Local Democratic parties are confronting a problem in the Trump era that is as confounding as it is unexpected: space.
All across the country, party meetings that had once been sleepy affairs, dominated by Robert’s Rules of Order and a handful of graying activists, have become standing room only. The overflowing crowds have sent stunned party regulars scrambling to find new venues, while the surge in interest, and the coinciding fundraising boost, is enabling local chapters to hire staff and build infrastructure in previously unthinkable ways. On the national level, Democratic politicians have been rushing to respond to the sudden outpouring.
“I’m as busy this year as I was at any time last year in the heat of a huge election,” said Mark Fraley, chairman of the Monroe County Democratic Party in Indiana.
Fraley said he received 65 emails in a single weekend from people requesting to become precinct chairs, a thankless job that normally requires begging and pleading to get someone to fill. The county party has restructured and added five deputy chairs to channel all the energy, and created six new committees.
“What’s very different is that it’s made the party younger. Young people never really wanted to have as much of a meaningful part in the Democratic Party infrastructure. Now that doesn’t seem true anymore,” he said.
The resistance to President Donald Trump has taken a variety of forms, all of them well chronicled by the media. The Women’s March, which saw some 5 million people take to the streets in a single day, helped fuel the growth of Indivisible chapters around the country, and has itself continued organizing meetings and protests since. The groups Swing Left, Flippable and The Sister District Project are routing people to swing districts where they can be most effective, and groups are forming to challenge Democrats in primaries. Amid it all, observers and participants alike have wondered what the name is for this nascent movement. The Resistance? The Opposition?
But if the swelling ranks of county-level meetings are an indication of things to come, the grassroots movement underway already has a name. It’s called the Democratic Party.
Interviews with activists in 24 states ― red, blue and purple ― reveal a strikingly similar pattern: Shocked by the outcome of the election and fearful for the future of the country, people of all ages, some of them Democrats, some independents, some Greens, found the time and location of a local party meeting and showed up. Here are a few of their stories:
Carol Cure had been an active member of the Democratic Party more than two decades ago in Arizona ― even running unsuccessfully for Congress ― but she thought those days were behind her. She’s now back in the game.
Just recently, Cure found her way to the local La Plata County Democratic Party organizational meeting and was named a “bonus member” of the Colorado House District 59 committee.
“I really thought, until now, that I had done my part and was content to enjoy my retirement and all of the great activities available to us here in Southwest Colorado,” she said. “Many new people are getting in the game, many of them young, recent college graduates. We just had our two-year reorganizational meeting last Saturday, and two recent graduates were elected to the County Executive Committee. Now that the Dems are fired up and involved, it has become apparent that many of us are Progressives and may have been when no one noticed.”
Ilene Johnson, a veteran party member, said a recent meeting in Greensboro was standing room only. And at a breakfast meeting there, 70 people showed up. “Fulton County, Cobb County and Dekalb County Democratic meetings are packed. But Dekalb and Fulton are majority Dem. [Greensboro is] not, neither is Cobb. My mailbox is full. I have more volunteers. I’m swamped,” she said.
Oak Park Democrats usually get maybe 80 people at a meeting. But at their most recent gathering, they had more than 120.
“Our meetings are bursting at the seams these days,” Oak Park Democratic Party Executive Director Karen Fischer said. “We literally couldn’t get them in the door. There were people out on the street who actually couldn’t get in.”
Fischer emphasized that so far, the party hasn’t yet increased its advertising in the new year; all these new folks are finding their way on their own. People are walking in off the street every day and asking how to get involved.
“We’re planning to [step up outreach], in part because organizations are popping up all over the place,” she said. We’re kind of looking at it and going, ‘Wait a minute! We’re here! You don’t need to invent the wheel!’”
At the last meeting of the women’s caucus of the Monroe County Democratic Party ― normally a sparsely attended affair ― people spilled out the door onto the street. For the party’s upcoming reorganization meeting, county chairman Mark Fraley said they’re looking for a new venue, because the courthouse room that had always been more than sufficient is now too small. If they can’t find a new room, he said, they’ll put speakers outside the door so the spillover crowd can still hear. Democrats here have seen such an outpouring of new members, they’re on track to raise enough money to hire an executive director for the first time.
“Right after the election, we were just inundated with emails [asking], ‘What can I do?’” said Fraley, 37, who works at Indiana University Bloomington.
Fraley said the county party has restructured and added five deputy chairs and created six new committees. The influx of new people is making the party younger, he said: About two-thirds of them came through Sen. Bernie Sanders’ (I-Vt.) campaign, many of them encouraged by his organization Our Revolution to do so.
“If we can maintain 30 percent of this energy, that’s a huge increase in our local Democratic capacity,” he added, arguing that Republican House seats that were 9-point wins in the past could soon become competitive.
The Winneshiek County Democratic Party had its largest central committee meeting ever in January, with a third of the 40 attendees being people who had never attended a meeting, according to the county correspondence secretary.
Polk County, which includes Des Moines, is bursting too. Tamyra Harrison, the county party’s executive director, said that over the last decade, around 50-60 people have shown up for central committee meetings. On Nov. 14, however, they had 177. The committee has 359 elected positions and at this time two years ago had 120 open seats. That number will soon be 80, now a record low, and is falling fast.
“Every post-election meeting I have attended has been crowded and humid,” Thomas Henderson, the party’s county chair, said.
Down in Page County, in rural Southwest Iowa, party member Christine Adcock said that four times the normal crowd showed up to the first county meeting after the election ― “a whopping 20 people!!” Adcock followed up a week later with an update: The February meeting drew 30.
In Montgomery County, a standing-room-only crowd showed up to hear freshman Rep. Jamie Raskin talk about “threats to democracy in the Trump era.”
“Just since this past election, a number of friends have quite suddenly expressed interest in becoming more involved in the party ― many of them have been activists with local environmental groups and in some cases the Green Party,” said Sylvia Tognetti.
Raskin told HuffPost there were some 900 people at the Trump event. It was one of eight events he did that day and all of them, he said, were bursting.
A group affiliated with Sanders’ Our Revolution ran a slate of eight people to be delegates to the June state party convention, and all eight won, said Jordan Weinstein, one of the eight. Several are also moving to become members of the town Democratic Party committee in Arlington. Weinstein said he’s running for a seat on the town council, known as the Arlington Town Meeting. The ages range from 30s to 60s, he said.
“Most of us have been registered Democrats forever but just so we could vote in the primaries. Since Trump, we all see the need to get involved with the goal of trying to move the Dems toward more progressive positions,” he said.
Alice Trexler, a veteran member of the Arlington Town Democratic Committee, witnessed the same bursting attendance at the convention meeting, but did so with the perspective of somebody who’s been to many of them.
“It was roughly triple the size of the past three to four I have attended. There were many new folks who were, on balance, younger than many of us on the Town Committee,” she said, adding that a later Indivisible meeting downstairs “was overfilled with people backed up in the hallway and into the lobby.”
“Our town is hopping with resistance. I know, it’s Massachusetts, but it’s still extraordinary to see the number of young parents and those new to protest and to politics,” she added. “Believe me, I haven’t seen this before.”
The spring conventions of the Michigan Democratic Party don’t usually attract too much notice, described by the Detroit Free Press as “sleepy affairs filled with party regulars giving speeches and calls to action.”
This year, however, was different.
Nearly 5,000 people came to the convention, with longtime attendees saying they had never seen anything like it.
“That blew the doors off previous conventions, especially considering it’s an off-year,” said Herb Helzer, a member of the Northville Democratic Club. “Sure, plenty of people showed up for the midterms in 2014 or 2012. ... But this is winter 2017 after the biggest trouncing we’ve gotten.”
Helzer said the meeting of the progressive caucus was especially popular at the convention, with about 600 people showing up.
Chris Savage, chair of the Washtenaw County Democrats, said he usually gets about 50-60 people at a meeting, if he’s lucky. But at their last meeting, on Super Bowl Sunday, 225 people showed up.
“I could not believe it,” he said. “Our email list since Election Day has grown by about 20 percent, and I’m getting new people signing up every day.”
People are particularly interested in pushing their legislators on policy. He used to have a “legislative programs” team, which mostly consisted of one staffer from a congressional office who would help be a liaison between the party and government officials. Now, that team has 120 people who signed up to do twice-weekly phone banks and engage people in other counties.
Martha Viehmann, of Anderson Township near Cincinnati, said the state, after falling badly to Trump, has come alive. Sen. Sherrod Brown, one of the stronger progressives in the Senate, faces a critical re-election bid in 2018.
“The January meeting had a phenomenal turnout,” said Viehmann, a precinct executive in Anderson. “The resurgence of the Democratic Party is very clear here in my eastern suburb of Cincinnati, Ohio. Lots of new people are not only turning out to protests. They are also learning about our local and state elections and swamping our elected officials in D.C. with postcards and phone calls.”
One of those is Aileen Peters, 72, who joined a Dayton Democratic club in the wake of the election.
“I have always voted, but not been active politically” with the party, she said. “I was a fellow in Hillary’s campaign. Volunteered in the local office, phone banks, etc. Now I’m a member of the South of Dayton Democratic Club, I’m organizing a No Hate group, I have a group I email to keep them informed of opportunities to be involved. The first thing I do every morning is send emails to Congressmen and make phone calls to [Sen. Rob] Portman and [Rep. Mike] Turner.”
Greenville is “the reddest part of a very red state,” according to Kate Howard Franch, the chair of the local Democratic Party. Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.), who led the Benghazi committee, is their congressman, if that gives any indication of the area’s leanings.
Franch usually gets about 20 people at her monthly meetings ― 40 on a good day. But at the end of January, she had 120.
Franch said that in her nine years there, she’s never seen this sort of engagement. They had a gathering at Furman University after the Women’s March to build upon the momentum and figure out next steps. Even though the meeting took place on Super Bowl Sunday, there were about 1,000 people in the audience.
Over in Charleston, the local party had 130 people show up at its January meeting, a big jump from the 20 or so they usually see. Chair Brady Quirk-Garvan said they’ve also tripled the number of monthly donors to the party.
The Davidson County Democratic Party in Tennessee maybe gets 10 people, beyond the executive committee, at its regular meetings. But in January, it had nearly 200 people show up, and 180 people filled out forms to start volunteering.
“We had so many people we had to leave the conference room that we were supposed to be in and move out to the lobby of the building because there was no room to fit everybody,” said Whitney Pastorek, a member of the executive committee.
“They’re self-identifying and self-gathering,” Pastorek added, stressing that all this energy is organic. “They’re not waiting for the Democratic Party to tell them what to do. They’re doing it themselves, and it’s great.”
Typically after an election, Carisa Lopez notices that people just want to take a deep breath and relax before mobilizing again. But not this time.
“We put together an event that was kind of an open mic type of event, less than two weeks after the election,” Lopez, executive director of the Travis County Democratic Party, said. “We had about 400 people in attendance, and that was right before Thanksgiving. So even around the holidays, when ... people usually aren’t paying attention, they definitely were.”
Her organization also had a training in early February that they expected about 100 people to attend. But they ended up having nearly 500 people and had to change venues three times just to keep up with the demand. They also streamed it on Facebook Live because there was so much extra interest.
The state party is hosting a candidate training in March. When officials opened up registration, they sold out 50 tickets in the first day. A week later, the party expanded it to 200 spots ― and again immediately sold out.
Democrats have already won two special elections in Virginia since November, and the state House and governor’s mansion will be up for grabs this fall. (More on that below.) Mike Freeland, co-chair of the local Democratic party in Manassas and Manassas Park, said the party is being flooded with new members.
“We had our largest attendance ever at our regular monthly meeting last week,” he said. “We are averaging 4-5 signups per week on our website and are having events like new member breakfasts in an attempt to capture the momentum and find a place for these new folks to help out.”
The same, he added, is true for other local officials he’s talked to recently.
Alison Dennis, 30, just started going to her local Democratic Party meetings in Wenatchee. At her first meeting last month, the hosts were overwhelmed, with about 85 people overflowing the room that was supposed to hold only 53 people.
“Folks consider the area I’m in to be a deeply red area, but I think it’s more purple than folks give it credit. I think there’s a lot of potential here, but we need to ramp up the leadership quickly,” she said.
David Turnoy has been involved with the San Juan County Democratic Party for the last five years and was recently elected chair. He said turnout was huge for their meeting in December, and their email list has grown significantly.
“People are energized in ways that they have never been before,” he said. “And our Democrats group normally only meets once a quarter, but we have been meeting monthly since December and look to continue that for the foreseeable future.”
SHIFTING TO THE BALLOT BOX
None of it means anything if the energy doesn’t become power, if it doesn’t translate into electoral success. One major test of how potent the new movement is will come on Saturday, when Delaware holds a special election for a vacated state Senate seat. Whichever party wins will control the state Senate. The district leans slightly Democratic, but special elections with low turnouts are often the party’s Achilles’ heel, just as midterms are. But if the grassroots energy is real, turnout won’t be a problem.
Sonia Sloan, 88, has been a First State Democratic activist all her life and said she hasn’t seen this much excitement in a race since Eugene McCarthy, whose presidential bid she chaired in Delaware in 1968. This year, she’s co-hosting a fundraiser for the Democrat in the race, environmental attorney Stephanie Hansen.
“Our field operation is off the charts, as is volunteer activity. Organizers and volunteers have already knocked on over 30,000 doors, and they’ve made over 28,000 phone calls as of” Wednesday, said Carolyn Fiddler of the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, adding that they’d knock on another 30,000 doors before the campaign is over.
With only about 31,000 registered voters in the district, that means they’ll be hitting voters repeatedly.
The Republican in the race, a retired cop, John Marino, is running as a Trump-esque candidate. “We deserve to be ‘First’ again,” he says.
If special elections are a sign of things to come ― and they may or may not be ― signs are good for Democrats so far. In two specials in Iowa, in December and January, on the eastern border in Davenport, Democrats won by larger-than-expected margins. Iowa allows absentee balloting, which allows organizers to go door to door to make sure those ballots are being filled out and mailed in. In the state Senate race in December, Democrats collected 2,163 ballots. On Election Day, the Democrat won only 1,640 votes, meaning more people voted absentee than in person, suggesting an extraordinarily high level of organization and energy on the ground. The same pattern held for the House race.
In mid February, Republicans won their only special election since November in a district outside Minneapolis. But Trump had carried it by a 61-32 margin, DailyKos reported, and the Republican winning by just 6 points was a huge collapse.
The question, then, is whether the momentum can carry into 2018. Along the way will be the November 2017 elections in Virginia and New Jersey. The Garden State should be easy to pick off for Democrats, given their statewide advantage and the cellar-level popularity of Gov. Chris Christie (R).
But Virginia will be interesting to watch. If populist-progressive Tom Perriello can channel the new grassroots energy into his candidacy, there’s every reason to believe he can knock off the establishment candidate, Ralph Northam, who is lieutenant governor and was Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s (D) hand-picked successor. If Perriello can get past Northam in the June primary, he’ll likely face GOP lobbyist and operative Ed Gillespie, who is perfectly ill-suited for the moment ― particularly with Trump regularly attacking federal workers, who make up a significant chunk of the Virginia electorate. Democratic committee meetings in Virginia, Perriello told HuffPost, “are absolutely bursting out of the room in the hallways with crowds.”
Governor and state House races like the one in Virginia are more critical than ever because the redistricting process follows the 2020 Census. If Democrats can ride a new wave into power, the gerrymandering of 2010 can be rolled back.
Local officials nationwide say they’re focused on creating a positive vision and a constant stream of activities to keep these new activists engaged.
“If we stop giving them things to do, I’m worried that people will get apathetic,” said Lopez, the executive director of the Travis County Democratic Party in Texas. “It’s only February, but typically after an election, this is the time when people are apathetic.”
Savage, who runs the Washtenaw County Democratic Party in Michigan, said he’s been making a point of reaching out not only to his new members, but to many of the people in the outside activist groups, to let them know that the party has resources that can help them organize.
“We’re going to be here whether they’re here or not,” he said. “But if we can activate them, help them have some successes ― you’ve got to have a success now and then, otherwise it becomes too demoralizing.”
Next year is key for Michigan as well; every state legislative seat and every single statewide office is up for election.
Even without a to-do list from local party leaders, Trump is managing to be liberals’ greatest organizer, with one extraordinary move after another drawing public outrage. With his Muslim ban on hold, his popularity plummeting, national security adviser Mike Flynn fired, Obamacare repeal looking less and less likely and Labor Department nominee Andy Puzder defeated, Democrats can start to point to wins that keep newly engaged activists fighting.
And they’re hoping to pick up one more in Delaware this week. Even if they don’t, Republican John Marino, making a bid for the seat, appears to have his finger on the new public pulse. Theresa Kudlick, a district voter, said Marino came by her neighbor’s house and she was left with the impression he was the Democrat in the race. None of his material mentioned what is becoming an inconvenient fact: He’s a Republican.
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