Primary Source: Dartmouth Lecturer Wants to Elect Independents to Break Gridlock

  • Valley News political columnist and news editor John Gregg in West Lebanon, N.H., on September 20, 2016. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to Geoff Hansen

  • Ethan Sonneborn, a 14-year-old Democratic gubernatorial candidate from Bristol, Vt., in a campaign photograph. (Courtesy photograph)

Published: 7/26/2018 12:01:52 AM
Modified: 7/26/2018 12:01:56 AM

A Dartmouth College lecturer is running a national group that wants to break the divisive gridlock in American politics by electing more independents to office.

Charlie Wheelan wrote The Centrist Manifesto several years ago and is the founder and chairman of Unite America, a Denver-based group that last week endorsed 19 independent legislative candidates.

“These candidates — who hail from all over the country — represent a significant step in our movement to unrig our political system,” Wheelan wrote in a fundraising appeal hoping to raise $75,000 for the slate by the end of this month. “They are candidates who build bridges, put country over party, and work together to solve problems rather than score cheap political points. And they need our help.”

Among the candidates is state Rep. Ben Jickling, a first-term Vermont House lawmaker facing a re-election challenge in a Randolph-area seat, and state Rep. Laura Sibilia, an independent from the ski town of Dover in southern Vermont.

Wheelan — a senior lecturer at Dartmouth’s Rockefeller Center who has made a career of making policy issues like statistics and economics more accessible to the public — has political experience himself. A former speechwriter for a governor in Maine, he ran in a Democratic primary in Chicago in 2009 to succeed U.S. Rep. Rahm Emanuel, who had just been appointed President Barack Obama’s chief of staff.

Wheelan said Unite America has been active for a couple of election cycles and has yet to notch a significant win, but is focusing this year on the Colorado legislature, which is closely divided. The hope is independents get elected there and can be a “fulcrum” for centrism and political change, much as then-U.S. Sen. Jim Jeffords’ 2001 switch from being a Vermont Republican to an independent swung control of the U.S. Senate to Democrats.

“From a strategic standpoint, we think that to make governance work again, we have to re-empower the political middle,” Wheelan said on Wednesday. “We believe in the current environment, independents are our best hope.”

As for U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, perhaps the country’s most famous independent of the moment, Wheelan said not all independents are Unite America independents.

“I do consider him an independent. I don’t consider him a centrist independent, and that’s the space we want to play in,” Wheelan said.

Vermont Numbers

The VPR-Vermont PBS Poll released earlier this week had some key numbers for Republican Gov. Phil Scott.

The gun control legislation he signed, including expanded background checks and banning bump stocks, was supported by 67 percent of respondents, while 25 percent were opposed. And, perhaps as a result, only 49 percent of Republicans in the survey, many of whom are opposed to gun control, approved of the job he is doing, while 35 percent were opposed. But Scott was running stronger among independents, a key voting bloc in Vermont.

Meanwhile, his would-be Democratic challengers had low name recognition, including 14-year-old Ethan Sonneborn, a Bristol resident who is on the Aug. 14 primary ballot. Even though he is not old enough to vote, there is no age limitation preventing Sonneborn from running.

Though it’s unassailable that a 14-year-old boy is unprepared to run state government, Sonneborn had thoughtful responses about his candidacy during an appearance on VPR’s Vermont Edition on Wednesday.

“I think that my message transcends age,” he said, arguing that he offers new ideas for the state and is running in part to counter “dismal voter participation rates in this country among every age group.”

“We needed someone who could run a campaign ... to get more people involved in the process, to get more people out to vote, to get more people volunteering for candidates, and I felt we weren’t seeing that,” Sonneborn said.

Briefly Noted

Former state Rep. Lynne Blankenbeker, the Concord Republican and former combat nurse running in a crowded GOP primary to unseat U.S. Rep. Annie Kuster, D-N.H., won the backing of former U.S. Rep. Chuck Douglas, an attorney and former state Supreme Court justice.

Strafford independent John Freitag is again running for the two-seat Windsor-Orange 2 district representing Norwich, Thetford, Strafford and Sharon. “My sincere hope is to make this electoral contest a model of civility and respect as the challenges we face are discussed and debated,” Freitag, who ran in 2014, said in a recent listerv post. State Reps. Jim Masland and Tim Briglin, both D-Thetford, are seeking re-election.

John P. Gregg can be reached at

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