Georgia Democrats try not to ‘waste’ Trump moment

DeAndre Jones looked out to an auditorium so crowded that people stood four-deep against the walls, sat on dusty floors and crammed into just about every other crevice they could.

Then he asked a question that sent about every hand in the room skyward: Did you complain to your local lawmakers about Donald Trump?

“This is what our time calls for: true civic engagement,” said Jones, an organizer with the Georgia House Democratic Caucus that set up the town hall. “So let’s not waste this unique opportunity.”

Trump’s first two weeks in office sparked a level of political activism not seen in Georgia since the early days of the conservative tea party. Opponents of Trump’s policies have marched in the streets of the state’s biggest cities, channeled an avalanche of phone calls to GOP lawmakers and held a spate of town halls to try to channel that anger into activity.

The size and scope of the movement has stunned even longtime Democratic activists who have seen the ebb and flow of movements such as the Moral Monday protests. State Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver, who has been in elected office for 25 years, has "never in my long political career seen this kind of energy."

“People keep saying that Trump is a new form of president,” said Oliver, whose inbox is full of messages from voters who want to get involved. “Well, people are responding in a new form now, too.”

It’s impossible to tell now whether this burgeoning movement will have a lasting impact, like the tea party response to Barack Obama’s election that triggered a wave of Republican wins, or fizzle out like the “Occupy” protests earlier this decade.

But what is clear is the protests are already making waves in Republican-dominated Georgia — and left-leaning groups across the state are trying to make the most of it.

The Georgia chapter of Planned Parenthood, for example, usually gets 2,000 new donors each year. It tallied that many in the month of December alone. The Democratic Party of Cobb County — which turned blue in November for the first time since Jimmy Carter’s election — has logged more than 400 new members since the election.

Thousands of Georgians trekked to Washington two weeks ago to protest against Trump; tens of thousands rallied in Atlanta. Weekly demonstrations have drawn crowds outside the offices of U.S. Sens. Johnny Isakson and David Perdue, and their jammed phone lines have inspired graffiti artists. The Krog Street Tunnel was emblazoned with their phone numbers this week.

At Thursday’s town hall at a union headquarters, even organizers seemed taken aback by the turnout. Their event last year hardly attracted 75 people. This time, nearly 600 people showed up — and many huddled around crowded tables with sign-up sheets after the meeting. At least 30 signaled interest in running for public office.

“I got bit by the bug, and I’m almost at the point now where I have to detox,” said a sighing Triana Arnold-James, a new Democratic volunteer from Marietta. “We Democrats got comfortable, and now there’s an opportunity to rebuild the party. We can’t waste it.”

And they expect Trump’s bombastic tone, which has hardly tempered since his election, to continue to feed their enthusiasm.

“What happened in November put the fire under me,” said Camille Vincent, a 25-year-old from Atlanta who signed up to volunteer with two groups after Thursday’s meet. “I’m an introvert, and this forced me to step outside my comfort zone. I know Trump’s trying to distract us, but this is going to continue.”

‘The left’s tactics are backfiring’

The leaders of Georgia’s tea party movement understand the sentiment.

They also crowded into gyms and conference rooms, staged protests and petition drives, attracted droves of new volunteers and media attention. And they effected real change, triggering a wave election that helped the GOP retake the U.S. House and hobble Obama’s agenda.

One of the more effective groups, the Cobb-based Georgia Tea Party, managed to stay relevant over time by staying active. The group still holds weekly meetings near downtown Marietta, huddles with elected officials regularly and takes policy stands on their priorities.

“We made a real deliberative effort to stay involved, and I don’t know if the left will be able to commit to this level of organization,” said Jim Jess, a vice chairman of the group. “Will they ever be more than protests in the street? I don’t know.”

Alex Johnson was swept up in the same sort of political awakening in 2009 that many new Democratic recruits are experiencing. Infuriated by Obama’s health care policy, he got involved with state Republican politics and and ran twice — unsuccessfully — to become head of the Georgia GOP. He plans to try again this summer.

He’s not overly concerned that the Democratic movement will leave an indelible mark, he said, in part because he’s confident it won’t connect with average voters. Trump, after all, did win Georgia with 51 percent of the vote.

“I’m seeing a lot of people involved in the Trump campaign who are getting very fired up because they see what’s going on. The left’s tactics are backfiring on them,” Johnson said, noting a protest in Berkeley, Calif., that led to smashed windows and fires. “Trump is worried about the American people while the left is going around destroying property.”

Trump, too, has expressed disdain for the budding Democratic movement, seizing on the violent protests at the University of California-Berkeley that forced a controversial speaker to cancel his remarks.

Of the millions who marched the day after his inauguration, he wrote on Twitter, “Why didn’t these people vote?” And on Friday he disparaged the Berkeley demonstrators as “professional anarchists, thugs and paid protesters” who are proving his campaign’s point.

‘Ready to go’

Many activists in the constellation of left-leaning Georgia advocate groups welcome the needling.

Georgia’s WIN List, a pro-Democratic political action committee geared toward electing more women in public office, has seen a more than 50 percent increase in the number of attendees at the “house parties” it holds after each election.

Most wanted to volunteer for campaigns, and at least two dozen aim to run for office themselves, said Anna Beck, the chairwoman of the group’s board.

“We’ve had house parties across the state since the election, and women we’ve never met or are pretty new to the political area are showing up,” Beck said. “They are fired up and ready to go.”

Georgia Equality, the state’s largest gay rights group, fielded a swarm of new inquiries, too. About 50 people typically show up for the citizen advocacy training it hosts each year. This year’s event, held near the January start of the state’s legislative session, attracted 230 people.

“Then at another, we expected 100 people but we got over 200,” said Jeff Graham, the group’s director. “They want to know how to contact lawmakers, and people are also asking about how to run for office.”

It’s trickling down in other ways. Ted Terry, the state director for the Sierra Club, said nearly 2,000 new members have joined over the past eight months. Thanks to rising national donations, he said the organization’s “ground game is expanding” in Georgia.

Conservative groups are welcoming new members as well. About 100 people packed a meeting last week of the state chapter of the National Federation of Independent Business that featured calls from Republicans to make the most of GOP control of both the White House and Congress.

Still, some Republicans are concerned a sense of apathy might be setting in — one that could allow the Democratic response to grow unchecked. Jess said his tea party group’s membership has hardly budged since the election, and many of the meetings attract the same core crowd.

“There is the realization that we’ve accomplished a lot of what we wanted to accomplish,” he said, “so there may not be a push to engage like there has been.”

No ‘hostile’ approach

The size and scale of the grass-roots fury poses a challenge for Democratic politicians, who must turn the anger in their party’s base into a cohesive strategy.

State House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams, a likely Democratic candidate for governor in 2018, started a "Georgia Resists" website through her caucus devoted to challenging Trump at every turn. It has attracted more than 2,800 subscribers and 260 volunteers since launching hours before the president was sworn in.

At meetings across the state, Abrams has promoted what she calls “relentless incrementalism.”

“We have to know that every year is an election year, and we are always campaigning,” Abrams said. “There are 160 municipal elections this year, and they are a chance to stand up and show who we are. That’s how Republicans took this state. They started with city council races, with soil and water conservation posts most of you skipped.”

With Trump threatening federal funding for cities, states and causes on his bad side, that approach comes with risks.

Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed said he’s determined not to take a “hostile” approach to Trump, though he’s willing to challenge the president on a case-by-case basis.

An early example: He joined the demonstration last week at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport against the president’s immigration policy, but he won’t declare his city a “sanctuary” that will defy Trump’s crackdown.

“It’s like the standard for pornography,” he said when asked how he’ll decide which policies to oppose and which to ignore. “You know it when you see it.”

If the movement holds, Democrats could soon have a new legion of willing combatants.

Anita Tucker ran for public office for the first time in November and was trounced by voters in deep-red Forsyth County. But she vowed she won’t disappear into the ranks of the also-rans.

After that vote, she organized a busload of activists for the march in Washington the day after Trump’s inauguration. And she is now orchestrating weekly protests outside of Isakson’s Cobb offices to ratchet up the pressure on the three-term Republican.

“I’ve never done this before, but I want to make sure people know that we’re not going away,” Tucker said. “We’re not just a few fringe people standing up there.”

Staff writer Rosalind Bentley contributed to this article.