On the first page of the new book Independents Rising, author Jacqueline Salit offers a fair warning: the book is “based on my personal experiences, rather than dictated by a single illuminating and unifying idea.” Independents Rising is not a book about ideas or even about people who are pursuing an idea. It is a memoir about a tightly-knit group of people doggedly pursuing power outside the two big American parties, adopting and shedding party status, independent status, loyalties and ideology as needed to maintain or reclaim advantage. This group of people has taken various names over the decades (New Alliance Party, Reform Party, Committee for a Unified Independent Party, Independence Party of New York City and IndependentVoters.org among them), but has been consistently identifiable by the presence of Fred Newman, Lenora Fulani and Jacqueline Salit at the center of activities.
If you’re interested in hearing an inside perspective regarding the power struggles of this trio and their history of shifting alliances with other personalities over the decades, Independents Rising will not disappoint you. Indeed, the internet is already peppered with positive reviews by associates of the trio who have enjoyed Salit’s recollections. On the other hand, if you’re interested in a dispassionate, well-sourced account of Salit’s group, or of the many political independents operating outside Salit’s circle, you may be frustrated by this book.
In Independents Rising, Salit chronicles an effort that creates parties and co-opts parties in the name of people who are independent of parties. On the one hand we find Salit’s stance regarding the identity of independents and their interest in undoing the party system (page 2):
“Who are these independents? A profusion of polling, focus groups, and profiles are suddenly dedicated to answering that very question. This is where the literal reading comes in handy. As someone involved in organizing independents for 30 years, I would advise putting all of the ‘data’ to one side. Listen to the simplest, the most obvious statement independents are making. No interpretation, polling, or focus group is needed. They are Americans who don’t want to align with any political party.”
But on the other hand we consistently read in the book about efforts to create political parties: the New Alliance Party, the Reform Party, the Independence Party. Salit attempts to address this contradiction, quoting Fred Newman (p. 92): “We’re an antiparty party. We came into existence to fight the party system. We want to be put out of business.” But despite these calls the Newman-Salit-Fulani trio spent over three decades putting together parties and doing what parties do: staking out and defending turf.
The turf Salit and her colleagues have defended isn’t based on consistent ideas. The group began by identifying with left-based and populist politics in its rhetoric but has more recently formed alliances with a number of right-wing and elitist figures, including Tom Golisano, Pat Buchanan, Ross Perot, Michael Bloomberg and various local Republican candidates. The New York County and New York State Independence parties associated with the “Independents Rising,” while adopting the stance of fighting the two major political parties, have taken money from the two major political parties. So far this year, the New York Independence Party’s Chairman’s Club is littered with contributions from major party candidates for local office. We don’t know yet who they’ll endorse, but in 2010 the NYIP consistently endorsed major party candidates. In 2008 the NYIP endorsed Republican candidate for President John McCain, not an independent or third-party candidate. As Salit’s book documents, the New York Independence Party and the New York City Independence Party have had conflicts over endorsement decisions, but Salit’s current effort is still organized under the New York State Independence Party umbrella. This year, the Salit-controlled Manhattan faction has received contributions from major party candidates for Congress, including the decidedly non-left Republican State Senator Marty Goldman, who has offered his female constituents workshops on “Feminine Presence,” instructing them on how to “sit, stand and walk like a model” and “walk up and down a stair elegantly.” After getting a contribution from Eric Ulrich earlier this year, for instance, the Independence Party has endorsed Ulrich for re-election. Then there are the hundreds of thousands of dollars taken from Michael Bloomberg while the Party endorses Bloomberg. It appears that the pattern of the NY Independence Party is to take money and issue endorsements — which is not “independent” activity.
This recent information on the activities of the New York and New York City Independence Parties is not included in Salit’s book, but these party-connected activities do cast significant doubt on the veracity of what Salit writes in her book about the importance of independent politics. Rather than taking Salit’s book as literal truth, I encourage you to read her words closely, checking not only the factual accuracy of her assertions but also noticing the difference between what Salit might seems to be implying and what she is actually saying. On page XI, for instance, when Salit writes that “The New Alliance Party was deeply disliked by the Official Left,” ask yourself who this Official Left is and what official recognized it. When Salit writes on the same page that “In New York City, I served as manager for all three Bloomberg mayoral campaigns on the Independence Party line, in 2001, 2005, and 2009,” you have to notice the “on the Independence Party line” bit. For the Bloomberg campaign actually under the auspices of Michael Bloomberg, Patricia Harris was the campaign manager in 2001, Kevin Sheekey was the campaign manager in 2005, and Bradley Tusk was the campaign manager in 2009. When Salit describes Ron Paul as having an “independent presidential bid” in 1988 (page 4), you have to read a bit earlier to notice that he’s described as a “standard-bearer of the Libertarian Party” at the time. No, he wasn’t actually running as an “independent,” unless by “independent” you mean “third-party candidate”; Ron Paul ran in 1988 as the Libertarian Party nominee. Perhaps third-party-is-independent is what Salit means considering her long history of building alternative political parties while simultaneously talking about “independents rising” as people who don’t want to belong to any political party. In order for Salit to describe the Bloomberg campaign she participated in (page 86) as a “dynamic, bottom-up movement,” she must first sidestep the “personal fortune of some billions of dollars” that was involved, some of which was directed her way.
Is Jacqueline Salit lying? No, I wouldn’t say that. I’m actually confident she believes every word she writes — confidence is one of the qualities Salit radiates in her writing. It’s probably more accurate to say that Salit’s understanding of events and way of defining the world is unconventional. After reading Independents Rising, her understanding may become yours, but it’s probably a good idea to check other sources regarding the events in her book to get other — dare I say independent? — perspectives.
In a footnote to this review, I note for interested readers that Salit makes passing reference to Americans Elect and No Labels, two connected 501(c)(4) corporations that refuse to disclose their donors while adopting the mantle of “independent.” Despite having (p. 129-132) and making (p. 200) connections to Americans Elect and No Labels leaders Peter Ackerman and Douglas Schoen, Salit is sanguine about neither. Of Americans Elect, Salit writes (page 201):
“While it offers an alternative process to nominate a ticket, it has set up closely held mechanisms that allow its founders to control the nomination…. Given that the Americans Elect rules tightly control the authorization of potential candidates, it surely intends to rearrange things for the insiders, without giving very much at all to the outsiders, including the independents.”
Of No Labels, Salit writes of their 2011 plans to swing Olympia Snowe’s Senate nomination:
No Labels stumbled recently when it urged supporters in Maine who were registered independents to reregister as Republicans so they could vote for Senator Olympia Snowe in an upcoming Republican primary. The motive was that Snowe was a moderate, targeted by the Tea Party wing of the GOP, and No Labels should step in to protect those in government who practice bipartisanship. Catana Barnes, the leader of Independent Voters of Nevada, who heard the appeal, resigned her membership in No Labels as a result, telling organizers that under no circumstances should independents be asked to give up their independence.