Liberals trying to harness activist energy vs. Trump, GOP

Donald Trump's surprise win in November lit a fire under Carolyn Clow, a county purchasing agent in Madison, Wisconsin. On Saturday, she attended her first in a series of classes on how to run for office.

"If we learn anything as a liberal community, I'd hope that it's time to stop thinking 'I'd like to do something,' and time to take that action," said Clow, 43, who is running for the village board in her town outside of Madison in the April election with the help of an organization that recruits Democratic women candidates.

"It's fun and exciting to march and it's boring to go down to village hall to vote, but we have to learn to do both," she said.

Trump's election has sparked what liberal groups say is unprecedented activism. The most visible manifestation of that were protest marches the day after Trump's inaugural, which drew millions to Washington, D.C., and other locations across the country and overseas. Those were followed by demonstrations at airports Saturday against Trump's executive order prohibiting entry into the U.S. by people from seven countries and also limiting refugees.

Much of the discussion since the marches has revolved around how to turn that energy into an effective movement, especially through electoral politics. Democrats have been decimated in elections at the state and local level during the past eight years, and have their best chance to stymie Trump if they can seize control of the House of Representatives in the 2018 elections.

The morning after the election, Ethan Todras-Whitehill embodied liberals' dilemma - in bright blue western Massachusetts no Republicans other than Trump were on the ballot to vote against. He began googling to find his nearest swing district and thought - why not create a tool to help others like him?

The day before Trump's inauguration, he and some friends debuted swingleft.org, which lets people find their nearest House swing district and register to help flip the House in 2018. Todras-Whitehill says 250,000 people have already signed up.

There's been grumbling from some liberal activists that the effort wasn't coordinated with Democratic party officials who are already trying to flip the House. "We can't be waiting around for someone else to do something," Todras-Whitehill said. "Everyone needs to be standing up and doing something on their own."

That scattershot approach has taken hold everywhere. While the organizers of last weekend's Women's Marches haven't announced future demonstrations, there are already plans in the works for scientists to march in protest of Trump, for nationwide protests on April 15 demanding the president release his tax returns.

In cities around the country, people are marching on congressional offices, joining liberal organizations and lobbying their local representatives.

"There's a battle raging on multiple fronts and you have the feeling of being surrounded," said Chris Newman, legal director of the National Day Laborers Organizing Network. "The most important thing is to focus on whatever hill you have and hold your hill."

Newman's group focuses on immigrant rights and has been using a strategy honed in fights against former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, whose immigration crackdown in Arizona's largest county is a possible model for the Trump administration. The group has been co-hosting community meetings where nervous immigrants and eager, mobilized new volunteers can learn the basics of immigration law and how to protect their rights.

They've also been pushing state and local officials to step up protections for immigrants. "The pressure for action will be felt more sharply on the local level," Newman said. "There are increasing expectations for mayors and governors and state lawmakers."

Neil Aquino, 49, has high expectations for his local elected officials in Houston. Texas may be a solidly Republican state but its cities are increasingly Democratic and Aquino is writing all of Houston's elected Democrats demanding they step up and fight Trump. "I don't find the response from local Democrats is matching the anxiety people feel," said Aquino, an artist.

Liz Merriweather is also contacting her elected officials, though they are Republicans. As part of a Women's March follow-up project she's writing postcards to her congressional representatives from Tennessee. She's waiting for more direction - this is the 56-year-old therapist's first political activity.

"Over the past eight years, I've kind of gotten complacent and felt things are in good hands and I can trust officials," she said. "But people like me, your average citizen, have a duty to take action."

Elizabeth Barnes held a postcard-writing party on Saturday evening with a progressive group she helped launch in her quiet suburb in Orange County, California. The group started with six parents meeting in August hoping to increase multicultural education in the local schools. After the election its membership ballooned to more than 220.

"Every time we have an event, more and more people show up," Barnes, 41, said.

The Ladera Ranch Social Justice Committee doesn't sound like the vanguard of the resistance: It mainly hosts multicultural children's book readings. But it also funnels its members to more political events like the Women's March. Last week, some of its members demonstrated at the office of their local Republican congressman, Rep. Darrell Issa.

He's one of the most endangered Republican House members in 2018.

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