This post is part of our series looking at independent candidates running for office across the country, illuminating their efforts and challenges. We’ve surveyed upwards of 180 candidates running as independents in 2012, a number that many find surprising with everyone’s collective fixation on the 2012 Presidential race, and have heard from many of these candidates over the past weeks. It’s our goal to support the addition of more voices and more choices into electoral politics, and we encourage independent candidates running for all levels of public office. We believe that this is where change is happening, and the more people who run as independent candidates the more choices we have as American voters, in contrast to the control of the two major political parties.
James Windle is running for Congress as an independent in Washington state’s 8th congressional district, and we have been following his campaign for several weeks with great interest. Simply put, Windle is a contradicting candidate. A “career public servant,” but an independent, solutions oriented thinker. His friends in Washington DC, where he received a practical crash course in American government would surely call him an insider. However, voters in Washington state’s 8th district have to consider him an outsider, despite being born and raised in Sammamish, an Eastside suburb of Seattle. After almost a decade in working in DC, James Windle has returned to “the other Washington” to run for Congress, and while he’s been a public servant under Republican and Democratic administrations, he’s running in 2012 with the support of neither. Independent Voters of America recently spoke with Mr. Windle about his decision to run for Congress without partisan affiliation.
Traditionally, candidates for federal office will tout and emphasize the strength of their career experience, either as a prior office holder, or in the private sector. James Windle has a different type of experience to emphasize – working in a wide variety of government positions since 2002, he’s gained a wealth of knowledge about the actual nuts and bolts of how things get done at the Federal level. Occupying positions in the President’s Office of Management and Budget under the Bush Administration, the Department of Energy and the House Appropriations Committee under the Democratic majority, and most recently, lecturing at the National Defense University has offered Windle a wide variety of experiences, all contributing to his “practical education” in American Government.
How did James Windle decide to run as an independent candidate, coming from an environment where hyperpartisanship, obstruction, gridlock, and political point scoring is the norm?
The inspiration indirectly came from teaching a course this spring at the National Defense University entitled “How Congress Works.” Often during the course, Windle says his students asked and returned to the question: “Where is the courage in our Congress today? Where are representatives willing to lay their career on the line – not for their party or for history’s sake, but for the good of the people they serve?” As part of the course, Windle arranged for a meeting between former colleagues and senior congressional staff and his students to facilitate a discussion. One impromptu question asked by a student was “How do we actually get anything done in this country?”
The congressional staffer’s reply stuck with Windle. “If we control the White House, the Senate with a filibuster proof majority, and the House, then we can get this country moving again.” Hearing this at the time, the professor thought – ‘Have we really reached a point in our Congress where both sides think that for anything to get done, their party has to control every branch of Government?’ Later, this interaction allowed Windle to reflect and realize “that running for Congress as an independent would be the only way for me to take the courageous positions that I want to take to move the country forward – that’s when and where it happened.”
And those courageous positions are…? Windle is on the record with this platform: “My political bias is towards solutions. We can get this economy booming again with fiscal responsibility; pro-growth policies for businesses; a simpler, fairer tax code; and an efficient, smarter federal government. With savings from reductions and tax reform, we can selectively invest in infrastructure and education to stay globally competitive. A Republican or Democrat cannot propose this platform because of their rigid views.”
Washington’s 8th Congressional District provided a unique opportunity for James Windle to test this nonpartisan message. Due to Washington’s contested 2010 redistricting process, the boundaries of the new 8th district weren’t finalized by the Washington Legislature until January 27, 2012 and the race against incumbent Republican representative Dave Reichert started late. One piece of encouraging news for Windle while considering the viability of an independent candidacy were the results of an internal poll released by Democratic candidate Karen Porterfield. The poll reported Washington’s 8th “is a district full of independents not sold on Reichert as a Congressman,” and included startling numbers on the partisan makeup of the district, “31 percent associate as Democrats and 27.5 associate as Republicans–while 36.5 percent associate as Independents.”
This “independent plurality,” combined with Windle’s own moderate ideology and Washington’s independent friendly ‘top two’ primary system cemented his decision to run without a party label. “I have no problem relating to both parties from a moderate standpoint on a number of different issues – if I had Republican or Democrat after my name on the ballot, and I got caught up in the Democratic or Republican internal meetings, more often than not, they’d succeed in twisting my arm into voting the party line, regardless of what it meant for my constituents back home.” On May 1, Windle quit his job at National Defense University and returned to Washington state to begin three month “sprint” towards Washington’s August 7th primary election.
Since filing for office in May, Windle has run into several of the hurdles and challenges independent candidates typically face. Without a staff of experienced partisan operatives, donor and volunteer lists, and voter files and targeting software, Windle has taken an alternate approach: “I don’t have the option of filling my days in closed door meetings with powerful special interests gathering campaign checks, instead I’m spending my time in coffee shops and bars, holding cook outs, talking to voters, and doing it 12 or 14 hours a day and embracing a more traditional style of campaigning.” Nevertheless, Windle hasn’t solely relied on traditional tactics – guerilla marketing techniques have included running a recent 5 kilometer race carrying a heavy medicine ball and a backpack, in order to prove he can do the “heavy lifting in Congress to break partisan gridlock.”
“The campaign trail is a ton of fun, well, fun is probably not the right word.”
Describing the retail aspect of politics, Windle explained he’s been encouraged in his interactions and observations of the voters in Washington’s 8th district, despite the challenges of running without a party. He’s found the style of an independent campaign, “a practical and common sense approach to politics,” is resonating with voters. “I run into people every single day who are unhappy with how they’re being served by the two parties, but one of the challenges when talking to these voters is the tendency to be long winded – voters want to hear my ‘elevator speech’ – I tell them I’ve worked for both sides, I’ve seen what’s happening in Washington DC, and right now the partisan gridlock is the major reason why we’re not moving this economy forward. I ask them – You want to send more Democrat or Republican candidates to Congress, but expect a different result? An independent candidate is the alternative… but you get all the way through this argument and you haven’t even mentioned a specific issue yet.”
On the campaign trail, Windle has also gathered his own anecdotal evidence about the independent voters in Washington’s 8th District. “Independent voters I’ve talked to are uniquely upset this cycle. Many are unhappy that they so overwhelmingly supported President Obama in 2008, and since have been disappointed in the results, the lack of ‘change’ that was promised… At the same time, I’m also hearing a lot of animosity towards the ‘Tea Party wave’ and obstructionism in the Republican House.” Ultimately, Windle’s challenge with independents boils down to turning apathy into activism, and “convincing voters that both parties have had their chances, and we need to try something different.”
While reactions on the campaign trail have been overwhelmingly positive, Windle’s friends back in Washington DC have a more sobering view of his candidacy. “After filing for office, I started making calls back to DC and speaking to people about my run for Congress, and they thought it was crazy… until I laid out my political calculus for why I could win as an independent candidate in this particular election cycle. I have to admit, my Republican and Democrat friends back in DC said, ‘James, you can’t do this because you’re not going to win as an independent, but your political calculus is sound.’”
Within the friendly confines of Washington’s open primary system, James Windle is out to prove his doubters, as well as his DC friends, wrong. His finish in the August 7th primary against incumbent GOP Representative Dave Reichert, Democratic Challenger Karen Porterfield, and several other “frequent” partisan challengers will be an interesting case study for independent voters around the country to observe. Can an independent candidate in an ideal situation, an ‘independent district’ with an open primary, finish in the top two and make it to the November general election?
“If I can place second place, then we have a national news issue. A coalition opposing the incumbent, including Democrats, will be more willing to support me, and the hard work that I’ve put into this candidacy will come to fruition.”