In Atlanta, activists oppose Trump — but also establishment Democrats

The Netroots Nation conference drew about 3,000 liberal activists to Atlanta for three days of speeches, panel discussions and other events. Some taught lessons on how to wrest control of local parties, while others urged participants to challenge establishment Democrats at the local and national levels if they aren’t liberal enough Curtis Compton/

Credit: Curtis Compton

Credit: Curtis Compton

The Netroots Nation conference drew about 3,000 liberal activists to Atlanta for three days of speeches, panel discussions and other events. Some taught lessons on how to wrest control of local parties, while others urged participants to challenge establishment Democrats at the local and national levels if they aren’t liberal enough Curtis Compton/

As soon as Democrat Stacey Evans took the podium to introduce herself to thousands of liberal activists Saturday, protesters supporting her rival for governor arrayed in front of her. Thunderous chants from Stacey Abrams' backers overwhelmed her words. Evans left the stage to a smattering of boos, and a minor scuffle broke out in the audience.

The nation’s leading liberal activists came to Atlanta for the Netroots Nation conference spoiling to sharpen their fight with President Donald Trump. But they proved just as willing to poke, prod and pummel their fellow Democrats.

Primary challengers to long-serving Democrats were treated like stars. Panels instructed the 3,000 or so activists how to wrest control of their local parties. Others encouraged them to challenge establishment Democrats, whether they be on local school boards or in Congress, if they aren’t liberal enough.

If anything was clear, the internal Democratic fissures sharpened by Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign have solidified, if not deepened, since Trump’s election. In panels and in side conversations, organizers talked about forcing Democrats toward more liberal policies, such as single-payer health care and free college tuition.

And there was frustration, if not disgust, for Democratic officials who didn’t embrace the movement. Democrats wearing “rose-tinted glasses,” as U.S. Rep. Ruben Gallego of Arizona put it, should be ready for a fight.

“It’s not going to get better, it’s going to get worse,” Gallego said. “We need to get harder, tougher and more aggressive. And that means getting tougher on our own caucus.”

The infighting on the left at the Atlanta convention was catnip to Republicans, who are dealing with their own fractious rifts over Trump, health care and other policy debates.

Paul Bennecke, the director of the Republican Governors Association, quickly tweeted about the Democratic “melt down” as footage emerged on social media. Georgia GOP Chairman John Watson brought it up Saturday at a rally at a Rome airport hangar attended by dozens of Republicans.

“While the Staceys’ supporters are literally and figuratively at each other’s throats,” he said, “Republicans are united.”

‘Ready to fight’

The activists who flooded the Hyatt Regency for the conference, which started Thursday, shared stories of their intramural infighting as badges of honors.

Yong Jung Cho was part of a group of protesters who rallied outside Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer’s house shortly after Trump’s election to insist he not work with the incoming president. A founder of the #AllOfUs advocacy group, Cho brushed off criticism that internal defiance hurts the party’s fight against Trump.

“We’re not friends of the political establishment, so there’s an uphill battle. But there’s a ton of opportunities,” she said, adding that Democratic leaders aren’t providing “aspirational hope” for the growing group of liberals frustrated by gridlock.

Elsewhere, a hard-to-miss group of left-leaning candidates roamed the halls.

Brand New Congress, a group formed by former staff members and volunteers from Sanders’ campaign, boasted about a dozen liberal contenders targeting both Republicans and Democrats.

And Paula Jean Swearengin, a West Virginia environmental activist, got a prime speaking slot to pitch her campaign against U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin — one of the few moderate Democrats left in the chamber.

“Democrats or Republicans in West Virginia are cut of the same cloth,” she said. “I’m mad, and I’m ready to fight for West Virginia.”

A team of five Athens liberals led a panel called “Take the Donkey By the Tail” — a deep dive into how to take over local Democratic parties. They did exactly that in Athens-Clarke County, ushering in a new regime to replace what they described as an aging and sleepy local movement.

It’s led to more friction between the old guard and the newcomers, a mix of college students, recent graduates and local residents. It’s also triggered some breakthroughs, such as a “no more deportations” resolution that members trumpeted.

“As long as you’re inserting ideas for the right reasons and redirecting the discourse,” said Briana Bivens, one of the party’s new members, “you’re doing your job.”

Some tried to unite the various factions. Jon Ossoff, whose failed campaign for Georgia’s 6th Congressional District made him a star of the left, encouraged activists to unite over common “moral ground” rather than focus their fire on one another.

“We can embrace some of the vigorous discussions that are happening in the party without being afraid of them,” he said during a Saturday panel discussion.

“And the energy around making sure the party has a moral purpose is healthy and should continue,” he added. “But we don’t have to eat ourselves up over the fact that there’s a range of views and strategies.”

‘Snap out of it’

The Evans speech, though, put the party’s persistent divisions on jarring display.

The Smyrna attorney, who is white, hopes to rebuild a tattered coalition of liberals, white working-class voters and suburbanites who once powered the party but have steadily fled it for the GOP.

Abrams, who is running to be the nation’s first black female governor, pledged to mobilize a legion of minority voters who rarely cast ballots, and she embraced a staunchly liberal platform.

The two have divided the state’s party, each divvying up endorsements from high-profile politicians and support from key advocacy groups that doesn’t cleave to racial lines. Evans enjoys backing from several prominent black politicians, while Abrams has a core of white liberal support.

But the Netroots conference was clearly Abrams territory, and she was given rock-star treatment throughout the conference. She headlined a happy hour event and earned a standing ovation during a Thursday speech that helped kick off the convention.

“We can win the highest office in Georgia without changing my hair, my gender, my race or my beliefs,” she said to a roar of applause. “With you beside me, with progressives owning their power across this country, we can demand more of our leaders and bring our vision to life.”

Evans was prepared for a tough reception Saturday, but she seemed caught off guard by the level of dissension.

She aimed to deliver a mostly biographical speech about her troubled childhood and her plan to bolster the state’s popular HOPE scholarship, but instead, she spent much of her time on the podium feuding with protesters. At one point, she tried unsuccessfully to start a dueling chant of “HOPE, HOPE, HOPE.”

One of the demonstrators, activist Monica Simpson, said she could not point to any vote or specific policy that spurred her to protest against Evans. But she said she wants a candidate that “truly speaks to my community.”

Abrams said in a statement that she would not “condemn peaceful protest” and that the demonstrators were voicing their concern with Evans’ support for a Republican-led effort to give the state new powers over struggling schools.

As for the chanting of “trust black women” by the protesters, she said it was an “endorsement of the value of bringing marginalized voices to the forefront, not a rebuke to my opponent’s race.”

That didn’t go far enough for fellow Democrats, who quickly called on her to criticize the demonstration.

“It’s very disappointing and uncalled for. If Rep. Abrams does not rebuke what happened, she will lose a lot of support,” said state Rep. Scott Holcomb, who is neutral in the race. “This isn’t how Democrats want this primary race to be conducted.”

In an interview after the din died down, Evans offered her own critique of the demonstrators, who she said refused to “take the time to look at either one of our records.”

“They have a right to be heard, but so do I,” she said. “We can’t move forward in Georgia or the country if we don’t have productive dialogue.”


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