Joelle Riddle, having recently ended her term as a county commissioner, is beginning a grass-roots effort to change the face of politics in Colorado.
We need political reform that causes things to change, Riddle said. Im so tired of the government not running well.
The mother and former health educator whose break with the local Democratic Party was frequent headline fodder has taken on a couple of part-time jobs selling clothing and waiting tables. But Riddle said thats just to pay the bills while she works to build momentum behind an independent movement in the state. She recently founded an organization called Independent Voters for Colorado. The organizations first goal is to seek a ballot initiative that would open Colorados primary elections to all voters, regardless of political party affiliation.
The former chairwoman of the La Plata County Democratic Party won a county commissioner post in 2006 but soon found herself at odds with the political party that supported her campaign. By 2009, Riddle was taking heat for placing a campaign sign for Republican commissioner Kellie Hotter in her yard, voting against party lines on a nonbinding resolution related to gas industry fracking activities and accusing a party activist of bribery, an accusation that never resulted in charges.
Riddle cut ties with the Democratic Party that year, citing the need for local politics to be nonpartisan. The decision left her without a place on the ballot after she inadvertently missed the deadline to seek re-election for commissioner as an unaffiliated candidate.
Last year, she and former state Rep. Kathleen Curry, who found herself in a similar situation, launched legal and political battles to overturn party registration deadlines and change campaign-finance laws that keep independent candidates from raising as much money as candidates affiliated with a political party.
The bid to change registration deadlines was unsuccessful, and the lawsuit about campaign-finance laws still is pending.
I dont think I could do what she does, said one of Riddles longtime local supporters, Mandy Mikulencak.
Mikulencak said Riddle has been under fire for so long she never seems to focus on the pressures or the naysayers.
Instead, she sees possibilities around every corner, Mikulencak said. Theres just no stopping Joelle when shes passionate about something.
John Straayer, a professor of political science at Colorado State University, said Riddles efforts have some potential for success in Colorado. Moderate voters and potential candidates for political office are growing increasingly frustrated with negative campaigns and polarized ideological discussion of political issues, he said.
It puts people off, and they withdraw from politics, Straayer said.
Independent ballot initiatives such as opening the primaries often aim to shift some political power to voters and candidates of more moderate ideological positions, Straayer said.
If Riddles bid to open Colorados primary elections is successful, it could encourage folks in the middle to re-engage in the political process, he said.
Its that concept that Jackie Salit, leader of a national organization aimed at spurring and helping independent movements around the nation, said is driving similar initiatives in other states.
Salit, director of Indepen dentvoting.org, said about 38 percent of American voters dont see themselves as either Democrat or Republican and dont feel represented in a political system driven by the two parties.
Salit said voters desire to see the parties grip on the political process loosened has sparked reform efforts in 43 states.
Locally, unaffiliated voters accounted for 26 percent of La Plata Countys active registered voters as of December, according to information provided by the La Plata County Clerk and Recorders Office. Democrats accounted for 35 percent, and Republicans made up 38 percent.
The numbers fluctuate annually, though, with 10,000 fewer active voters on the list last month than there were in December 2007. In 2007, about 36 percent of the countys registered voters were unaffiliated, documents show.
Elections office employees said the proportion of Democratic, Republican and unaffiliated voters on the rolls tends to be about equal.
Unlike other recent political movements that gained traction, such as the tea party movement, Riddle doesnt want to bring a new party to Colorado politics. Instead, she hopes members of all political parties will join and become more involved in the political process.
People are ready for common-sense legislation, representatives and solutions, Riddle said.
The independent movement shes building is a way of thinking, not a label, she said.
Everyone can be an independent voter, she said.