An 11th Hour Decision
For the past year, as an active leader on his town’s community council, Grenn heard complaint after complaint about how unresponsive his State Representative, Republican Liz Vazquez, was to her constituents.
Already concerned about Alaska’s historic budget crisis and frustrated at both parties’ failure to address it in their last legislative session, Grenn began encouraging friends and neighbors to challenge Vasquez in the next election.
“She was part of the group that didn’t do anything to help the budget, and she was running unopposed,” he explained to me. “If you love democracy, seeing someone run for office unopposed is just the worst thing.”
Despite his recruitment efforts, no candidate stepped forward. So on the June 1 filing deadline, he sat in the parking lot of the Division of Elections, contemplating a run himself. He called his wife to talk through the process and what it would mean for their family.
It was 4pm; the office closed in an hour.
“It wasn’t an easy decision,” he recalled. “I would need to leave my job at the non-profit where I worked. I have a mortgage and three small kids.”
With his wife’s blessing, he decided to file his paperwork. It was that important. But why run an uphill campaign as an independent?
“I didn’t want to be put in a box. I wanted to have conversations and start from a blank slate,” he said, describing himself as more socially liberal and fiscally conservative.
For example, he opposes recent efforts to restrict sex education in Alaska schools and supports an oil tax structure set up by the state’s previous Republican governor.
Running as an independent came with its pros and cons.
On one hand, he started from scratch without any party infrastructure or funding. “I would have had a website on day 2 instead of day 30 if I had some more support,” he mused. It was also challenging for people involved in one party or another to declare their support publicly for fear of retribution.
On the other hand, he found he could have honest conversations with virtually every voter without the barrier of a party label. As Grenn explained to the Alaska Commons:
“When I show up at the door, you don’t know anything about me. I’m an independent. So, you start asking questions. And all of a sudden, whoa! Look! Common ground! We line up on this issue, or maybe not so much that one, but maybe on this one. I can find common ground with any age, any gender, any race, anything, because we talk.”
He knocked plenty of doors, several hours a day, every day — some 5,000 total. He hand-wrote another 1,500 postcards for those he missed. Through his grassroots campaign, Grenn wound up raising more than the incumbent and spent $65,000. Some of those resources were dedicated to a bright, mid-twenties campaign manager who guided Grenn through the process.
One of Grenn’s largest political advantages was that his Democratic opponent unexpectedly dropped out of the race. Most Democrats in the district would never vote for a Republican, but they would keep an open mind for Grenn. These voters, along with the district’s plurality of independents, provided an initial base of support.
“I never slept. I ate leftovers. I drank coffee 24/7,” he told the Alaska Dispatch News.
On Election Day, the solidly red District 22 voted for Donald Trump and every other Republican on the ballot…except for State House. Grenn ousted the Republican incumbent by 186 votes, out of a total 7,666 cast.
Looking back, he observed, “There was a huge ‘throw the bums out’ feeling. Politicians weren’t getting the job done because of partisanship. That was the overarching mentality.”
A Time To Govern
Soon after his election, it was time for Grenn to figure out how to govern and get things done as an independent legislator — beginning with the question of whether he would join either party’s caucus.
An editorial in the Alaska Dispatch News, following Grenn’s election.
Just a day after the election, Grenn heard from his new colleagues in the Alaska State House about an idea to reorganize under new leadership in a chamber that had been exclusively controlled by Republicans for over 20 years. He didn’t need much convincing.
Alongside one other independent, three moderate Republicans, and the Democratic caucus, they jointly formed a new, bipartisan governing coalition. And they put comprehensive budget reform, the issue that propelled Grenn into running in the first place, front and center.
Alaska’s budget deficit has soared to over $3 billion as a result of falling oil production and related taxes, which some years can account for more than 90% of state revenue. Almost $4 billion in spending has already been cut out of the budget, but Republicans are taking a hard line against any new revenue and are pushing for even deeper reductions.
Grenn and others believe in a more comprehensive and balanced approach, pointing out that Alaska has the lowest per capita tax burden in the country, no income tax, and a healthy oil royalty endowment that provides annual dividends to every Alaskan. The coalition wants everything to be on the table.
The chamber will be brought into a new session on January 17. Time will tell whether the new governing coalition can catalyze the budget reform they seek, as they still have to contend with a Republican-controlled Senate. But Grenn is hopeful about his coalition’s ability to build a bridge.
The 21st Vote
In a chamber of 40 members so closely divided between both parties (21-R, 17-D, 2-I), I asked Grenn how he planned to use his leverage as a potential majority-making 21st vote on the budget or any other issue.
“As a pragmatic thinker, I expect I’ll have both sides coming to talk to me,” he said. “But I haven’t used this position to get a bigger office or hold out for key committees or make people feel like they had to stroke my ego. That’s not why I’m here.”
His earnest approach seems to have already paid off. Grenn was unexpectedly asked last week to fill a remaining seat on the Finance Committee, which is usually reserved for senior members. In fact, there hasn’t been a freshman legislator on the committee in decades, until now.
And the Finance Committee is exactly where Grenn wants to be, as a one-time reluctant candidate who simply wanted to be part of the solution.
“I really don’t know if I’ll run again in two years. If I do, I’m not too concerned about winning. I have two years to help fix this fiscal crisis, and I’m willing to do whatever is necessary.”
The Next Step
While Grenn pulled off what many viewed as impossible, other independent candidates have been largely unsuccessful in breaking through at the federal level.
The structural disadvantages for independents are magnified and the parties are stronger. Margaret Stock, an impressive by all measures US Senate candidate in Alaska, raised over $650k yet pulled 13.2% of the vote on Election Day, for example.
It’s a different story at the state legislative level where winning campaigns are 90% less expensive, where 42% of all incumbents are uncontested in the general election, and where running a door-to-door grassroots campaign is possible.
Grenn proved it can be done. And while he might not have a lot of company as an independent, he is certainly not alone. His independent State House colleague, Dan Ortiz, was re-elected to his second term this year.
Two first-time independent candidates, Owen Casas and Kent Ackley, won election to the State House in Maine in 2016. Two incumbent Republicans, David Johnson and Patricia Farley, unaffiliated with their party within the last six months in Iowa and Nevada State Senates; both are up for re-election in 2018. In addition, eleven incumbent independents serve in the state legislatures of Alabama, Louisiana, Rhode Island, and Vermont.
In conversations, many have lamented the polarized nature of today’s politics and expressed a desire to bring both sides together to address major issues in their states.
Most importantly, in several of their respective legislatures (ME, NV, IA), the election of just a few more independents would present an opportunity for a new governing coalition to deny both parties an outright majority and offer new leadership–– just like what happened in the Alaska State House. It’s a clever hack to a broken political system that otherwise rewards the political extremes of both parties.
If America truly is on the precipice of a major political realignment with record low favorability of both political parties and record high dissatisfaction in the direction of our country, then it is likely leaders like Jason Grenn in Alaska who will give us the necessary nudge over the edge.
Because every big movement starts with some small, but important, wins.