The polarization in government that we were working to reverse only got worse in the years to come. Two parties that once were able to come together to do big things like enact Social Security (1935), build a highway system (1956), and reform welfare (1996) now seemed unable to even agree on a basic set facts at a time when our country faced increasingly large challenges. By 2011, the once-broad ideological overlap between members of Congress in both parties entirely disappeared; the center could not hold.
In 2010, I took a leave from school to join Americans Elect, which sought to nominate a bipartisan ticket for president and vice-president through the first-ever online convention in the next election. I organized with hundreds of college students and reached thousands of supporters across the country who believed there was a better way than what both parties were offering. Our message struck a chord.
Although Americans Elect fell short of its ambitious goal, I was inspired by the large swath of the country that desired bipartisan progress and turned my focus to the issue I cared most about: our growing national debt.
Our federal budget, in particular, demonstrates just how broken our politics has become. As we continue to spend more than we take in, our already $19 trillion debt will grow to unsustainable levels, threatening our future security and prosperity. Virtually every non-partisan analysis indicates that a solution entails a mix of revenue increases through economic growth and tax reform, and spending decreases through budget cuts and entitlement reform. It’s simple math.
Yet, Republicans resist any tax increases and Democrats resist any entitlement cuts. Unwilling and unable to find common ground, they kick the can down the road, while the underlying problem continues to compound with time.
So I co-founded an organization in 2012 called “The Can Kicks Back” to help pressure both sides to enact a grand bargain. Mid-way through a cross-country tour we organized to build grassroots support for reform in the fall of 2013, however, the government shut down as both parties reached an impasse over the budget for that fiscal year. Any hope of a long-term deficit reduction agreement disappeared. It became clear to me that unless and until we fundamentally fix our political system, we will never be able to fix any of the problems we face, our budget included.
Within months, I was back in Milford, PA collecting signatures – except, this time, it was to get my name on the ballot as an independent candidate for U.S. Congress. I decided to challenge the Tea Party Republican incumbent, Rep. Tom Marino, who played a key role in the shutdown. Although I did not realize it until writing this blog, the tagline of my campaign was the final line of the petition I circulated as a high school student: America Deserves Better.
I saw up close all of the incentives that push our elected officials to the extremes. First, the money. The incumbent bankrolled his campaign with over a half million dollars from special interest PACs – many of which were single-issue groups. Second, the media. After a verbal tussle on the House floor with Rep. Nancy Pelosi that breached decorum, the Congressman was rewarded with significant free media from right wing news outlets. Third, the electoral mechanics. In our gerrymandered district, the fired up Republicans who vote in the party’s closed primary were the only voters the incumbent had to care about winning to get re-elected.
I made my pitch to the voters that as an independent, citizen-funded candidate, I would instead be able to represent all the voters and work with both sides of the aisle to solve problems. The message resonated across the spectrum. However, through this process, I also encountered the big structural and psychological obstacles independents face.
On one hand, I had no pre-existing bench of vendors to hire, volunteers to recruit, or donors to contact. On the other hand, voters were skeptical an independent could win, so they were hesitant to lend their support. In the end, I earned 22,000 votes or about 13% – triple the average vote share an independent typically receives but still far from what is necessary to win.
Down but not out, I flew to San Francisco two months after my campaign to attend my first Founders Circle meeting for Unite America. I found a group of smart, passionate, and committed individuals who believed, like I do, that independents can be a critical part to fixing our politics. They also recognized that we must invest in building a brand, network, and infrastructure in order to help independent candidates run successful campaigns.
Most importantly, the organization’s “Fulcrum Strategy” struck me as a brilliant hack to the system that made its goal realistic, achievable, and hugely impactful. I was sold.
Nearly two years after meeting Unite America and ten years after I began my journey into political reform, I am now tremendously honored and excited to take on a new role as our Executive Director. I believe both the necessity and opportunity for Unite America has never been greater, especially after the most recent election. Like the organization, I have learned many lessons to apply to our work going forward, and have many new ideas about how we can leverage our strong foundation to retool and relaunch our effort for elections to come.
Most of all, as I look at politics today, I’m more convinced than ever that America deserves better.