Independent House candidate Eric Agnew on his plea for moderation — and why he voted for Hillary

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Independent candidate for the Fifth District Eric Agnew is still a little uncomfortable having his name on a big button on his chest - DANIEL WALTERS PHOTO
  • Daniel Walters photo
  • Independent candidate for the Fifth District Eric Agnew is still a little uncomfortable having his name on a big button on his chest

It's a bad time to be a moderate. The difference between the Republican and Democratic parties has diverged ever more sharply. Both parties have been playing to their furious bases.

In most districts, you're more likely to lose a primary by being too moderate than to win crossover votes to succeed in a general election. It seems like nobody, these days, is clamoring for Kumbaya.

Except, perhaps, for Eric Agnew, third-party candidate running against Republican Cathy McMorris Rodgers and Democrat Lisa Brown for Washington state's 5th District House seat. He hates that things have gotten this way.

At a small gathering at Perry Street Brewing Wednesday night, Agnew, a 39-year-old manager at Itron, takes a defiant stand in favor of moderation. And he does it with a little object lesson.

He holds up red and blue strips of cloth tied together, asking volunteers to pull back and forth, showing how the slight shifts in power allow either red or blue to dominate completely.

"It's just this, playing out every day," Agnew says. "People are fed up. They're saying, I don't want to play this extremist game anymore."

Republicans dominate. Democrats dominate. Back and forth.

"Every day for months, I was so frustrated with this tug of war. I felt helpless," Agnew says. "It was always going to be this way. Then I realized, that if you just changed the game..."

Now he holds up a red cloth tied to a white cloth tied to a blue cloth. Pull in one direction or another, but the white cloth in the middle still holds control.

"This is how we change everything that's wrong in the system. Everything. Maybe 90 percent," Agnew says. "Keep either side from having more than 50 percent representation in the House and the Senate, then you completely change the game of power."

Moderates need a place at the table, Agnew says. People are sick of the status quo.

"Now moderates, not extremists, are the middle," Agnew says. "They're the fulcrum point. They're the swing vote. And now, nothing gets passed without going through the moderate middle."

A win, without any party backing, he's well aware, is very much a long shot.

But let's say he wins. What sort of moderate would he be?

Eric Agnew demonstrates how a moderate wing could ease the tug-of-war between Republicans and Democrats - DANIEL WALTERS PHOTO
  • Daniel Walters photo
  • Eric Agnew demonstrates how a moderate wing could ease the tug-of-war between Republicans and Democrats

It's not surprising, perhaps, that Agnew wasn't a fan of either candidate in the 2016 election.

He recalls talking to his two older kids about the election, asking them questions as they watched the debates and the conventions.

"My daughter, older one, just very blunt, said, 'They have no ideas — he's blaming her, she's blaming him, they're just trying to make each other look bad,'" Agnew says. "They have not seen a very healthy debate process and democracy and this is what they will think of government."

After the election, he remembers an epiphany that came, like so many epiphanies do, while washing dishes:

"I was just having this conversation with myself going, 'Somebody's got to do something about this. This isn't working.'" Agnew says. "And then I realized, you know... 'Oh, right Eric, what are you going to do about that?' I'm going to run for Congress."

He didn't like either of the parties, so he'd run as an independent moderate. Somebody who hoped they could pull the parties away from the animosity and extremism.

And yet — and he recognizes the irony here — he didn't vote third party in the last election.

"Begrudgingly, I voted for Hillary," Agnew says. "I had to think long and hard about that."

The difference, he says, is that in Washington state's top-two primary for non-presidential candidates, third parties have more of a chance to beat out one of the major party candidates to get to the next round, instead of sucking away votes from other candidates in the general election.

"In a presidential election, a third party is, unfortunately, a spoiler," Agnew says.

His vote for Hillary was the first time he ever voted for a Democratic presidential candidate. He hadn't even voted for Obama.

"I look back and go yeah, why didn't I?" Agnew says. "I respect the heck of Obama. I miss him every day right now. I think about if I had to go back and redo, how many votes would I redo as a 39-year-old versus a 29-year-old? A lot."

Agnew grew up in a conservative Christian family where he generally voted Republican. But as he's aged, he says, he's become more informed. More well-rounded.

"I was a moderate. Twenty years ago I would probably consider myself a moderate Republican," Agnew says. "If you had to pigeonhole me, I would probably consider myself a moderate Democrat. Some of that is me growing and changing and some of that is the party shifting."

He used to be more about small government and lower taxes. Now, he's concerned more about efficiency — is the tax money being used wisely?

"I'd move more towards 'an effective use of tax money," Agnew says. "Versus, like, 'don't tax us at all.'"

After all, right now the Republicans aren't exactly cautious when it comes to expanding the deficit either.

"That's one thing both parties have in common is blowing up the debt and giving me anxiety," Agnew says. "At some point that catches up with us. Entitlements start getting cut. I'm really worried about what's going to happen with Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid. The [Republican] tax plan takes so much revenue out of the country."

On the recent debates, like with health care, Net Neutrality, and the tax plan, he's found himself more sympathetic with the Democrats. He savages the Republicans.

"The idea of repeal and replace without having anything else to stand on — not actually having any replace option?" Agnew says. "You come to the table with nothing? And all you're trying to do is repeal, repeal, repeal?"

By contrast, he struggles to point to clear issues where he feels the Democratic party is wildly out of step with his own beliefs. Indeed, asked to name which political writers or thinkers he tends to agree with the most, he names the Pod Save America bros, four former Obama aides who host a very popular left-wing podcast.

"They're all very liberal, right?" Agnew says. "But if you just listen to what they're saying, they're very fact-based, a good counter to Fox News spin."

Even single-payer health care, he says, is a topic worth having a debate on the merits over.

He's a huge fan of compromises, like the one put forward by Lamar Alexander and Patty Murray on Health Care. He wants a bipartisan agreement on immigration. He argues that the trade deals like the TransPacific Partnership should be approached cautiously, but he also emphasizes the economic value of free trade.

"Where I take issue with either party right now is where they try to cram down a piece of legislation without having any bipartisan discussion," Agnew says.

But how about perhaps the most divisive topic in America?

"It's a woman's right to choose," Agnew says regarding the abortion debate. As a man, he's cautious about weighing in. "It's a matter of personal privacy and safety."

And at 20 or 25 weeks of a pregnancy?

"I think that that point, you're at a point where you're not talking about a fetus anymore you're talking about a baby. Given the ability, it could survive," Agnew says. "You could start looking at options like adoption."

And while that may seem like a narrowly argued distinction to make, in that case, most Americans are somewhere in the middle like Agnew. That's true with a lot of issues, it turns out.

But as the lack of agreement between Republicans and Democrats puts the federal government hours away from a shutdown as of this writing, the question is whether voters, in practice instead of theory, have any interest in moderation at all.