New Group Aims to Galvanize Unaffiliated or Independent Veterans to Run for Office

Joint Task Force Guantanamo trooper casts his ballot in a voting drive, Oct. 21, 2008. (Joint Task Force Guantanamo Public Affairs photo by Sgt. 1st Class Vaughn Larson)

The founder of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, the first veterans' organization for post-9/11 troops, has a new mission: recruiting politically independent former service members to run for public office.

Paul Rieckhoff, a former Army infantry officer and veterans activist who established IAVA in 2004, announced the creation Tuesday of Independent Veterans of America, or IVA, a nonprofit aimed at recruiting veterans who are registered as independents or are unaffiliated with an established political party and getting them elected.

In a release, Rieckhoff said the push is needed as Americans grow weary of a system that has generated the "same, old, partisan candidates."

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"America is hungry for new leadership with independence, integrity and experience," Rieckhoff said in a statement. "Independent Veterans of America will provide a new generation of political leaders who are ready to challenge the duopoly, put country over party, and meet this incredibly challenging moment."

According to a poll conducted by Gallup in January, 43% of American voters identify as independent, while 27% each say they are Democrats or Republicans. More than two decades ago, in 2000, roughly 34% said they were Democrats, 30% described themselves as Republican, and 35% identified as independents.

    During an interview Tuesday, Rieckhoff said nearly half the nation's 18 million veterans identify as independents, and some would like to pursue public office but don't see a path to victory, given the predominant two-party system.

    The group is planning outreach in all 50 states to recruit independent veterans to run at the local, state and federal level, with a goal to get 250 candidates on ballots for the Nov. 5 election.

    IVA, he said, will help with the legwork, getting necessary signatures and obtaining voter files and other information needed by candidates. It will also provide media support and -- for candidates who receive the group's endorsement -- campaign funding.

    The past year has seen growing interest in third-party, party-independent and moderate movements, according to a panel of experts brought together last November by the University of Southern California's Center for the Political Future. But potential candidates have been linked at some point in time with one of the two major parties in the U.S.

    Robert F. Kennedy Jr., who is mounting a third-party presidential campaign, had been a registered Democrat his entire life before last fall, when he declared his candidacy as an independent.

    Other groups, such as No Labels, have been established to foster cooperation between Democrats and Republicans. And the group With Honor aims for its veteran members to heal political polarization by working across the aisle, with veterans pledging to put the good of the nation ahead of partisan politics.

    IVA is the first to focus on galvanizing independents, Rieckhoff said.

    "George Washington was an independent. [He's] kinda the spirit animal here," Rieckhoff said.

    While this year's goal of 250 candidates is ambitious, IVA's interests lie in long-term strategies to change the status quo, Rieckhoff said.

    "We're really focused on the farm team and the next generation, and also giving Americans some hope that there is a new generation of leaders willing to step up," he said.

    IVA's advisory board is made up of an eclectic mix of military personnel and civilians, including former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen; author Sebastian Junger; former presidential candidate Andrew Yang; historian Ken Burns; Bonnie Carroll, founder of the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors support network; and Michael Smerconish, a host on Sirius XM's "POTUS" channel and CNN's "Smerconish."

    Rieckhoff said the board will help recruit candidates and get the word out about the movement.

    "We want to recruit veterans from all over, and folks like Sebastian Junger and Ken Burns, they understand deeply what America is about, and we think they can help us communicate a patriotic message that is bigger than any political party," he said.

    Rieckoff himself has made a name as an activist and political firebrand, leading the charge on post-9/11 veterans issues such as post-traumatic stress disorder and suicide, reforms at the Department of Veterans Affairs, the repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," and more.

    But while many of his positions could be categorized as progressive, Rieckhoff says he has a track record of 20 years of independence, with views that are "all over the spectrum."

    "I'm pretty moderate by today's standards. I think that most people who form the independent community are sick of the extremes on both sides. They see Trump and they see [Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez], and they want an alternative," he said.

    IVA expects to have a list of endorsed candidates by late summer and plans to hold a convention in New York City sometime around Sept. 11, according to Tuesday's announcement. Rieckhoff encouraged interested independent veterans to go to the group's website and see what opportunities may be available.

    Most states' filing deadlines are July 31 or Aug. 31.

    "This is the moment to answer the call. If you're an independent veteran, or you're an independent-curious Democrat or Republican, we invite you to declare your independence and join IVA this Independence Day," Rieckhoff said.

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