Daniel Lipinski: Instead of running for Congress, I want to help build the emerging ‘Independents Movement’

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As we head into the midterm elections, only 13% of Americans say they are “satisfied with the way things are going in the U.S.,” the second-lowest percentage in the 43 years that Gallup has been asking this question. President Joe Biden’s job approval rating continues to decline and has fallen under 40%, according to FiveThirtyEight, while the Democratic Party’s approval stands only slightly higher at 43%, YouGov notes. But the only alternative on most Americans’ ballots this fall will be a standard-bearer of the Republican Party, which has an even more dismal approval rating under 41%.

This is what prompted me to consider a run for Congress as an independent in Illinois’ 6th Congressional District after serving 16 years in the House as a Democrat. More than 35 unpaid volunteers joined the “Draft Dan” campaign and worked hundreds of hours collecting signatures from Villa Park to Tinley Park. On Saturday, they delivered enough signatures to qualify me for the ballot. I am humbled by, and very thankful for, the tremendous support. However, after careful consideration I have decided to forgo a run this year. Instead, I will focus my attention on helping build the emerging “Independents Movement.” I already have had discussions with U.S. Rep. Adam Kinzinger about teaming up in this effort.

Americans are crying out for an alternative to the two-party duopoly that controls politics and government. In 2020, voters gave the Democratic Party control of Congress and the White House. Now, a year and a half later, these same voters look ready to toss them out. But the only place they have to turn is to the party they put in charge in 2016 and soured on just as quickly.

Americans are also unhappy that most members of Congress blindly vote with their party’s increasingly extreme agenda rather than representing the varied and localized interests of their constituents. The parties act as if there are only two types of Americans — “red thinkers” and “blue thinkers” — which fails to represent the country’s great diversity.

After I announced recently that I was considering running this year, officials and operatives in both parties quickly reached out to try to dissuade me. Clearly, I struck a nerve. Party leaders know very well how to send operatives from Washington into a district to wage poll-tested slash-and-burn campaigns to tear down the other side, hoping their candidate is viewed by voters as the lesser of two evils. They understand that an independent candidate vying for the support of commonsense voters who are fed up with both sides upsets this strategy and could attract enough votes to win.

Andrew Yang, former Democratic presidential candidate and founder of the Forward Party, speaks during the Milken Institute Global Conference on Oct. 20, 2021, in Beverly Hills, California. (Patrick T. Fallon/AFP-Getty)

This is why independent candidates and organizations are proliferating. Last year, former Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang created the Forward Party to boost independents. Republican U.S. Sen. Mitt Romney recently penned a piece for The Atlantic in which he attacks both the left and the right for not attending to the real threats facing our country and calls for a “president who can rise above the din to unite us behind the truth.” The New York Times reported that a group of donors is looking to raise money and recruit Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin to run for president as an independent along with a Republican running mate. This group may also be looking to support candidates running for Congress in 2024 and perhaps start a new party.

Historically, independent candidates have not been successful because of the organizational and institutional structures that give the two parties significant advantages and oftentimes rig the system in their favor. An Independents Movement could help change this. It could bolster existing organizations and create new ones to support independents seeking office. A mass independent movement could also organize and support grassroots movements of Americans fed up with the two parties, recruit volunteers to work on campaigns, raise money for independent candidates and give hope to the vast majority of Americans who want better leadership for our country.

There are myriad election laws that handicap independent candidates that this movement could work to change. For example, Illinois requires independents to turn in the signatures of 5,000 registered voters to qualify for the ballot in congressional elections while Democrats and Republicans need only 400. Primary systems could be reformed so they no longer disadvantage independents and encourage and reward the most extreme candidates. One model is Alaska, which is conducting an election to fill a vacant congressional seat by using a nonpartisan primary with the top four vote-getters moving on to a general election that uses ranked choice voting.

Thanks to grassroots activism locally, Berwyn and Evanston are considering using ranked choice voting in elections in order to encourage candidates who seek common ground. Partisan gerrymandering of districts also should be eliminated because it cuts down on electoral competition and all but ensures that one party’s primary election will choose the representative in most districts.

A lone independent voice in Congress could be good for the district and have a positive impact on the country, but an Independents Movement that could bring about a sea change in American politics is even more vital. The movement is growing, and perhaps in 2024, two years before America’s semiquincentennial, we will see a “Spirit of ’24″ in which independents revolutionize our failing party system and put our country back on the right track.

Daniel Lipinski was U.S. representative for Illinois’ 3rd Congressional District from 2005 through January 2021.

Submit a letter, of no more than 400 words, to the editor here or email letters@chicagotribune.com.

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July 11, 2022 at 05:41PM

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