Rocky Anderson seems like a sensible man, from the conservative cut of his clothes to his practical experience gained during two terms as mayor of Salt Lake City. And though he is a dedicated progressive, opposing the Obama administration’s police state tendencies, he has a calm, reasoned manner that must have reassured clients in his 21 years as a lawyer.

Do you honestly think, I asked the former mayor, that you will be elected president of the United States? “I think it’s very unlikely,” he said, “but if we are able to get our message out to the American people, amazing things can happen.”

I still didn’t get it. “Why are you pursuing this improbable goal?” I asked.

“Because I passionately believe all of us have to put our talent and abilities to use to reverse the dangerous track our country is on,” he said. “The Constitution is being eviscerated, and a majority of Americans are less economically secure because of the disparity in wealth and income.”

Anderson — his given name is Ross — and I talked after he and another (to put it kindly) long-shot presidential candidate, former Louisiana Gov. Buddy Roemer, were on a panel titled “The Year of the Independent — Can a Third Party Candidate Be Elected?”

They are competing for the nomination of Americans Elect, founded and funded by wealthy financiers to select a third-party presidential candidate online. Most of the donors’ names aren’t known because Americans Elect is classified as a social welfare organization, not a political party, exempting it from donor disclosure. The group wants a centrist, a classification that the strongly liberal Anderson doesn’t fit into.

Those voters who sign up will cast ballots in May for six finalists for the nomination. The nominee will be selected online in June on the Americans Elect website. The organization has made it to the ballot of 25 states so far, including California and the battleground states of Ohio, Michigan, Florida and Colorado, at a cost of $50 million. The group aims to make it onto all 50 state ballots. While unlikely to win, the Americans Elect candidate could be a force in a tight election.

Roemer is a former conservative Democratic congressman who was elected governor of Louisiana in 1988, then switched to the Republican Party. He served until 1992. He campaigned for the Republican presidential nomination this year but didn’t get enough support in public opinion polls to reach the eligibility threshold for the debates. And because he wouldn’t take any campaign contribution over $100, or any contributions from PACs, he doesn’t have much money.

He’s an accomplished speaker, with a booming voice, unlike Anderson’s, and a Southern populist style. Among the candidates in the first Republican debates, Roemer would have been noticed. “Listen to me, America,” he said at the panel. “Quit saying there is a difference [between Democrats and Republicans]. … They are weak, weak, weak.”

I had gone to the panel discussion, at Los Angeles’ Hammer Museum, to check out the third-party movement and to interview Anderson at the suggestion of his press secretary, Charlotte Scot. Anderson was interesting. He was the first mayor of a major U.S. city to call for President George W. Bush’s impeachment. But he worked closely with Mitt Romney, who was in charge of the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympics. “He did a great job,” Anderson said. They endorsed each other, Anderson for Romney’s Massachusetts gubernatorial candidacy, Romney for Anderson’s mayoral re-election.

I have been intrigued by third-party candidates and sometimes angered, as I was by Ralph Nader, whom I blame for Al Gore’s loss in the 2000 presidential election.

Anderson, who has been endorsed by Nader, doesn’t agree. He believes Gore lost the election simply by not getting enough votes.

The Utahan laid out his indictment of President Barack Obama in a quiet manner.

The Obama administration “will leave a far less secure world for later generations,” he said. “Congress stands by while the president assumes power to make war. We continue to kidnap and disappear people around the world. … We have the power to indefinitely detain U.S. citizens without trial. I would never in my wildest dreams imagine this could happen to my country.”

Roemer must get 1,000 computer clicks in each of 10 states to make it to the Americans Elect online convention in June. Anderson, because he was mayor of a city not among the largest, needs 5,000 clicks each in 10 states — the barrier facing any candidate who wasn’t a governor, big-company CEO, member of Congress or comparable big shot.

These requirements suggest that the secretive financiers behind Americans Elect want to put their own choice on the organization’s ballot line in the 50 states rather than a progressive such as Anderson or a wild-card populist like Roemer. Ed Kilgore warned of this on his Political Animal blog, raising the possibility of “a shadowy group of elites” choosing “someone who could have a perverse effect on the outcome of a close presidential election.”

The worst danger of Americans Elect is its dedication to a so-called centrist candidate. Pushing this idea is Americans Elect booster Tom Friedman, the New York Times columnist, who loves Mayor Michael Bloomberg. “I still hope Michael Bloomberg will reconsider running for president as an independent candidate, if only to participate in the presidential debates and give our two-party system the shock it needs,” he wrote on April 17.

That’s all we need: Wall Street Bloomberg. His police department, The Associated Press revealed in a Pulitzer Prize-winning series, spied on daily life in Muslim communities. And there’s the long-running controversy over allegations of NYPD racial profiling.

Bloomberg would not be a candidate who could force a debate on government abuse of police powers — national, state and local — as Rocky Anderson would. If we must have a third party — and I’m not endorsing this idea — let it amount to something more than putting up a centrist candidate who won’t offer a clear alternative to our present choices.


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