The Republican Party has been riding high with its control over state governments, with Republican majorities in the legislatures of 33 states.
The GOP did not arrive at its dominant position overnight or by accident, but it was the election of Donald Trump to the presidency that was apparently the last straw for many Democratic and politically progressive voters, including some in Portola Valley and Woodside.
Indivisible PV, one of some 5,000 chapters of Indivisible USA, formed after the 2016 election to resist the agenda of Mr. Trump and his party. With Portola Valley resident Dr. David Kaufman at the head of about 240 members, most from Portola Valley, the group has prepared posters, contacted members of Congress and participated in marches on issues such as taxes, science and climate change.
At its May meeting, attended by 40 people at the Woodside Village Church, the group’s Action wing distributed packets of postcards in need of stamps and addressed to members of the Senate Intelligence Committee in support of the committee’s investigation of Russia’s alleged meddling with the 2016 election.
The group also has an Electoral wing, which has other fish to fry: providing campaign materials and support for one-off 2017 federal races for the House of Representatives, including in Georgia and Montana.
Getting Democrats to actually vote is the key, says Rebecca Flynn of Indivisible PV. “We don’t need to convert any Trump supporters,” she says. “We just need to get out the vote.”
Taking a page from the Electoral wing is Local Majority, a smaller group of 15 Portola Valley women led by JoAnn Loulan and providing campaign managers in Virginia with research and highly distilled written materials to help elect more Democrats to the House of Delegates, Virginia’s lower house, in November 2017.
“What’s a priority for me,” Ms. Loulan says, “is flipping some of these state legislatures. Most of the egregious laws on the books,” including laws restricting abortion, gay marriage and transgender rights, originated in state legislatures, she says. “The Republicans have been pretty smart.”
Virginia is one of two states holding legislative elections in 2017. The other is New Jersey, which is solidly blue at the federal and state levels except for its governor, Chris Christie.
Meanwhile in Woodside, the local chapter of Swing Left is focusing on unseating Republican Jeff Denham who represents California’s 10th Congressional District, a Central Valley area that includes Stanislaus and San Joaquin counties. Mr. Denham won re-election in 2016, but by a margin of just 3.4 percent.
A victory that closely fought meets the definition of a swing district for Swing Left, and there are 66 of them in House races in 26 states, according to the group’s website. Democrats need to win 80 percent of those districts in 2018 to regain the House majority, says Denise Fenzi, the Swing Left chair in Woodside. “Then we can think about taking back the country,” she adds.
Swing Left, on its home page, advises its volunteers to “find your closest Swing District and join its team to learn about actionable opportunities to support progressives and defeat Republicans in that district, no matter where you live. We can stop Trump and the GOP agenda by working together NOW.”
Ms. Fenzi, 48 and a Democrat with a master’s degree in public administration, became chair of the Woodside chapter by virtue of her success at persuading people to attend an organizing party. “I didn’t realize what I was signing up for,” she says.
The 10th District election is 18 months away, but momentum for assigning tasks is picking up, she says. An online bulletin board to connect volunteers with 10th District campaigns is in progress. Voter registration events have been held, and a get-out-the-vote effort is ahead. Workers conversant in languages other than English, particularly Spanish and Assyrian, will be essential, Ms. Fenzi says.
The 10th District only recently swung Republican. Between 1996 and 2012, it was represented by Democrats. Ms. Fenzi’s key questions: “What do people want? What do they need? How can we help them get there?” she says. “It’s not about us. It’s about them.”
While the Woodside chapter of Swing Left consults with the Democratic Party and other Bay Area chapters, it’s a bottom-up organization, Ms. Fenzi said. “We are allowed to do whatever makes sense,” she said. The immediate goal is to “hand a pretty good pot of money” to the Democratic candidate who wins the 10th District’s primary election, she said.
Tea Party methods
The handbook “Indivisible: A Practical Guide for Resisting the Trump Agenda” is the work of former congressional staffers on how to effectively get the attention of members of Congress and participate in the democratic process.
The book’s four chapters focus on tactics the Tea Party employed to oppose the policies of Barack Obama’s administration. The authors don’t hold back. “If a small minority in the Tea Party can stop President Obama, then we the majority can stop a petty tyrant named Trump,” the introduction says.
The chapters go step-by-step over Tea Party methods:
• Use defensive tactics point out problems with your opponents’ agenda rather than proposing alternatives.
• Be sensitive to a congressional representative’s priorities: getting re-elected, not wasting time, and avoiding surprises and bad press.
• Mobilize locally.
• Make yourself heard when your representative is in the district.
In a district represented by Anna Eshoo, D-Menlo Park, there’s not a lot reason for Indivisible members to complain. Ms. Eshoo also opposes Mr. Trump and the ideas he represents. What’s an activist to do?
Virginia beckoned. Hillary Clinton won the state in 2016, including its popular vote with a majority of 64 percent, according to RealClearPolitics.com. The legislature, however, is deep red — just one vote shy of a veto-proof Republican majority in the House of Delegates.
Gerrymandering is an issue. The U.S. Supreme Court recently rejected a district court ruling in support of 12 Virginia legislative districts that had been redrawn after the 2010 census, saying that the district court used an incorrect standard in deciding that race was not a predominating factor in the redrawing.
Of Local Majority, Ms. Loulan says: “You can’t believe these people, the 15 women that are doing this.”
In an effort to inform Virginia voters, the women of Local Majority are studying in detail the activities of Republican legislators. If a bill on student debt relief, for example, never made it to the floor for a vote, they are trying to ferret out exactly why that happened, Ms. Loulan says. Details on what takes place in committee rooms is apparently very hard to come by, even for dedicated observers.
One of the women, Laura Kavanaugh, says she was surprised at the gerrymandering and the dominance of Republicans in the Virginia state legislature, given Democratic tendencies in statewide elections. “What’s alarming is that people don’t realize how much this (balance) affects their daily lives,” she says, whether it’s minimum wages, sanctuary cities, voter suppression laws or women’s and LGBTQ rights.
People of color, immigrants and the “financially strapped” will be the most hurt by Republican legislation, she says. The Democratic campaigns in Virginia don’t have a lot of funding, she says. “They’re really grateful to have a group of volunteers that is paying attention and doing the work.”
“Everyone’s working their butt off, some (of them) way harder than me,” says Laura Cornish, another of the 15 women. “There’s an amazing amount of time going into this.”
Ms. Cornish is one of four women working to flip Virginia’s state District 12 in the House of Delegates, now represented by Republican Joseph Yost. The volunteers are putting together statistical information and writing background material on Mr. Yost, and will do the same for his challenger after the primary election, if there is one — material to put at the fingertips of door-to-door campaign workers.
Mr. Yost won re-election in 2015 with 58.4 percent of the vote, but with a turnout of just 24 percent, Ms. Loulan noted. Local Majority is looking for salient issues. In seeking new Democratic voters, for example, college websites have potential as resources for finding students willing to talk about what’s important to them, Ms. Cornish says.
There are complications. The district includes Virginia Tech, where in 2007 a student shot and killed 32 people and wounded 17. But the district is a stronghold for the National Rifle Association, campaign managers say, and the volunteers were asked to avoid writing about guns and gun rights, Ms. Cornish says.
“These are the kinds of conversations that we have to have and think about,” she says. “We’re in Portola Valley (where) there’s a whole different demographic.”
Another Local Majority member, Sheila Ellison, says she learned that a significant number of women voted for Mr. Trump because they were told to by their fathers, husbands or brothers. “That was just like a dagger to my heart,” she says. “‘The men in my life told me to vote this way?’ Are we really still that far behind?”
“We can’t make calls for Virginians, but we can help people in Virginia understand their vote,” she says. “They don’t have the time and energy. I do have the time and energy. … I don’t want my children to inherit the world the way it’s going. We have to flip the state and then we’ll move on to the next state.”
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported JoAnn Loulan as heading Indivisible PV. The group is actually led by Dr. David Kaufman.