Tom Formicola is a successful businessman with an outgoing personality. He has a well-developed set of political beliefs that are within the mainstream. He’s not bad looking, though let’s not go overboard on that. He actually likes campaigning.
You’d think a guy like that could get elected to something in Arkansas, but Formicola can’t, and it’s only partly his fault.
Formicola has run twice for office and lost badly both times. The first time, he campaigned as a Republican when Arkansas was a Democratic state. The second time, he ran as a Democrat at a time when Arkansas is becoming a Republican state.
You might say he’s got a problem with timing or loyalty. But his real problem is that he is a centrist – conservative on tax-and-spending issues, moderate on social ones. “I’m a problem-solver. I’m a business person,” he said.
He doesn’t fit into either party these days. While 41 percent of voters in a CNN exit poll described themselves as “moderate,” the Republican Party is made up mostly of conservatives while Democrats are mostly liberals. The two parties want centrists to vote for them, of course, but they don’t want them to run for office. To win their party’s backing, centrists often have to pretend to be something they’re not.
I sat down with Formicola in a conference room on Nov. 13, one week after he had lost an election for the second time, to hear his story. He became involved in Republican Party politics about a decade ago and thought seriously about running for the U.S. Senate in 2004. Sensing he was too moderate and from the wrong part of the state to win the primary, he decided not to run.
Two years later he did run for Congress as a moderate, pro-business Republican and lost badly. In 2008, he thought about running against Sen. Mark Pryor but decided he and the Democrat were too much alike to make the race worthwhile. Plus, he thought he would lose, which was probably right.
Formicola’s job took him away from Arkansas a few years. When he returned, he decided that the GOP had become too conservative and too unwilling to work toward consensus, especially on the health care issue. He thought there was a better chance that Democrats in Arkansas would occupy the center. So even though his central Arkansas District 31 leans decidedly toward the GOP, and even though he knew President Obama would be a terrible drag in Arkansas, he decided to run for the state Legislature as a Democrat this year. He got his picture taken with Gov. Beebe and knocked on thousands of doors. He got 32 percent of the vote.
“I take solace in the fact that I got 1,000 to 1,200 more votes than President Obama did in my district in the same precincts,” he said.
Since he doesn’t really fit into either party, could Formicola have run as an independent? “I don’t think you can win as an independent in the United States. I really don’t,” he said. I asked him about a third party. “What’s the name of the third party?” he replied rhetorically.
For the first time since Reconstruction, Arkansas is a two-party state. While this will make the state Legislature more partisan, it also will result in a more vigorous debate and fresher ideas. Formicola speaks highly of the Republican who defeated him, Andy Davis.
But Washington is broken. Centrists like Formicola are all but gone, replaced in many cases by very conservative Republicans and very liberal Democrats who fundamentally disagree and often consider the other side the enemy. They can’t find common ground even as the country races toward this supposed “fiscal cliff” and amasses a debt our children will struggle to repay.
There have been times in the past when the system had a healthier mix: liberals and conservatives who had the energy and belief to bring about needed change, and moderates in the middle who smoothed off the rough edges and forced everybody to work together.
Some argue that happier arrangement was partly the cause of today’s mess, and they have a point. But consensus is how this country was created, and consensus is the only way it can solve problems. At the moment, everybody just wants to get their own way.
“It’s quickly becoming a very polarized political establishment, but how long can that last?” Formicola asked. “Because the problem is, if you’re polarized, nothing’s going to get done. Things are going to fall apart. So at some point, they’re going to throw that system out, and you hope that people in the middle will come back and be able to work things out.”
I hope so, too. To make that happen, can’t we send a few problem-solving business persons to Washington?
Steve Brawner is an independent journalist in Arkansas. His blog — Independent Arkansas — is linked at arkansasnews.com. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org