The gathering in a secluded Memorial area mansion looked innocent enough — businessmen and women, lawyers, political consultants and fundraisers sipping wine, the late afternoon conversation at a friendly, low key level.
But this sophisticated assembly of Democrats and Republicans, some from across the country, was anything but acquiescent. If key leaders in the group and other like-minded individuals have their way, it will mean a sea change in American politics.
This was the inaugural meeting of No Labels, a fledgling political movement that aims to create a centrist platform where both Democrats and Republicans can come together. And for this group, issues of partisanship, Washington gridlock and political polarization are anathema.
As Houston businessman Marty McVey said, explaining why he had opened his home to the group of around 30, "I'm a centrist. I'm very fiscally conservative and socially liberal." The Democrat didn't mention that he and his wife, Parvin, had dined with President Barack Obama in Washington only a few weeks prior. And that wasn't the point. Apparently, you can still maintain relationships with President Obama or former President George W. Bush and join No Labels.
As the handout literature explains, the mission is to reclaim the political system "that has been hijacked by ideologues, ultra-partisans and special interests" and to serve those who consider themselves "independents, non-partisan or frustrated political party members. These Americans are the political mainstream, and the goal of No Labels is to mobilize this constituency at the center of American politics to break the deadlock in Washington and alter the scorched-earth nature of our contemporary politics."
A lifetime Republican, Ted Buerger of Westchester County, N.Y. , had flown in for this initial rally. In from Washington D.C. were national Democratic fundraiser Nancy Jacobson and Democrat Kiki McLean, global head of public affairs for Porter Novelli in D.C. and a native Texan.
Also part of the ground level team (which they described as so nascent as to be considered "dirt level") was Republican strategist Mark McKinnon of Austin. His clients have included not only former President George W. Bush and Sen. John McCain but also Bono, Lance Armstrong and the late Texas Gov. Ann Richards.
Buerger told the gathering, "The most dangerous place to be in politics today is in the center. This has really got to change. And we see No Labels as a way of building a grass roots movement for all people coming together."
"It is time to put country ahead of party," he said, "and end the bipolar disorder that exists in politics today . . . What's needed is a new center of gravity."
That belief in a strong center is what initially motivated Buerger, Jacobson and her husband, national pollster Mark Penn. They began the conversation in 2009, discussing the polarization of American politics with friends. They determined that as much as 90 percent of the population holds a centrist view while the elected politicians, the media and special interests keep the focus on the extremes.
Whether it was former Ambassador to the Bahamas Arthur Schechter, Republican fundraiser Herb Butrum or Harris County Sheriff Adrian Garcia, there was no obvious disagreement with the assessment of the nation's current political situation. Gordon Quan, Democratic contender for Harris County Judge; Metro board member and attorney Carrin Patman; and former City Councilman and Congressman Chris Bell were among those intrigued by, if perhaps not sold on, the concept.
Those interested in carrying the torch for this new political paradigm were asked to sign up and to join the first national leadership meeting scheduled for Dec. 13 in New York. The Web site is still under construction, but organizers say that interested individuals should be able to get more information by logging onto No Labels in several weeks.