Democrats are seeing a surge in local activism. Now what do they do with it?
Average attendance at a Lexington Democratic Town Committee meeting used to be about 25 people. Now, it’s more than tripled.
Nearly 100 people filled the room when Arlington Democrats gathered to elect delegates to this year’s state convention — the highest turnout in more than a decade.
Even in Rehoboth, a Republican hamlet near the Rhode Island border, a sea of new faces filled the room when Democrats caucused just over a week ago — a surprise for the local party chairman, who thought he knew just about every Democratic activist in town.
“People are coming out of the woodwork,” said Raymond Olivier, chairman of what he calls Rehoboth’s “little” town committee. (There are about 40 people in its database.) “It’s kind of an exciting time.”
The wave of political dissent sweeping the country has surged through the ground floor of the Democratic Party as scores of people try to find ways to push back against the policies of President Trump.
“This is a great shot in the arm for the Democratic Party. There is significantly more activism and organizing and passion,” said Gus Bickford, chairman of the state party. “All of the meetings I attend, I hear from people that it’s twice or three times as many people than normally show.”
But here in Massachusetts, as nationally, the party is struggling with the next step — what to do with the newly energized base of activists. Party leaders are trying to figure out how to harness the energy of various progressive factions without isolating those newcomers who balk at partisan politics. Nationally, Democrats are grappling with issues of organization and identity as party members meet this weekend in Atlanta to vote on a new chairperson.
In Massachusetts, Democrats are in the initial stages of picking the people who will decide the party’s platform. Bickford said this year’s Democratic state convention is on track to be one of the largest off-year conventions in history. If the surge continues, it could have an effect on the ballot in 2018 when Democrats will try to oust Republican Governor Charlie Baker.
“The job now for the committee is to keep in contact with all of those people and try to find things that people can do that are meaningful,” said Margaret E. Coppe, chairwoman of the Lexington Democratic Town Committee. “That’s our challenge.”
Some have compared this left-leaning surge to the conservative Tea Party movement, which pushed the GOP to the ideological right during former president Barack Obama’s time in office.
“The question is, do all these protests send the Democrats more to the left and make them more responsive? That’s what Republicans did with the Tea Party,” said Erin O’Brien, chairwoman of the political science department at the University of Massachusetts Boston.
In the Republicans’ case, the Tea Party mounted challengers to incumbents, and also generally moved the GOP to the right.
State Republicans, for their part, say they’ve also seen a surge in activism.
“Since Election Day, we’ve had over 4,000 new individuals sign up to get involved with the party, and hundreds of people express an interest in running for office,” said Terry MacCormack, a spokesman for the state GOP.
Bickford said what’s happening now is vastly different than the Tea Party movement. This, he said, is more of a gut reaction to the things said and done by the president. It transcends partisan politics, which is why the party is treading carefully for fear of isolating unenrolled voters if opportunities to become politically active appear too partisan, he said.
“It doesn’t have to be our brand,” Bickford said. “This is much more about the future of this country, and also the safety of this country.”
Working with nonpartisan organizations, such as labor unions, the American Civil Liberties Union, and the NAACP, “allows everyone to be motivated against what is clearly wrong,” he said. “We have a president that lies. It should be all parties standing up and saying ‘that’s unacceptable.’”
Once people arrive at a protest, rally, or organizing workshop, Bickford said, party activists try to draw them in by collecting their contact information and engaging them about issues supported by the Democratic Party.
That’s how South Shore Action came to be, said Ellen Whalen, chairwoman of the Hingham Democratic Town Committee and one of the group’s founders.
It started organically just after the election, she said. The town committee was supposed to meet for its holiday party in December, but that didn’t seem appropriate given the election results, so friends and neighbors gathered “to vent and talk. There wasn’t an agenda beyond that,” Whalen said.
About 40 people showed up, and she said “the issues that came up ranged from women’s rights to nuclear Armageddon.”
They decided to meet again and keep the group nonpartisan so that people who had never before been involved in party politics could feel comfortable joining them.
“Partisanship wasn’t a requirement,” she said.
The next meeting, 50 people showed. The two after that: 85.
Now, they’ve broken into working groups based on areas of interest and invited Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey, a Democrat, to speak. A crowd of 300 showed, Whalen said, adding that the group sends out a weekly newsletter to some 400 people.
“Outside of the Democrat Party, there are people finding each other and then coming into the Democrat Party from these groups,” she said.
Aimee Coolidge has been a member of the Arlington Democratic Town Committee, which she now heads, since 2000, and said she’s only seen caucus attendance at these levels once, 15 years ago, when there were five gubernatorial candidates on the primary ballot. When the party caucused on Feb. 11 for the convention in June, 100 people showed.
“Usually, you just show up at the caucus and there are less people than slots, but this year it was competitive,” she said. “That’s very unusual for an off-year.”
Lexington Democrats haven’t caucused yet, but they have held monthly meetings and watched attendance skyrocket.
“Before the election, we might have 25 to 30 people show up to a meeting,” Coppe said. “The last one we had, there was 80 [people] and the one before that was maybe 50.”
The challenge, she said, will be keeping people engaged, although she’s not too worried.
“As long as the White House keeps doing the things they’re doing, we’ll have plenty of material,” she said.