No Labels Board Member: If MLK Were Alive Today, He’d Be Aligned With Joe Manchin and No Labels

Manchin and a group of failed moderate politicians assembled in New Hampshire on Monday to tout No Labels’ 73-page centrist manifesto.

Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) is seen during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing to consider the nomination of Air Force Gen. Charles Q. Brown, Jr., to be Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff on Capitol Hill July 11, 2023. (Francis Chung/POLITICO via AP Images)
Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., is seen during a hearing on Capitol Hill on July 11, 2023. Photo: Francis Chung/Politico via AP

At the No Labels luncheon at the Puritan Backroom in Manchester, New Hampshire, on Monday, the punchline was hard to miss. A who’s who of failed moderate politicians and politicos — including former Sen. Joe Lieberman, former Govs. Pat McCrory and Jon Huntsman Jr., and former Reps. Fred Upton and Joe Cunningham — gathered alongside Sen. Joe Manchin. They were assembled to tout their political program in the form of a 73-page centrist manifesto outlining the path forward for a moderate American presidency. Neither press nor clergy were seen entering the private event, where, in a literal backroom, the fading stars of a puritanical third way met to further a plan that they have all but described as political blackmail. 

Huntsman — a former governor of Utah and presidential candidate, who would later share the stage with Manchin during a town hall — shot me a billion-dollar grin before saying that No Labels was assembling to inject moderate politics “into the bloodstream.” Later, Manchin would double down on the idea of forced injection, claiming only credible threats can bring both parties to their knees. Outside in the parking lot, local police told me to leave. 

Across the street, at the Puritan ice cream shop, I was handed a spoonful of chocolate as I waited for owner Arthur Pappas to emerge from the back of the store. Pappas also owns the conference hall across the street; his son, Chris Pappas, serves as a Democratic representative for New Hampshire. 

No Labels cites polling data showing an increasing number of political independents and thus concludes that those disaffected voters are there for the taking. Not so, said Pappas.

Despite being registered as an independent, the proprietor was weary about No Labels’ presence in New Hampshire that evening, which he saw as threatening to derail the 2024 presidential election with a third-party candidate who would almost certainly benefit the election odds of Donald Trump. 

“I’m not entirely sure what their whole plan is,” Pappas said, nervously eyeing the boat shoe- and Brooks Brothers-clad attendees drifting into the hall. “Look at what that guy unleashed,” Pappas said in reference to the former president. 

Their whole plan, ahead of the 2024 election, is to raise $70 million to back a potential third-party run for president should Democrats and Republicans fail to coalesce around No Labels’ hypercentrist political vision. Manchin has emerged as the most likely candidate for the job, flirting publicly with No Labels while dodging questions from the media about his plans. 

Manchin’s appearance at the No Labels town hall in the critical swing state of New Hampshire on Monday evening was another step in that direction. Emblazoned everywhere on walls, hats, and T-shirts at Saint Anselm College was the low-effort slogan “common sense.” The crowd gathered to ring in the No Labels manifesto, which was released over the weekend and lays out a political philosophy that it claims has been erased by the radicalization of both the left and the right. Highlights include:

Public safety is the highest priority. We need to fix the criminal justice system so career criminals can’t keep committing crimes.

A world led by America is safer than a world led by Russia and China would be.

America must strike a balance between protecting women’s rights to control their own reproductive health and our society’s responsibility to protect human life.

And for an hour and a half, Huntsman and Manchin played the hits: bringing down the deficit, marginally increasing background checks for gun purchases, and means-testing social safety net programs. “This is not about me or anybody else,” Manchin told the crowd. “It’s about two parties that have gone to their respective side, the extreme right and extreme left, and the middle has been left behind. There’s no voice for the middle.” 

FILE - People with the group No Labels hold signs during a rally on Capitol Hill in Washington, July 18, 2011. The Arizona Democratic Party is looking to force No Labels to disclose its donors or lose its status as a political party, an escalation of Democrats' efforts to block a group they worry will boost former President Donald Trump's chances of returning to the White House. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, File)

People with the group No Labels hold signs during a rally on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., on July 18, 2011.

Photo: Jacquelyn Martin/AP

Ironically, Democratic operatives and Never-Trump Republicans have framed the third-party threat from No Labels as the same: a sinister plot between the far right of the GOP and the far right of the Democratic Party. In large part, that’s thanks to the group’s track record raising funds from conservative megadonors like Harlan Crow

But given the composition of the No Labels board and political supporters, the idea that all of its members are aligned with a pro-Trump plot seems unlikely. The former politicians in attendance saw their centrist political clout erased after the rise of Trump. Manchin, meanwhile, emerged from the Trump years with stronger influence over the Democratic Party — yet his determination to maintain a corporate centrist line in West Virginia has led to plummeting polls in recent years and an all-but-certain defeat next November to Republican Gov. Jim Justice should he run for Senate. 

In short, none of the No Labels headliners stand to gain from a second Trump presidency. According to former Manchin lieutenant and West Virginia political operative Scott Sears, Manchin isn’t trying to throw the election. He’s trying to attract as much attention as possible to buy himself airtime, exposure, and a plumb appointment in the next administration, a tactic that could similarly explain others’ participation in the organization. 

When I pressed Manchin at the event on whether an appointment was part of his calculus, he told me his former close aide and confidant is “a very sick man.” As Manchin spoke at the town hall, his daughter Heather Bresch — who narrowly avoided prosecution last year for artificially inflating EpiPen prices — paced hungrily in the wings. 


As Manchin Eyes Presidential Run, His Allies at No Labels Face Mounting Legal Challenges

By the end of the night, No Labels’ real intentions seemed just as occluded as before the town hall. The No Labels drive to gain ballot access has received legal pushback in both Maine and Arizona, where legal efforts are underway to prevent the group from emerging as a viable vote in 2024. My efforts to learn more about Nicholas Connors, the man overseeing the ballot operations, had been stymied by the fact that his personal firm, NSC Strategies, doesn’t appear in online databases, nor does his name appear in any of the corporate registries I’d searched. 

I spotted Connors hovering by an exit and lit upon him seeking clarity. Connors, who ran and lost as a radical moderate for senator in Connecticut, refused to say why his personal political consulting firm is not listed on any registries or what role it plays for No Labels’ operations. When pressed on whether his company was a ghost in the night, Connors said, “It is not a ghost in the night,” before refusing to answer further questions. 

In May, the Maine secretary of state sent a cease-and-desist letter to Connors over concerns about misleading voters to gain ballot access. Without ballot access, Manchin said during the town hall, both ruling political parties “can’t be threatened.”

As heads adorned with “common sense” baseball caps bobbed in the evening light, colored blood red from Canadian wildfire smoke, I caught No Labels board member Benjamin Chavis heading out the door. A former assistant to Martin Luther King Jr., I pressed Chavis on how the legacy of King — which included broadening social spending, taxing the wealthy, and opposing endless war in Vietnam — could possibly track with the platform presented by the event’s speakers, two millionaire moderates. 

“Dr. King was a centrist,” Chavis told me. “If he were alive today, he would be a member of the No Labels party.” I moved to remind Chavis of King’s words in his “Letter From Birmingham Jail,” in which he decried the white moderate as one of the main roadblocks to justice. (“I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White citizens’ ‘Councilor’ or the Ku Klux Klanner,” King wrote, “but the white moderate who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice.”) But before I could get an answer, Chavis was whisked away. 

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