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Independent Party Growing Fast In Oregon

Oregon’s newest and fastest growing party is one that many voters didn’t know was even a formal political party. 

The Independent Party of Oregon has grown to nearly 5000 members since it began in January.  That’s Independent with a capitol “I”, as Colin Fogarty reports.

The Independent Party was born from outrage.  The petitioners who launched the party in January were incensed by two bills approved by the Oregon Legislature in 2005.

One measure made it extremely difficult for   candidates not affiliated with a party to collect enough signatures to qualify for the statewide ballot.

The second bill removed the term "independent" altogether from those parentheses on the ballot that identify a candidate’s party.  Rather than independent with a small “I”, those candidates are now only identified as nonaffilliated.

Linda Williams:  "And we thought thought that was outrageous.  Nonaffiliated sounds like some kind of loner, who just got on the ballot."

So Portland attorney Linda Williams and a few fellow activists set out to create a vehicle for candidates to run as Independents, with a capitol “I”.  

Linda Williams: "We wanted to reclaim that name.  It’s a proud tradition in Oregon to both think independently and to act independently."

The Independent Party has a few issues to hang their hats on – ethics reform, campaign finance reform. Linda Williams says her own politics are a mix of positions that range from liberal to libertarian to fiscally conservative.  But she says the Independent Party itself will not have what she calls “absolute litmus tests”.

Linda Williams:  "We’re trying to get away from that, give people the opportunity and the breathing space to say, what issues can we come together on?  And once we have candidates, we’re hoping that voters at large will look at these folks and respect the fact that they’re coming to the process in a way that brings important sunshine into what’s become kind of gladiator events."

The Independent Party has at least one candidate for the U.S. Senate.  Earlier this month, Oregon State University professor John Frohnmayer launched his bid he said was in the tradition of Wayne Morse, Tom McCall, and Mark Hatfield.

John Frohnmayer:  "We have respected those leaders who are independent, who are people of action, who say what they think and do what they say.  They were accountable."

Frohnmayer hasn’t won the Independent Party nomination yet.  That will require some nominating process such as a caucus or convention.  Linda Williams is hoping to do an internet straw poll.

The idea has attracted Former Eugene Mayor Jim Torrey.  He was a moderate Republican.  Last year, he lost a bruising and expensive battle for the state Senate against Democrat Vicki Walker.

Jim Torrey:  "And what were the issues in the campaign?  I’m a Republican and she’s a Democrat.  Those were the issues.  The perception is if you’re a Republican you believe everything that the Republicans believe it.  That’s not true.  To my knowledge, I don’t think I’ve ever voted a straight party ticket."

Torrey’s habit of choosing the candidate over the party is common in Oregon. In fact, about a quarter of voters are not affiliated with any party.  And as many as a third identify themselves as somewhere between the left and the right.

But to Oregon State University political science chair Bill Lunch, a party is more than just a label.  It’s a coalition of interest groups, the kind of coalitions small parties have trouble assembling.

Bill Lunch: "The difficulty is stitching together positions on the economy – how far should the government regulate – and on social control – how far should the government regulate people’s personal behavior – the devil’s in the details. It’s always exceedingly difficult for candidates to put those pieces together."

That doesn’t discourage new members of the Independent Party.  As former Eugene Mayor Jim Torry puts it…

Jim Torrey: "No, I don’t believe an Independent Party candidate is the next general statewide election has any chance of succeed.  But I do think that the discussion that might exist would be very worthwhile in the state of Oregon."

Bill Lunch adds that Independent Party of Oregon has one more obstacle – its own name.  Some voters may accidently sign up thinking they’re not affiliating with any formal party.  But  Independent Party organizers point out that Oregon’s voter registration card lists their organization as a party.

Another box is labeled “not a member of any party”.

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