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Clout: Is this a time for centrists? Not likely, say political scientists

The Centrist Party comes to Philadelphia this weekend to push an effort to elect independent candidates to the U.S. Senate. Political scientists call that an interesting idea that is unlikely to succeed.

The Centrist Project, which hopes to elect enough independents in 2018 to the U.S. Senate to deny majority control by the Republican and Democratic parties, will meet this weekend at the Union League in Philadelphia to discuss those plans.
The Centrist Project, which hopes to elect enough independents in 2018 to the U.S. Senate to deny majority control by the Republican and Democratic parties, will meet this weekend at the Union League in Philadelphia to discuss those plans.Read moreTOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer

It's common in politics for old ideas to be sold in new packages.

That's on the bill of fare this weekend for the Centrist Project, which will convene at the Union League of Philadelphia to discuss its "fulcrum strategy" to elect a small band of independents to the U.S. Senate next year as a way of denying majority control for the Democratic and Republican Parties.

The national group is the new package.

The old idea: With rising partisanship pulling Democrats to the left and Republicans to the right, little gets accomplished by the government, creating an opportunity for candidates who are liberal on social issues and conservative on fiscal matters.

We saw that in former Republican John Anderson's 1980 independent run for president, in the Democratic Leadership Council in the 1990s, and in the bipartisan group No Labels, formed in 2010.

Nick Troiano, executive director of the Centrist Project, said the group rose "organically" after Dartmouth College professor Charlie Wheelan published his 2013 book, The Centrist Manifesto.

Troiano, who ran unsuccessfully as an independent for the House in 2014 from the 10th District in northeastern Pennsylvania, said 2018 is rife with opportunity for a new approach, after the major parties nominated deeply unpopular presidential candidates last year.

"I think the desire for an alternative to the two political parties is greater than it ever has been before," he said.

We ran this by three political scientists, who found it very interesting and highly unlikely to succeed.

Richardson Dilworth, a Drexel University professor who heads the Center for Public Policy, said voters tend to identify with the two major political parties, which have long enjoyed strong name recognition.

"A third party just can't get that kind of traction, and it does not have the kind of institutional structure that the two parties have," Dilworth said. "There's not much evidence that a centrist movement can really generate much by way of enthusiasm from voters. And the two parties can capture centrists."

Splitting off centrists, Dilworth added, could "actually exacerbate extremism" in the existing political parties.

Ronald Rapoport, a professor at the College of William and Mary in Virginia, said a "bottom up" approach is difficult in third-party efforts because they lack a "major figure" to build around.

"I think having a centrist alternative is not a bad thing at all," he said. "But I think it's very difficult to do without a candidate, a well-known person, taking the lead."

Jeff Koch, a professor at the State University of New York at Geneseo, agreed with Dilworth and Rapoport that partisanship is on the rise, even as more voters lose trust in elected officials.

"A lot of people are reluctant to abandon their party and go for a new movement," Koch said.

That may be driven in part, Koch added, by the rise of "extreme media" pushing a "demonization of the other side" and casting political compromise as a bad idea.

BRT: Burgeoning Retirement Treasure

We knew anyone who can get on the Board of Revision of Taxes is a lucky man (there aren't any women on the seven-member board). They get at least a $70,000 salary for what is considered part-time work — hearings two days per week and maybe some "prep work" on a third day. They get health care and can vest toward a city pension if they sit around long enough.

As we reported earlier this week, they also get a six-week vacation!

It's a sweet gig, especially for retired judges.

Former Philadelphia judges Alan K. Silberstein, Eugene E.J. Maier, and Gregory E. Smith collect state pensions on top of their city checks. (You couldn't collect a city paycheck and a city pension.)

Maier, who is paid by the city $75,000 to serve as the chairman of the BRT, receives a $107,000 annual pension from the state. Smith, who joined the board last year with a $70,000 salary, gets a $138,000 state pension. Silberstein, who joined in 2007 and is paid $70,000, gets a $95,000 state pension.

Because he has been on the board more than five years, Silberstein now also qualifies for a city pension when he leaves it.

BRT vice chairman Eugene P. Davey retired in 2008 as the city's chief assessor, taking a $280,266 DROP payment, and started collecting a $64,000 city pension. When he was appointed to the tax-appeals board in 2010, his pension froze in order to collect the city salary attached to the position. Davey said he plans to retire this year from the BRT. His city pension will be recalculated to include his additional seven years of service.

DROP and the Dell

Speaking of DROP, we told you last week that a familiar face had landed a lucrative contract to run the Dell East Music Center in Fairmount Park, even if the city can't say how much that pays just yet.

Susan Slawson worked her way up during 29 years of employment with the city, from police officer to recreation commissioner, retiring last year with a final salary of $124,200.

The city in June approved a contract — maximum value: $100,000 — naming Slawson as "lead consultant" at the Dell. With the venue's summer concert series more than halfway over, the city still hasn't "fully executed" the contract and can't say what Slawson will be paid.

Slawson took a DROP payment of $220,708 on her way out the door, and now collects a monthly pension of $3,993.

Staff writers Chris Brennan and Claudia Vargas contributed to this column.