By Philip Rucker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 13, 2010; 8:47 PM
NEW YORK - A coalition of Democrats, Republicans and independents came together at Columbia University on Monday to launch a group aimed at taming the nation's hyperpartisan politics.
No Labels is not a third party, its leaders said, but rather a home for Americans turned off by a deepening divide between Democrats and Republicans, conservatives and liberals.
"What strikes me when I leave Washington is the extent to which there's a huge disconnect between Washington and the rest of the country," one of the group's founders, Republican consultant Mark McKinnon, said in an interview. "The rest of the country is not hyperpartisan. They say, 'There's MoveOn on the left, the tea party on the right and nothing in the middle for me.' We're trying to become a microphone for those voices, to create a system that rewards and gives a shout-out for good behavior."
The group hopes to build a network of citizen activists and establish offices in all 435 congressional districts. Beginning in January, members plan to police the new Congress, calling out lawmakers they think are too partisan and speaking up for those who cross party lines to find solutions. The group says it will not advocate specific policy positions, but will aim to foster a more civil discourse in Washington.
It will form a political action committee to help defend moderate candidates of both parties against attack from the far right and the far left, said John Avlon, a founding member and one-time speechwriter for former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani (R).
"There's this idea that somehow walking in lock step with a party is courageous," Avlon said. "I think it's conformity. . . . That's the opposite of courageous. It's cowardly."
The group has raised about $1 million from seed donations, the founders said, with most organizers working as volunteers.
Although No Labels bills itself as a citizens' movement, its leaders are veterans of campaign politics. McKinnon was a senior adviser to President George W. Bush (R) and to Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) during his 2008 presidential bid. Another co-founder, Nancy Jacobson, is a prominent Democratic fundraiser who worked on Bill Clinton's presidential campaigns and whose husband, Mark Penn, was the chief strategist for Hillary Rodham Clinton's 2008 presidential campaign. The group's other founders include Catherine "Kiki" McLean, a longtime Democratic operative and Clinton veteran; William A. Galston, a top Clinton domestic policy aide; and David Frum, a former Bush speechwriter.
High-profile politicians showed up for Monday's event to voice their support, including Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa (D), Florida Gov. Charlie Crist (I) and New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg (I).
The group's organizers hope it will take off among grass-roots activists and influence the debate heading into the 2012 election.
"Welcome to our little Woodstock of democracy here," McKinnon said in his opening remarks to the crowd of about 1,000.
"We're going to call ourselves the radical center, the people who care about results, not rhetoric," said former congressman Tom Davis, a moderate Republican from Virginia.
Throughout Monday's event, attendees stood to offer short testimonials. One of them, Darnell Goldson, a Democratic alderman in New Haven, Conn., said he was joining because his house was egged a few months ago.
"My crime? I endorsed a Democrat for governor and a Republican for Senate," Goldson said. They "started calling for my ouster from my party."
Mitch Dworkin, a Dallas-based political consultant, was less diplomatic. "The country is not governable right now," he said. "It's a bunch of little brats and children who throw tantrums if they don't get everything they want."
Others said they were trying to lead by example. Ben Leming, a Democrat who ran for Congress in Tennessee this year and lost, said he has proudly adopted the No Labels attitude and tries not to use divisive language. But he said he still occasionally catches himself slipping into his old us vs. them rhetoric.
"It's hard sometimes when I wear the No Labels shirt and find myself talking politics," Leming said. "I'm like, 'No! Can't do that.' "