Centrist Project changes name, launches initial Colorado slate of candidates

The nonprofit formerly known as the Centrist Project, a group working to elect nonpartisan officials nationwide, on Monday unveiled a slate of four unaffiliated Colorado candidates running this year for the legislature.

The group also announced it's changing its name to Unite America and will call the state-focused organization Unite Colorado. The moves marked the opening salvos of the group's assault on the two major parties' unbroken rule of the state's government.

Unite Colorado's slate includes challengers against the No. 2 Republican in the Senate and a House Democrat - Senate Majority Leader Chris Holbert, R-Parker, in Senate District 30, and state Rep. Matt Gray, D-Broomfield, in House District 33 - and two candidates for open House seats currently held by Democrats, in El Paso County's House District 18 and Adams County's House District 31. Those seats are represented by state Reps. Pete Lee, D-Colorado Springs, a candidate for an open Senate seat, and Joe Salazar, D-Thornton, a candidate for attorney general, respectively.

"For the first time in Colorado's history, there is a credible, competitive and coordinated slate of independent candidates forming to put the people before the parties," said Nick Troiano, the group's executive director, in a statement.

The candidates Unite Colorado announced Monday are: Management consultant Steve Peterson of Roxborough Park, who is taking on Holbert; Gray's challenger Jay Geyer, a university instructor of philosophy and an Army veteran; financial adviser and civic leader Maile Foster in House District 18; and Thornton City Councilman and funeral director Eric Montoya in House District 31.

Of the four, only Montoya has held elected office. All four belonged to major parties within the past year, with Peterson and Geyer having been registered Republicans, while Foster and Montoya were most recently Democrats, according to voter registration records.

"We wouldn't have been able to get to this point without a near universal recognition that this is an idea whose time has come," Troiano told Colorado Politics in an interview. "People realize it because the system is broken and they know that supporting independent leaders is an effective short-term solution to that problem."

Troiano said the organization is on track to raise and spend more than $1 million on what he termed candidate recruitment and support for its Colorado legislative candidates - including a small donor committee, the nonprofit's Colorado-focused budget and an independent expenditure committee.

"We will have the resources to ensure the message gets out, and I believe the candidates will as well, as we plan to make our Colorado and national network aware of these candidates," he said.

The group said it will be fielding additional candidates before the November election.

"We spent most of 2017 identifying and recruiting potential candidates across the state," Troiano said. He noted that his organizers contacted more than 2,000 potential candidates, eventually winnowing the list to about a dozen who participated in a six-week training program. The four announced Monday emerged from that process, he said. "But there are many more potential candidates in the pipeline whom we know, and, I believe, many more potential candidates will step forward when they see others running and that it's viable. We expect we will have more candidates in the weeks and months to come."

"We are playing the long game," he added.

The organization, founded in 2013, set up its national headquarters in Denver a year ago with the aim of breaking the 140-year hold Republicans and Democrats have maintained on the state's General Assembly. Since statehood, Troiano likes to point out, Colorado hasn't elected a single unaffiliated or third-party lawmaker, even though a slim plurality of the state's registered voters don't belong to any political party.

The group picked Colorado's narrowly divided Legislature - Republicans control the Senate by a single seat, while Democrats hold a 36-27 majority in the House, including GOP seat that is awaiting a vacancy appointment to fill - to test its contention that a sufficient number of voters fed up with partisan wrangling and gridlock will elect independent candidates who have the kind of financial and organizational backing typically only available to major party nominees.

If that part works, the state could turn into a laboratory for Centrist Project founder Charlie Wheelan's "fulcrum strategy," which proposes that a handful of unaligned lawmakers can deny either party the majority and steer lawmakers toward what the group calls common-sense solutions to problems the parties won't tackle.

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