democratic means such as merit pay for teachers or his pledge to intensify the fight in Afghanistan, as the “right” war to battle in the Middle East.
Exhaustion led to frustration among progressives when partisan puppet-masters started pulling strings double-time to halt Obama’s popular momentum and clear national mandate for change. And the key barometer has been the pulse of the independent movement. Their indifference toward the Democratic majorities in Congress demonstrated dissatisfaction of extraordinary depth and volatility.
After all, some 1 in 3 Americans call themselves independent outright, according to a recent Pew Research Center survey, heightening the importance of the gathering at Skirball last Saturday.
Part updates, part education, part pep rally, the daylong conference sought to convene independents from across the country – itself somewhat of an ironic proposal considering that independents don’t like to be corralled any more than wayward cats. Still, the answer from those assembled to the question of the day, not surprisingly, was ‘Yes.”
Be it the man who traveled from the snow and cold of Utah just to meet with the snow and cold of New York or the woman from neighboring New Jersey who sought affirmation from fellow independents, those who gathered absorbed the day with a renewed sense of unity, as well as purpose. They were crusaders, bent on a mission of saving the country from its partisan self and reinvigorating the independent spirit they glimpsed in a man audacious enough to think he could be the nation’s first African-American president.
"We want to see change in how the system operates,” said Jackie Salit, president of IndependentVoting.org, sponsor of the conference, Salit had helped manage Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s winning independent run for a third term at the helm of New York.
“We are the country. We don’t have to ‘take it back.’ We do have to take control of our democracy,” she told the audience. “This has been hijacked by the political parties. We believe in creative self-governing activities, with or without a party.”
Heads nodded as she provided an overview, a state of independency, as it were. If anything, this gathering felt more like a business conference than a political one. There were tables set up just beyond the auditorium’s doors with information leaflets on activities in unlikely areas such as blood-red Texas and books for sale, authored by independent movement heroes such as Fred Newman and Lenora Fulani.
Many of the attendees seemed to be on a first-name basis with one another, hugging and chatting with each other as if at a class reunion or an annual revival. Newbies to the room said they felt at ease.
"This conference is confirmation of the direction I want to go,” said Pamela Talbert Hamilton, a Columbus, Ohio native who now calls Jamaica, Queens home. “I want to see my country better. I want to vote for who I want to vote for.
“My community is in shambles,” said Hamilton, a first-time conference attendee. “Elders don’t have health care or transportation. We need to work to enhance the lives of human beings through a broader political system. I want to do that however I can do that, damn a party.”
There are central tenets for which this group advocates. Open or abolished primaries. Non-political redistricting. Unencumbered access for third-party candidates as opposed to the strenuous hoops most states impose. Those are to start.
“There are structural issues of the political system we want to address,” insisted David Cherry, a Chicago-based activist who turned to independent politics early in his adult life. “When you have candidates that don’t have to identify with a party, it frees you to look at all possible solutions.”
As a youngster, he was angered by a political system that allowed kids suffering in schools with broken windows and communities stripped of clinics to be the norm rather than the exception. While there may be well-meaning people in the process, “it always gets into, ‘Can my party win this next election?’ It’s about winning elections and power more than anything else,” Cherry said.
What results, he said, is a system so polluted, when things break down, the easy solution is to promise to do better than the other guy, along with pointing to the other party as the impediment to progress.
“Without being able to affect the process, we won’t ever be able to do anything about poverty,” said Cherry, who works in youth development programs on Chicago’s South Side. “We won’t ever be able to figure out what to do about the economy. It doesn’t lend itself to a substantive dialogue.”
The latest battle to block health care reform efforts provides such an illustration.
A key proposal that emanated from Republican minds two decades ago and now proposed by a Democratic president may well wind up in the U.S. Supreme Court, egged on by Republican opposition.
And so on.
That’s not to say the independent movement has been without its own ideological struggles.
After Ross Perot’s indie presidential bid went down in flames, a heated battle for control of the Reform Party he helped assemble ensued. A righteous knock-down-drag-out between left- and right-leaning factions erupted. Pat Buchanan and his team won, but lost majorly at the polls. Few indies lent their support to his campaign, many complaining that he hijacked the movement in hopes of garnering more troops for his culture wars.
Yet billionaire Democrat-turned-Republican-turned-Independent Michael Bloomberg is seen as a more authentic figure within this circle. In the eyes of the assembled, that’s reflected in the votes garnered for the three-time mayor – or even the fact that he is a three-time mayor. New York City had a two-term limit imposed on its mayors prior to Bloomberg; he persuaded city council to shift that view, just in time for his third run.
“A lot of politicians have the same attitude,” said Newman, who along with Fulani, helped to create the New Alliance Party in New York and stumped for Bloomberg. “Use them and then abandon them, after I’ve gotten their votes. Let me tell you the one person who hasn’t done that. It doesn’t mean we agree on everything, but Mike Bloomberg has never abandoned independent politics.”
The Frederick Douglass adage that “power concedes nothing without a demand” lies almost like a silent score to this event, and to the actions of these activists and converts.
The madness unleashed by tea partiers clearly pushed one part to its edges. Independents here said they had no such aspirations. They say they’d rather push the system toward a fuller democracy, a more perfect union.