A group of seven men and four women gathered around a rented conference table in downtown Denver Wednesday sketching a plan to disrupt Colorado politics in 2018.
They call themselves the Centrist Project, and their goal is to win five of the 100 seats in Colorado’s state legislature in 2018 – denying both Republicans and Democrats a majority.
“And then to be able to use that leverage to bring both sides back to the center to engage in some real problem solving,” Executive Director Nick Troiano said.
If they’re successful, it would upend the traditional, political hierarchy in Denver and potentially change how laws are crafted in Colorado.
That’s what happened in Alaska in 2016.
Two unaffiliated candidates were elected to the Alaska House of Representatives – taking away control from the Republicans who held that chamber for more than 20 years.
The independents formed a coalition with Democrats and moderate Republicans with the goal of solving the state’s budget crisis.
It changed how politics worked in The Land of the Midnight Sun, and Troiano is cautiously optimistic it can be replicated here in Colorado.
The Centrist Project is a national organization founded in 2014 on the principles outlined in a book called “The Centrist Manifesto” by Dartmouth public policy professor Charles Wheelan.
What drew the group to the Centennial State was a study published in early 2017 from professors at the University of Houston and Princeton University that showed Colorado has the most polarized legislature in the country.
Basically, that means the political space between the most conservative Democrat and liberal Republican is greater in Colorado than in any statehouse in the nation.
“If there is a place that has a need and an opportunity for independents to help bridge that divide, we think it’s right here in Colorado,” Troiano said.
To do that, Troiano’s started assembling a team in Colorado that includes political operatives from both major parties.
Shelbi Lewark, the group’s candidate recruitment director, used to work for the Colorado GOP and helped elect Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colorado).
Kathleen Curry, a former Democrat and Colorado state representative, now sits on the Centrist Project’s Colorado steering committee.
And the group claims it’s raised about $600,000.
“We are building right now the infrastructure necessary to help independents run competitive races,” Troiano said. “So, they have a strong team; they have a network to go to that might support them as well as some of the campaign infrastructure.”
The next step is to recruit candidates for the five races.
Troiano wouldn’t share what seats the group is targeting, saying he wants to get candidates in place first. Anyone who plans to run as an independent must register as unaffiliated in Colorado by the end of the year.
The project faces an uphill battle in Colorado.
No unaffiliated candidate has ever won a seat in the Colorado Legislature but plenty have tried.
Part of the problem is convincing voters that unaffiliated candidates can win. The other road block is the major political parties, which dispute the idea that Colorado lawmakers can’t work together.
“While I think we can all agree that Congress is broken and what’s going on in Washington D.C. is unacceptable to basically everyone, these out-of-state folks seem to have a solution in search of a problem,” ProgressNow Colorado Executive Director Ian Silverii said.
He pointed to laws passed during the 2017 session on K-12 funding, construction defects litigation and hospital provider fees as proof Colorado Republicans and Democrats are capable of cooperation.
“If you think there’s gridlock now, wait until nobody is in the majority,” Colorado GOP spokesman Daniel Cole said.
The state Republican Party doesn’t take any seat for granted though.
“Groups like this serve to remind the two major parties that we have to be for something, not just against the other guys,” Cole said. “The Republican Party believes in the virtue of competition, not only in the marketplace but in the political arena.”
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