A group of political independents led by outgoing Dayton Mayor Gary Leitzell and frequent candidate William Pace are forming a political action committee to support independent candidates in Montgomery County.
Before 20 people attended the Montgomery County Independents’ first meeting Monday, Pace wrote that independents can find strength in numbers and be “the voice of the people.” Leitzell said a major goal of the group is to get more qualified people who are not beholden to the Democratic or Republican party to run for local office, giving voters more choices.
“Nobody should ever run uncontested,” said Leitzell, who plans to run for County Commission next year. “Competition is good, and it creates a better product. Uncontested races create mediocre politicians.”
The November election saw some races crowded with candidates, such as races for Dayton mayor, Springboro school board and Miami Twp. trustees. But there were also numerous uncontested races, including Beavercreek city council, Northmont school board, and both the school board and city council races in Kettering.
While those races lacked any choice of candidates, most of Montgomery County was lacking in voters. Countywide voter turnout Nov. 5 was only 23.8 percent, well below the historical average of roughly 40 percent for an odd-year election.
“Right now, with the low voter turnout, I think people have lost hope in the system,” Leitzell said. “And I see this as an opportunity to let people know that hope is out there, because there are people who are probably better qualified than those who are anointed by the parties, and we need to inspire those people to take charge and run.”
Pace wrote in a press release that the independents group could help candidates with everything from fundraising and campaign management to public speaking and legal issues — topics that the local Republican and Democrat parties often address with their candidates.
Parties at work
Most city and school races are nonpartisan elections, meaning the candidates’ party affiliation is not listed on the ballot. The campaign phrase “there’s no party label on a pothole” is sometimes used to argue that the local focus should be on governing, not politics.
But that doesn’t mean the parties are not involved. Former Montgomery County Republican Party Chairman Greg Gantt said encouraging more people to run for office is a good thing, although it’s a challenge, even with the backing of an established political party.
“We spent hours and hours of breakfasts and lunches trying to talk people into running,” Gantt said of his time leading the county party. “What they’ll very quickly find out is that it’s way more time than you ever thought, way less money than you ever thought, and you’re throwing yourself into the public arena, where everything, your life, your finances (are scrutinized). I’ve met so many people who would be great candidates, who when they watch what happens, they say no thanks.”
Mark Owens, chairman of the Montgomery County Democratic Party, said some of the independent group’s distaste for the two main political parties is misplaced.
“The party is not some monolith; it’s a group of people who share certain values,” Owens said. “If they think they’re independents and they all have shared interests, whether they want to call it that or not, it’s basically a political party. … And candidates could (feel) beholden to this new group, too.”
Owens said it’s not out of place for the Democratic or Republican Party to be involved in local government. He said there are issues that come up locally where the crucial values of political parties come into play, such as education issues or human services, public safety, or the way people are treated as employees.
Leitzell said the political party structure hinders independent candidates in Ohio, arguing that Republican- and Democrat-staffed county boards of election see independents as a threat to their candidates. As an independent candidate, Leitzell must turn in 1,852 valid signatures to get on the 2014 county commission ballot, while any Democrat or Republican needs only 50.
Steve Harsman, deputy director of the Montgomery County Board of Elections, said both BOE staffing and signature requirements are set by state law that gives preference to the “major political parties” as set by election results. Harsman and county Elections Director Jan Kelly, a Republican, said they do not try to hinder independents.
“We take an oath to do our job. It’s a very serious oath, and it has legal ramifications if we don’t follow that oath,” Harsman said. “I accepted this job to represent all Montgomery County citizens.”
How partisan are we?
Leitzell cited national frustration with gridlock in Washington, and argued that 40 percent of Americans would classify themselves as independents or centrists looking for something better.
Matt Filipic, a visiting professor of political science at Wright State University, said Leitzell’s estimate has some validity, but that the issue is complicated. He agreed that 40 percent of survey respondents will first identify themselves as independents. But when asked further, all but 10 percent will clarify that they’re definitely closer to one major party than the other, Filipic said.
And election results in recent partisan races show that when push comes to shove, almost all voters choose the Democrat or Republican over an independent candidate.
Filipic said some recent national groups have tried to do what the Montgomery County Independents are doing, pointing to Americans Elect, which adopted the slogan, “Pick a president, not a party.” There was also the “No Labels” group that launched in 2010, with the mission to “move America from the old politics of point-scoring toward a new politics of problem-solving.”
But Filipic said those groups have not gained much traction.
Gantt argued that despite current frustration, America’s two-party system is better than multi-party systems in other nations.
“It’s a free country, and (the independents) can do what they want. With a few of those individuals, it seems they never seem to take the time to learn how to work within the respective party systems. They just want to fight it all the time. … I think it’s much more productive to join the group and work from within. … And if the Republican or Democrat headquarters people don’t want to endorse you, challenge them in a primary and beat them.”