Independents and Third-Party Legislators Are Succeeding by Staying Outside of Party Lines
By John Mahoney
Let’s begin by recognizing the obvious—serving as an independent or third-party legislator in the United States is a tough gig, but getting elected in the first place is even harder. Over the past 20 years, on average, only 21 of the nation’s 7,334 state legislative seats have been held by members who identify as something other than Democrat or Republican. That’s less than a third of 1 percent. (Nebraska’s 49 seats are not included as they are held by nonpartisan senators.)
There’s no mystery behind this statistic; it is notoriously difficult for candidates not associated with either major party to get on the ballot in the first place, and even when they do, their relative lack of funding and support, compared with major-party candidates, often puts them at a severe disadvantage by the time Election Day rolls around.
Over the past five years, however, the number of members not associated with either of the two major parties has begun to grow. And that includes a slow but visible increase in the number of independent and third-party members serving in state legislatures. As of June 2018, 38 state legislators identified as either independent or a member of a third party—easily the highest in decades. This reflects a January 2018 Gallup poll that found a historic number of Americans now say they are independent (42 percent, significantly higher than those identifying as Democrat or Republican). How do these “outsiders” survive, and often flourish, in the world of partisan politics? Here’s what a few had to say.
Maine Representative Kent Ackley
“Something tells me this is how politics used to be done, perhaps how it’s supposed to be done—focusing on building personal relationships with people with whom you have a difference.”
—Representative Kent Ackley
Ackley just finished his first term as an independent in the Maine House. A small-business owner and registered Maine guide by trade, Ackley decided to run for office in 2016 under the label “Common Sense Independent.” (In Maine, independent candidates can run under three words that best fit their political philosophy.) Driven to run by a desire to serve as a true citizen legislator, in a state that has long valued its tradition of part-time, citizen-oriented politics, Ackley hoped to harness his position as an independent to strengthen civility and honesty in the Legislature, which has been sharply divided in recent years.
When elected in 2016, Ackley made up one half of the independent presence in the House. Alongside independent Representative Owen Casas, also a new member, Ackley found himself immediately thrown into a turbulent pool of partisan politics. But, following a handful of defections from both sides of the aisle, Ackley and Casas formed a loose caucus of seven independent and third-party legislators.
“All of a sudden we find ourselves being the difference between a majority for either side,” Ackley says. “It gave us much more leverage in terms of the policymaking process. … I think people started paying us a little bit more attention.”
With newfound attention and influence, this small and philosophically diverse group needed to find a way to work together. “Becoming independents didn’t change who these folks were, it didn’t necessarily change the way they voted,” Ackley says, “but what it did change was their ability to have conversations that don’t usually happen in divided governments.”
Rather than focusing on their differences as individuals and legislators, the group decided it was “OK to disagree, let’s just not be disagreeable.” He knew that group members wouldn’t always find themselves on the same side of every debate, but he was comfortable telling his colleagues, “Let’s talk it through, let me understand what it is you’re trying to get at in terms of values, and I’ll tell you my side of the story.”
This simple, civil approach proved effective, as the group reached consensus on several key issues, notably those surrounding the 2016 referendum on ranked-choice voting, which had sharply divided the Legislature. While not always voting as a bloc, the seven regularly came together to discuss legislative business and serve as effective policymakers while remaining outside of party lines. Ackley proudly notes, “Something tells me this is how politics used to be done, perhaps how it’s supposed to be done—focusing on building personal relationships with people with whom you have a difference.”
Ackley is encouraged by the number of other independents and third-party candidates running in his state this fall. He hopes to continue working with independent and partisan members to foster stronger personal relationships and to craft policies that best address Mainers’ needs.
Louisiana Representative Joe Marino
“I’ve always voted for individuals, not the letter next to their name, and I’d like my constituents to do the same.”
—Representative Joe Marino
Marino, a criminal defense attorney and lifelong resident of the district he serves, is a first-term member of the Louisiana House. Elected in 2016 by special election, Marino ran as an independent because he’s been one for close to two decades and didn’t feel that joining a party would make him a better legislator.
“I ran for judge in 1999 in Jefferson Parish as an independent, because I wanted to send the message that party affiliation isn’t part of a judge’s job,” Marino says, “and ever since I’ve grown more comfortable being an independent. I’ve always voted for individuals, not the letter next to their name, and I’d like my constituents to do the same.”
As an attorney, Marino was energized by the major criminal justice reform efforts taking place in the Legislature when he arrived. It was natural for him to join the efforts, and he found his position as an independent to be a major advantage throughout the process.
“By the end, I had become one of the main mediators between the parties,” he says. “I was able to get people to the table from opposing viewpoints and get them to sit down and talk through the issues until we were at some type of consensus.” Marino’s legal experience instilled a desire to approach debate with complete transparency and objectivity, something he feels would not be as easy to achieve if he were a major-party member.
Marino has discovered that not everyone is as comfortable with his independent status as he is. “Oh, I’ve been called everything from a ‘horrible Republican’ to a ‘sorry excuse for a Democrat,’” he says with a laugh. What he can’t laugh off is the all-too-common assumption that being an independent means he doesn’t stand for anything. “I have some very strong views and beliefs; just because I don’t align them into a partisan box doesn’t mean I don’t have them,” he says. “Sometimes fitting those beliefs inside of a box means you’re not doing good by your district and your constituents.”
Marino isn’t calling for his colleagues to abandon their parties en masse; rather, he wants to see more members step outside their ideological constraints from time to time, especially when faced with tough issues.
“I just want people to be able to make independent decisions and be willing to engage people that think differently than they do,” he says, suggesting that legislators should start with the basics: getting to know their colleagues—who they are, where they’re from and who they represent. “From there,” he says, “you can start to understand what is important to them and to their district, and why they vote the way they do.”
Vermont Representative Robin Chestnut-Tangerman
“Politics really is personal, and if you prove you are someone people can trust, other members will want to work with you.”
—Representative Robin Chestnut-Tangerman
For Chestnut-Tangerman, the Progressive Party’s caucus leader in the Vermont House, legislative success is all about exhibiting quality of character. “If you can prove you are principled and trustworthy, then you can attract people,” he says. “Even in politics.”
The state’s Progressive Party is currently the most successful third party in the United States (measured by the number of offices held at national, state and local levels). A fact that even Chestnut-Tangerman has a hard time believing, due to the party’s small size and local nature. With 23 officeholders, including 10 legislators, the lieutenant governor and a handful of local officials, the party’s recent success has forced Vermont to become something of a three-party state. Chestnut-Tangerman puts the party’s success down to Vermont’s tradition of participatory democracy.
“We put a lot of store in the idea of the town meeting here, of true participatory democracy—you could say it’s part of our state mythology,” he says.
He argues that, unlike some other third parties founded on an innate mistrust of government, the Progressive Party is rooted in an inherent belief in the power of government when harnessed correctly.
Chestnut-Tangerman recognizes that Vermont’s political culture makes it easier for him and his Progressive colleagues to be elected to his state’s legislature than it is for independents and third-party members to be elected in their states. But that doesn’t mean being a successful legislator is a straightforward task.
“If you’re an independent or third-party member, it’s easy to feel—and, in fact, be— marginalized,” he says. “You just don’t have the structure or information provided to you that would be available as a part of the major parties.”
He strongly believes, however, that by presenting yourself as an individual of integrity, willing to fight when necessary but ready to collaborate when the time comes, anyone can succeed in the legislature, regardless of party label (or lack thereof). “Politics really is personal, and if you prove you are someone people can trust, other members will want to work with you … and, at the end of the day, that’s how you really make an impact.”
With both major parties polling unfavorably with more than half the public in the most recent Gallup surveys, it would be no great surprise to see an increase in the number of independent or third-party candidates elected in November.
The candidates who make it to the statehouse for the first time may often feel as if they are on the outside looking in. But if they consider the advice of Ackley, Marino and Chestnut-Tangerman, and use their lack of partisan attachment to build trust, foster friendships and serve as objective mediators, there is no reason they cannot effectively serve their districts while remaining outside of party lines.
John Mahoney is a policy specialist in NCSL’s Center for Legislative Strengthening.