Centrist Project launches initial Colorado slate of unaffiliated legislative candidates, announces name change

The nonprofit formerly known as the Centrist Project, a group working to elect nonpartisan officials nationwide, on Monday unveiled a slate of four unaffiliated Colorado candidates running this year for the Legislature in the opening salvo of its assault on the two major parties’ unbroken rule of the state’s government. It also announced it’s changing its name to Unite America and will call the state-focused organization Unite Colorado.

The slate includes challengers against the No. 2 Republican in the Senate and a House Democrat — Senate Majority Leader Chris Holbert, R-Parker, in Senate District 30, and state Rep. Matt Gray, D-Broomfield, in House District 33 — and two candidates for open House seats currently held by Democrats, in El Paso County’s House District 18 and Adams County’s House District 31. Those seats are represented by state Reps. Pete Lee, D-Colorado Springs, a candidate for an open Senate seat, and Joe Salazar, D-Thornton, a candidate for attorney general, respectively.

“For the first time in Colorado’s history, there is a credible, competitive and coordinated slate of independent candidates running to put the people before the parties,” said Nick Troiano, the group’s executive director, in a statement.

The candidates Unite Colorado announced Monday are: management consultant Steve Peterson of Roxborough Park, who is taking on Holbert; Gray’s challenger Jay Geyer, a university professor of philosophy and Army veteran; financial advisor and civic leader Maile Foster in House District 18; and Thornton City Councilman and funeral director Eric Montoya in House District 31.

Of the four, only Montoya has held elected office. All four belonged to major parties within the last year, with Peterson and Geyer having been registered Republicans, while Foster and Montoya were most recently Democrats, according to voter registration records.

“We wouldn’t have been able to get to this point without a near universal recognition that this is an idea whose time has come,” Troiano told Colorado Politics in an interview. “People realize it because the system is broken and they know that supporting independent leaders is an effective short-term solution to that problem.”

Troiano said the organization is on track to raise and spend more than $1 million on what he termed candidate recruitment and support for its Colorado legislative candidates — including a small donor committee, the nonprofit’s Colorado-focused budget and an independent expenditure committee.

“We will have the resources to ensure the message gets out, and I believe the candidates will as well, as we plan to make our Colorado and national network aware of these candidates,” he said.

The group will be fielding additional candidates before the November election.

“We spent most of 2017 identifying and recruiting potential candidates across the state,” Troiano said. He noted that his organizers contacted more than 2,000 potential candidates, eventually winnowing the list to about a dozen who participated in a six-week training program. The four announced Monday emerged from that process, he said. “But there are many more potential candidates in the pipeline whom we know, and, I believe, many more potential candidates will step forward when they see others running and that it’s viable. We expect we will have more candidates in the weeks and months to come.”

“We are playing the long game,” he added.

The organization, founded in 2013, set up its national headquarters in Denver a year ago with the aim of breaking the 140-year hold Republicans and Democrats have maintained on the state’s General Assembly. Since statehood, Troiano likes to point out, Colorado hasn’t elected a single unaffiliated or third-party lawmaker, even though a slim plurality of the state’s registered voters don’t belong to any political party.

The group picked Colorado’s narrowly divided Legislature — Republicans control the Senate by a single seat, while Democrats hold a 36-27 majority in the House, including GOP seat that is awaiting a vacancy appointment to fill — to test its contention that a sufficient number of voters fed up with partisan wrangling and gridlock will elect independent candidates who have the kind of financial and organizational backing typically only available to major party nominees.

If that part works, the state could turn into a laboratory for Centrist Project founder Charlie Wheelan’s “fulcrum strategy,” which proposes that a handful of unaligned lawmakers can deny either party the majority and steer lawmakers toward what the group calls common-sense solutions to problems the parties won’t tackle.

Polling commissioned by the group found that 53 percent of likely state voters believe both parties are to blame for not working together to solve problems, and 28 percent called breaking through gridlock and political dysfunction their top criterion for backing a candidate this year. Eighty-five percent said they’re open to supporting an independent legislative candidate.

“We see that as the base of support for independents candidates who run as reform-minded candidates,” Troiano told Colorado Politics late last year. “It doesn’t really matter to voters of that bloc where you stand on the issues, or even if you align with them on issues. It matters that you’re fundamentally different than the people in office now.”

Although Unite America and its local version disdain what they characterize as the major parties’ litmus tests for candidates, it asks its candidates to adhere to sign its “Declaration of Independents,” a looser set of “common principles … to repair our politics and restore the American dream for future generations.”

Among its tenants: putting the public interest ahead of partisan or special interests; using common sense to find common ground and solve problems; standing for opportunity, equality and stewardship; championing integrity, transparency and accountability in politics; and believing in shared civic responsibility.

While Colorado hasn’t ever elected an unaffiliated legislator, a few have dropped their affiliation once in office, including term-limited state Sen. Cheri Jahn of Wheat Ridge, who left the Democratic Party at the end of December. As things stand, she’ll be the only lawmaker without a party label when the General Assembly convenes Wednesday for its 120-day session, although she plans to caucus with the Democrats and looks like she’ll keep the committee assignments determined by Democratic leadership.

Jahn is scheduled to speak at a luncheon Tuesday sponsored by Unite Colorado at the Denver Press Club that will also include a discussion of “the need and opportunity for independent leadership.” RSVP here to attend.

Here’s a look at the four candidates who kicked off campaigns Monday:

• Steve Peterson, 40, running in Senate District 30 against Senate Majority Leader Chris Holbert, R-Parker, is a business strategist with national experience as a turn-around expert in the airline industry. He and his wife, Cori, have a young daughter.

“I’ve spent my career helping businesses in crisis and solving problems, and I am excited to bring those skill to our state government,” Peterson said in a statement. “We have a lot of issues to tackle  — from our crumbling roads, to a persistent teacher shortage, to the ongoing need to protect and preserve our pristine natural resources  — all of which, and many more, need good ideas, not ideology.”

So far, no Democrat is running in the heavily Republican seat. Holbert is seeking his second four-year term.

• Jay Geyer, 33, running in House District 33 against state Rep. Matt Gray, D-Broomfield, teaches ethics and political philosophy at the University of Colorado in Boulder. He attained the rank of sergeant in the Army, which he notes allowed him to pursue post-secondary education and launch his academic career. He and his wife have two young daughters.

“I’m running for office because I have two little girls, and when I see the partisanship and dysfunction, not just in Washington, but also in Denver, I worry about what kind of country we’re leaving for them,” Geyer said in a statement. “When our politicians would rather play cynical games than find common ground, not only do we not get anything done, but we stop trusting each other, which is a dangerous place to be as a democracy. As a common sense independent, I can bridge the partisan divide and get our state working for the people again.”

Libertarian candidate Kim Tavendale is running for the seat, which has changed hands between the two major parties twice in the past few cycles and is considered a swing seat that leans Democratic. No Republican has yet announced a run in the district.

• Maile Foster, 68, a financial advisor and former president of the Rotary Club of Colorado Springs, is running in House District 18, currently represented by state Rep. Pete Lee, D-Colorado Springs, a state Senate candidate. A proud grandmother of two, Foster was a single mother from age 18; her adult son is a professional race car driver. Foster has also served as a board member of Reach Pikes Peak and as a “loaned executive” for the Pikes Peak United Way.

“The two major parties have proven themselves incapable of governing on their own. The constant infighting, the partisan gridlock, the inability to work together to forge pragmatic solutions for the people of Colorado are commonplace” she said in a statement, adding, “The Legislature needs people with common sense and real-life experience to govern this state.”

Foster said she has that experience, including bouts with homelessness when she was a new mother. “I’ve been in that place, as a single mom, where I had $20, and I had to make that tough choice – do I put gas in the car so I can get to work, or put food on the table? I understand what it’s like to struggle to make ends meet. Too many career politicians don’t. They’ve shown us as much.”

While the district hasn’t been represented by a Republican in a long time, it’s considered a swing seat and was one of the hardest-fought races in the state a few cycles ago. Three Democrats — Graham Anderson, Terry Martinez and Marc Snyder — and two Republicans — Donald Howbert and Jillian Likness— are campaigning for their parties’ nominations.

• Eric Montoya, 37, a Thornton City Council member and funeral director, is running in House District 31, currently represented by state Rep. Joe Salazar, D-Thornton, a candidate for attorney general. He’s a single father of a college-bound son who also cares for his own father. Montoya was among a group of early Colorado endorsers of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’ presidential bid prior to the state’s 2016 precinct caucuses.

“I’m a fighter,” Montoya said in a statement. “I watched my dad struggle to make ends meet when I lost my mother at the age of 15. I’m a gay dad, Latino father. I’ve stood up to bullies my whole life. Adams County has been browbeat by a failed two- party system far too long. We’re struggling, and it’s time we get results, not rhetoric.” He added, “There may be three people in this race, but voters have two choices: Waste your vote for a Democrat or Republican and continue to get gridlock and dysfunction, or chart a new course and join our movement by electing a common-sense Independent to the State House who can deliver results.”

The district is considered reliably Democratic, although Salazar nearly lost two cycles ago when Republicans surprised a couple of other Adams County Democrats with upsets. Democrat Yadira Caraveo and Republican Enrico Figueroa are running for the seat.


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