No Labels enters new era by shedding ‘centrist’ image

"Patronizing." "The Kumbaya Caucus." "The most boring political movement of all time."

And those were some of the kinder jabs lobbed at “No Labels,” an organization formed in 2010 by a handful of well-connected but disenchanted political activists to encourage problem solving over ideological gridlock. Such earnestness seemed laudable but a tad incongruous in an era where the passions of the Tea Party and Occupy movements dominated the political conversation.

Despite a splashy New York launch, No Labels lacked a clear agenda and grassroots support and was largely dismissed as irrelevant. But with new leadership and a sharper focus, the group, which is redeploying with another New York conference on Monday, has shed some of its early idealism in favor of a more pragmatic acceptance of the partisanship that has divided the country and embroiled Washington in recent years.

"We started off thinking there was a broad group in the middle, but quickly realized that wasn’t productive. People have very different notions of what the middle is,” said Mark McKinnon, a longtime adviser to former President George W. Bush and a No Labels founder. “So we grew beyond that, and now have strong conservative and strong liberal partisans who want to participate.”

That perspective is shared by the group's new co-chairs -- West Virginia Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin and former Republican Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, who gave their first joint interview to Yahoo News since taking their new roles.

"It’s not about centrism, it’s about a new attitude toward the realities we face. It’s about finding Democrats and Republicans who will check their egos at the door,” said Huntsman, whose decidedly centrist run for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination flamed out early in the primary process.

Huntsman and Manchin will be among the marquee speakers at “A Meeting to Make America Work!” the group’s conference in New York on Monday. Others include newly elected Maine Independent Sen. Angus King; Newark, New Jersey Mayor and Democratic Senate candidate Cory Booker; and Nevada Republican Sen. Dean Heller, who will address the group by video. Former President Bill Clinton and Arizona Sen. John McCain, the 2008 GOP presidential nominee, will send taped messages.

Huntsman and Manchin told Yahoo News they envision a more aggressive agenda for No Labels, like improving the group’s small donor fundraising, using digital tools to broaden its grassroots operations and recruiting more lawmakers to team up with with the organization and embrace its goals.

To that end, No Labels has helped launch a congressional “Problem Solvers’ Group” -- 12 Republican lawmakers, 13 Democrats -- who have begun holding meetings and working on some reform measures. Several members of the group are attending the New York conference.

Manchin, who served as his state’s governor for five years before winning a Senate seat in 2010, said the group may also begin a broader effort to endorse and contributed to candidates after getting involved in just a few races in 2012. He also said he expected to see elected officials to seek and proudly display the No Labels moniker.

“If you carry the No Labels brand, that says something – it means you’re bragging about problem solving, not just bragging about yourself,” Manchin said. “I think you’ll see people climbing aboard and wanting to become part of this.”

At least some have already done so, including Virginia Republican Rep. Scott Rigell and Oregon Democratic Rep. Kurt Schrader. Both are members of the House Problem Solvers’ Group and – by their own telling – strongly partisan.

“It would be a mistake to characterize this as a centrist group. That is pigeonholing us in a way that isn’t accurate,” Rigell told Yahoo News.

Added Schrader, “I don’t consider Scott a centrist, he’s a pretty conservative Republican. But I consider him a guy who’s listening.”

Both lawmakers acknowledged that the Problem Solvers’ group wasn’t ready to bridge the partisan divide over looming crises like the coming battle over raising the nation’s debt ceiling, not to mention longer-term challenges like the solvency of Medicare and Social Security.

But they’ve coalesced around issues pertaining to the way Congress functions, like “No Budget, No Pay” legislation pushed by No Labels that would bar lawmakers from receiving a salary without passing a federal budget.

Mostly, the members of the group are working on getting to know and trust each other, Rigell and Schrader said.

“It’s critical that we meet, break bread together, have a meal together. But that’s not encouraged in Washington,” Rigell said. “You’re supposed to have a tribal mindset – an allegiance to your team, your party.”