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SWINGING FOR THE FENCES. NEW YORK — In the shadow of the Freedom Tower, 16 liberal New Yorkers came together in a Tribeca storefront robotics workshop Sunday night to figure out how to help rebuild the Democratic grassroots and retake the U.S. House of Representatives from Republicans in 2018 — a breathtakingly ambitious goal.
“You probably couldn’t pick a more arch-villain administration than we have now. Pretty much everything he does … it couldn’t possibly be worse,” said K Young, a 38-year-old digital executive and host of the meeting. His wife owns the children’s robot-building playground.
For two months after the election, he had had “terrible sleep,” he said. He was worried. Worried about the environment, deregulation, the economy, his children’s future — they are 1 and 4 — his own future, and “my neighbors who find themselves persecuted, potentially forcibly removed from this country.” He worried “that our president doesn’t seem able to separate fact from fiction from opinion.”
So he decided, “I can’t just sit by and do nothing. I can’t just assume the arc of history bends toward justice all by itself, because it apparently doesn’t. So I’m here to try to help.”
The people who gathered were strangers to each other, but over the course of the next hour the attendees who’d RSVPed online began to get to know each other face-to-face at what was one of the more than 500 weekend house parties held across the nation under the banner of Swing Left. Collectively those house parties drew more than 10,000 RSVPs.
Launched the day before President Trump’s inauguration by three novice organizers based in cobalt-blue political districts, Swing Left is an all-volunteer political action committee that aims to provide a pathway for Democrats in safe districts to engage with and help turn the tide in 52 House districts where the 2016 margin of victory was 15 percent or less. Holding all 17 Democratic-held districts and winning 68 percent of the 35 Republican-held ones would allow Democrats to retake the House.
While the party out of power does tend to pick up seats in midterm elections, it would take a tsunami-level wave to wash away the GOP’s grip on the House, thanks to gerrymandering that favors Republicans and the fact that Republicans are more dispersed across the landscape, while Democrats are packed into high-density urban districts, and to the fact that more Republicans vote in midterm elections than Democrats.
The meeting was divided up into sections. Introductions were followed by a video, discussion of the two target districts closest to Tribeca — New Jersey’s Fifth and Seventh Congressional districts — and sign-ups for door-knocking and voter registration drives in Jersey.
“I’m as scared as you are,” said Sue Freel, 60, a filmmaker and copy editor, telling the other attendees why she was there. “I can’t believe that he’s president. I was devastated in a way I’ve never been devastated, because I’m not a young kid. And he’s worse than Nixon. I lived through Nixon. I said, well, I’ve got to do something. I’ve got to do something. So I marched the very next day after he got elected … and then I joined the Women’s March. And I’ve been marching, but I feel like marching isn’t enough. …
“I’m not going to stop marching, don’t get me wrong, because the presence is necessary, but I felt I wanted to do something more practical,” she said.
When Swing Left launched, it was met with both a measure of suspicion — no one in Democratic politics had heard of its founders — and an immediate outpouring of support. More than 300,000 people signed up on the site, swingleft.org, within weeks.
The site was the brainchild of a writer, political news junkie and GMAT teacher based in Amherst, Mass. “After the election, I was just like anyone who’s been watching the polls: flabbergasted, distraught, really despondent, and I was in my local coffee shop — I live in Amherst, Mass., in Western Mass — and I was just: I need to find something to do, some way to channel my energy that could actually potentially be productive,” Swing Left founder Ethan Todras-Whitehill told Yahoo News. So he went online to look for his nearest swing district, which turned out to be over the border in the Hudson Valley of New York state, where Zephyr Teachout had just lost her House bid by 8 percent.
In Amherst, there was nothing he could do to help change electoral outcomes. “I think there were no Republicans on my ballot in my district except Donald Trump. Literally nobody bothered to run — because why would you?” Todras-Whitehill said. In an overwhelmingly blue district, the key votes all occur in the Democratic primary. “And there are so many places in the country like that,” he said.
But maybe, just maybe, if he did something over the next few years in New York’s 19th Congressional District, he might be able to make a difference. The idea behind Swing Left was to give liberals like him from cobalt-blue districts some way of focusing their energies outside of where they lived — but somewhere close enough that they could drive there, and where the local cultures weren’t radically different. This would not be about people from San Francisco going to eastern Iowa for the final week before an election. It would be about people from Manhattan going to New Jersey, people from western Massachusetts going to upstate New York, and people from Washington, D.C., going to northern Virginia — and doing so over a period of 20 months.
In many of the targeted Republican-held swing districts, there’s not even a Democratic challenger in the picture yet. But starting before there is one is the point. “Nobody wins the primaries ’til about summer of 2018, and then they have like five months to scale up, and it’s reinventing the wheel,” said Todras-Whitehill. “What we’re going to try to do is building a campaign infrastructure in waiting — engaged, trained volunteers in a swing district who know and care about the district and are already doing the work for the campaign in advance of a Democratic candidate being named.”
He reached out to a friend he knew from high school on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, entrepreneur Josh Krafchin, and his wife, brand strategist Miriam Stone, and together they created Swing Left. The group is now partnering with Rock the Vote to register new voters in swing districts, and with Knock Every Door, a postelection effort started by former Bernie Sanders senior adviser Becky Bond, co-author of “Rules for Revolutionaries: How Big Organizing Can Change Everything,” to target swing-state congressional races by knocking on every door in key districts.
The connection to Knock Every Door was especially appealing to Freel. One of its first initiatives is research oriented: talking to voters, finding out what their concerns are, really getting to know the districts as a collection of people and stories instead of data points. That means talking to everyone, Democrats and Republicans, instead of just to select targeted voters likely to turn out to vote for a Democrat. “Why would you vote this person in?” is something Freel said she had trouble understanding of those who had backed Trump.
A major concern was how to get to the districts.
“I have a car, so I can drive to New Jersey. I’m not going to be driving, though,” said Young, to laughter in the room, early in the meeting. “Someone else can drive.”
“I drive a car and I have a valid license,” said Freel a bit later. “I’m from California, so I really know how to drive.” She did not, however, own a car.
“I would like to know more about the transportation situation,” another woman piped up later. Added another: “Which is closer if you don’t have a car?”
This raised an intriguing possibility about part of the political disconnect between big-city liberals and those in more rural districts. Many of the liberals in public-transit-oriented cities like New York don’t own a car, and in some cases they don’t even know how to drive, so their ability to visit key areas of the country is circumscribed from the outset unless they band together and organize.
Why weren’t they trying to plug into Democratic politics, I asked the people assembled. Because the Democratic Party, came the reply, had gone AWOL after the election, at the very moment when they most wanted to take action. “These organizations sprang up immediately afterward,” explained Don Picket, 46, a writer who also does advertising agency digital and print production. The Democratic National Committee, meanwhile, was adrift and undergoing a lengthy process of selecting a new chair. As well, he said, “the Democrats have twice abandoned the grassroots.” Their state-based organizing efforts have been allowed to decay. First, former Democratic National Committee Chair Howard Dean’s 50-state strategy was set aside, and then former President Barack Obama’s election turnout machine was allowed to go fallow. “They walked away from it,” he said.
Those at the small gathering vowed to stay in touch on Facebook, and possibly Slack, and signed up for a calendar of actions in the two New Jersey districts. Thirty people had RSVP’d to the meeting, and the future would surely see some of those who had attended drift away. Twenty months is a long commitment.
But for now they had made a start. And they had done it in person. “It’s good to meet outside of social media too,” said Ben Bailey, an Emerson College student. Online life was only too familiar to him, after a campaign encounter with Jeb Bush went viral in 2016.
SCHOOL’S OUT FOR MARCHERS. The Women’s March is asking supporters to participate in a general strike on Wednesday, March 8, and there are some surprising signs of the power of that ask.
At least two school districts in the South are canceling classes, thanks to the number of female teachers who have said they plan to take the day away from the office on “A Day Without a Woman.”
“Chapel Hill-Carrboro schools will be closed to students on March 8 — proclaimed as ‘A Day Without a Woman’ — because the school system expects to be shorthanded,” reports the News Observer.
And in northern Virginia, “Alexandria, Virginia’s public schools will close Wednesday, the system announced Monday. More than 300 staffers requested the day off, a situation that ‘may be attributed to the observance of International Women’s Day,’ the school system announced in a message to parents,” reports Washingtonian.
A POST-MARCH MESS IN PORTLAND. Reports the Oregonian, “Organizers of the Women’s March on Portland are embroiled in a dispute about donations raised in support of the event.
“The January march, which drew estimates of between 70,000 and 100,000 people to downtown, was, by most measures, a success. But in the weeks since, activists who hastily joined forces to organize the event have begun to fight publicly over what happened to donations that could total thousands of dollars.
“It’s unclear precisely how much money the event took in through T-shirt sales and other donations. But at least one organizer says the money hasn’t been accounted for. The Oregon Department of Justice confirmed this week that it is looking into a complaint but stopped short of saying it has launched an investigation.”
THAT’LL LEAVE A MARK. Women continue to get “Nevertheless, she persisted” tattoos, Reuters reports, writing Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s criticism of Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) on their bodies. From a Reuters report: “‘Every single women has had a Mitch McConnell or 10 or 20 in her life trying to tell her how to be and what to do,’ said Nora McInerny, a 34-year-old author and blogger who triggered the tattoo trend with an accidental public Facebook post.”
NEVER TWEET? “House of Cards” showrunner Beau Willimon argued in seven tweets over the weekend that Trump should be removed from Twitter. The first two:
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