NEW YORK - Elected officials and activists from around the country gathered Monday to bemoan the excesses of political partisanship and seek ways to restore civility and practical solutions to government.
The inaugural meeting of a group that calls itself No Labels drew lawmakers from across the country, including New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a Republican-turned-independent; Rep. Joe Sestak (D., Pa.); Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Evan Bayh of Indiana, and Kirsten Gillibrand of New York; and Democratic Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.
In an auspicious sign for the fledgling movement, however, the Columbia University gathering also attracted several GOP-aligned officials who were defeated in last month's midterm elections: Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, a Republican who lost an independent bid for the Senate; Delaware Rep. Mike Castle, whose Senate bid was derailed in the Republican primary by tea party candidate Christine O'Donnell; and South Carolina Rep. Bob Inglis, who was trounced in the Republican primary by a more conservative challenger.
"It wouldn't be left or right but forward" for the government to focus on core issues such as national security, better jobs, and cleaner air, Inglis said. He said he had been heckled by both liberal and conservative audiences when trying to press for practical solutions.
In panel discussions, most attendees said they did not expect an independent third party to take root, despite the frustration many voters feel about the current hyperpolarized system. On Sunday, Bloomberg - who seemed poised to launch an independent presidential bid in 2007 and again this year - ruled himself out as a candidate.
Bloomberg told the crowd he wasn't sure voters actually wanted real change to the system. "It's not clear the average person feels themselves disenfranchised," he said.
Manchin, a former West Virginia governor sworn in last month to succeed the late Sen. Robert C. Byrd, said he was already disturbed by the lack of conversation between Republicans and Democrats in Washington. He said most members of Congress were good people buckling to pressure from an environment that encourages conflict.
"I'm seeing the pressures from the outside turning good, honest, hardworking people that come from really rooted, grounded backgrounds into a political animal," Manchin said.
Sestak said, according to a news release put out by his spokesman: "Good, pragmatic ideas – like on tax policy – have been losing out to the politics of Washington for many years now. We see far too much partisan bickering for the sake of political calculation and not enough principled compromise."
Bayh, a former governor who is retiring from the Senate after two terms, said he had seen the Senate behave in a bipartisan fashion only a handful of times, such as after the Sept. 11 attacks.
"It may take that kind of exogenous event, that kind of forcing event, to make it happen" again, Bayh said.