Congress needs independent voices

Oct. 17, 2013 @ 03:45 PM

Polls say the American people are fed up with Congress. Democrats get low marks and Republicans get lower.

So why do voters keep electing them?

I'll get to that. But it's time to stop. Next year ought to be when disgusted Americans cast off the Democratic-Republican logjam and declare themselves ready at long last for better representative government. They can't get it done all at once but they can start.

One of the best places to begin is right here in North Carolina's 6th Congressional District. With Republican Howard Coble's seat.

Like most of his constituents, I like Coble. I'm using him as the place to start because he is my congressman and because I think he will be more politically vulnerable in 2014 than he has been since the 1980s when he actually had a competitive district.

First, back to the question: Why do voters keep electing the representatives whom, collectively, they despise?

 -- They like their own representatives and don't associate them with the overall dysfunction. Coble is affable, accessible and politically astute.

-- Habit. There are 6th District residents in their 40s who have never voted for any congressional candidate except Coble, who was first elected in 1984.

-- Money and name recognition. Incumbents have big advantages.

-- Gerrymandering. Since the 1991 redistricting, the 6th has been a gimme for Republicans.

-- Lack of competition. Because a Democrat can't beat Coble, Democrats don't try very hard.

None of that will change in 2014, except that Coble will be 83 and has slowed down a bit.

Still, he appears to be preparing for yet another run by moving to the right politically.

That's typical for Republicans in districts where they're safe from Democrats. They just have to protect themselves from other Republicans. Coble has competition within his party, and it's coming from the right.

He sought to defend his right flank by joining a group of 80 tea party House Republicans who demanded that Speaker John Boehner implement their defund-Obamacare-or-no-budget strategy. He did, and it failed miserably. Republicans were blamed for shutting down the government and tanked in the polls. Coble deserves his full share of that blame.

Yet, he'll be rewarded in the Republican primary for taking that position. He may have to spend more money than usual, but he's got it. With no threat from Democrats, all he has to do is hold off the right-wingers who won't be able to fault his hardline stance against Obamacare, a budget compromise and probably raising the debt ceiling, too. So the only way he can lose is if a strong independent enters the race.

I don't know who that might be, but one-fourth of registered voters are unaffiliated. They don't belong to a party and are waiting for an independent candidate.

This is the time. Candidates who can honestly promise they won't follow the party crowd will attract voters sick of mindless partisanship.

Boiled down, there's no difference between Coble and almost all other Republicans in the House. They vote in line with their party. Most of the Democrats are the same way.

There's no compromise, no give and take, no putting country ahead of party. That's why we're in a mess.

The American people are hungry for representatives who will decide each issue on its merits and not because party leaders tell them to vote yes or no.

It still won't be easy for an independent to win. He or she must complete a petition process just to get on the ballot. An independent candidate won't be showered with special-interest money. And the independent candidate will have to buck voting habits that die hard.

On the last point, the independent candidate has just gotten a break. The state legislature did away with straight-party voting. Voters will have to cast an individual vote for each race on the ballot.

Previously, unaffiliated candidates could be overlooked and buried in the avalanche of straight-party voting. Now they at least will have a chance to get every vote.

In a three-way race -- with Coble and a weak Democrat -- an independent candidate would not even need a majority to win.

Coble won 61 percent of the vote in the 2012 election. If roughly one-third of his supporters and one-half of the Democratic voters (knowing their candidate could not win) shifted to an independent, there could be an incredible upset.

Make that happen in a dozen districts across the country and change will have begun. Both parties will get the message that voters are fed up.

It has to start somewhere. Why not here?

Contact Doug Clark at dgclark@news-record.com.