Editor’s Note: This article is part of a feature called Follow-up in which BDN staff update stories to inform readers of any new developments.
PORTLAND, Maine — The organizers of a national campaign to fight partisan gridlock in U.S. politics brought their message to Portland on Saturday in hopes of tapping into the independent streak that prompts many Maine voters to shun party labels.
Officially launched last December, the No Labels organization describes itself as a grass-roots group that aims to convince politicians to put aside their party affiliations and, instead, work together to address the country’s problems.
The fledgling organization’s small staff are working to set up state networks across the nation. On Saturday, about 85 people gathered to learn more about this latest attempt to address a political problem that everyone claims to want to fix but that appears to worsen each year.
“We know the extremes: They are loud and they take over the process,” Kevin Walling, national field director for No Labels, told the group gathered in a lecture hall at the University of New England campus in Portland. “But in reality, they are only 15 percent on either side.”
To Walling and other No Labels staffers, Maine was logical place to launch one of their early organizational meetings.
Unenrolled or politically unaffiliated voters represent the largest voting block in Maine, making up nearly 36 percent of all active registered voters. The state has a history of sending to Washington, D.C., politicians willing to cross party lines on key issues.
And last November, Eliot Cutler came within 9,000 votes of becoming the state’s third independent governor.
Cutler, of Cape Elizabeth, is playing a prominent role in the No Labels campaign in Maine and appeared to enjoy considerable support among those gathered at Saturday’s organizational meeting.
Speaking to the group, Cutler said No Labels should not be viewed as just another “kumbaya” movement that ultimately will peter out amid the increasingly partisan — and antagonistic — political atmosphere found in Washington, D.C., and state capitals.
“Every one of us needs to reject that cynicism,” Cutler said. “Every one of us needs to say it is OK to be moderate, it is OK to work with other people, and it is OK to talk to people you disagree with.”
Saturday’s meeting came at a time of heightened political tensions in Maine on multiple fronts.
Last November’s gubernatorial campaign was a bitter — and costly — political brawl that left the state deeply divided, arguably best symbolized by the “61 percent” stickers that many critics of Gov. Paul LePage wear on their car bumpers or shirts to remind the governor that he was elected with less than 40 percent of the vote.
This past week in Augusta, Democratic lawmakers who found themselves in the minority party after the last election held a press conference blasting LePage’s performance during his first 100 days. LePage responded the next day by accusing Democrats of halting progress on his reform initiatives, this despite Republican control of the Legislature.
Both sides accused the other of advancing extreme platforms and of being unwilling to cooperate.
U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe, a moderate Republican who appears to have widespread support among most Maine voters, meanwhile finds herself in the sights of Maine tea party activists and other conservatives angry over her work with Democrats on major issues.
Walling and other No Labels speakers said those are exactly the types of situations the organization aims to address largely through grass-roots work to show politicians that, contrary to shouting from the extremes on either side, the majority of voters support collaboration and compromise.
No Labels also will work to encourage “open primaries” in which all voters can participate in primary elections, regardless of their political affiliation. Such a move is aimed at preventing either die-hard liberals or conservatives from dictating who ends up as their party nominees.
The organization plans to rank or grade U.S. House of Representatives members not necessarily on their votes on specific issues but, instead, on their willingness to work across party lines. Speakers said Saturday it has yet to be decided, however, whether No Labels would endorse specific candidates.
But speakers stressed on Saturday that “no labels” does not mean that politicians or organization supporters need to shed their political affiliation. They just have to be open to talking with the other side.
“You don’t have to be a moderate to be in this room,” said David Gilmour, a California resident volunteering full time with No Labels.
Six representatives of the Maine House of Representatives who are members of the “Moderate Caucus,” meanwhile, told the group that lawmakers in Augusta regularly work together on issues. But they welcomed sending a message that bipartisanship is important.
“If this group can provide a little bit of support for people in the middle who feel like they are being shot at, that would be a wonderful thing,” said Rep. Leslie Fossel, R-Alna.