One year ago, Essence Johnson was walking. Now she’s running.
This weekend, Johnson will announce her candidacy as a Democrat for a Georgia House seat that hasn’t changed hands in 15 years. For the 35-year-old east Cobb County resident, the chance to challenge incumbent Republican Matt Dollar — who last faced a general election opponent in 2010 — was too important to pass up.
“I felt I need to run,” said Johnson, who joined thousands in the Atlanta Women’s March last January. “People need to realize it’s not about sitting back and being complacent. We’ve come too far to turn back.”
The women’s movement ignited by Donald Trump’s election triggered a wave of political involvement from newly energized activists. But it faces its first true test later this year when Johnson and dozens of other women, many of them first-time candidates, seek elected office.
Trump’s presidential inauguration a year ago sent tens of thousands of women to the streets of Atlanta, filled town hall meetings with upset voters and helped elect a surge of women in last year’s votes. Many of them are Democrats with moderate or liberal views, though last year’s class of newly elected officials also featured several prominent Republican women.
The primary votes in May and general election contests in November offer the chance for bigger gains, with every state legislative seat and state constitutional office up for grabs. And Democrats are furiously recruiting candidates, eager to challenge GOP incumbents who haven’t faced opponents in years.
That sense of energy was on vivid display on Saturday at a Power to the Polls rally in Atlanta - one of dozens across the nation to mark the one-year anniversary of Trump’s inauguration - where many in the crowd of thousands pledged to remain politically active.
“This brings us hope. There’s gotta be some positivity out of this,” said Melissa Lach of Dahlonega. “If all these people come together in 2018, we’ve got to see some changes.”
Both the leading Democratic candidates for governor are women, as are many of the party’s top contenders for statewide office. And the party is eager to contrast its ticket with the GOP — just about every top Republican contender for state office is a white male.
“How can anyone miss the message in that?” asked Chelsea Clements, a Roswell resident who voted for Hillary Clinton but wound up regretting she didn’t do more to help her.
After Clinton’s defeat, Clements joined Pave It Blue, an all-female grass-roots group working to elect progessive candidates, and she started calling strangers and knocking on their doors to tell them about candidates. Soon, she’ll host a “postcard party” for volunteers helping a slate of female candidates.
Even a loss by any of these top female candidates would just be the beginning of overdue change, not the end, Clements believes.
“Women are resilient,” she said. “It’s not like if we lose a race, we’re never going to come back. We figure out what went wrong and we come back stronger than ever. Just look at what’s happened over the past year.”
No ‘taking for granted’
Last year’s special elections and local contests were ground zero.
Georgia elected its first female Republican member of the U.S. House — Republican Karen Handel — after an epic special election that was the costliest of its kind in the nation’s history. Thousands of female volunteers helped both Handel and her opponent, Democrat Jon Ossoff, who made Handel’s opposition to abortion rights an element of his campaign.
“It’s very encouraging to see so many woman– regardless of their party – coming forward to run for office,” said Handel. “I’ve always believed that having more women in elected office – whether in Congress or at the state and local level – is a positive.”
A national Democratic wave in November rippled through Georgia, delivering victories to Democrats in two Georgia House seats considered so conservative that the incumbents hadn’t faced challenges in years. And nearly every women on the ballot in the December runoffs won, including candidates in high-profile contests for Atlanta mayor and an open state Senate seat.
The winners saw it as a sign of what’s to come this November, a chance to capitalize not just on outrage over Trump and the #MeToo movement but also a broader political awakening that could deliver more upsets. Liz Flowers, a Democratic strategist, put it this way: “We are not taking for granted that our interests are better represented by someone else.”
Democrats Stacey Abrams and Stacey Evans are competing for the party’s gubernatorial nomination. And Sarah Riggs Amico, a business executive and political newcomer, jumped in the race for lieutenant governor. Down the ballot, the party has candidates running for just about every post.
“We get calls and inquiries from candidates on a regular basis,” said Jen Cox of Pave It Blue, which sprung up in support of Ossoff’s candidacy and now has more than 5,000 members, all women.
Seven members won races in Georgia back in November, and two members are managing Jen Slipakoff’s campaign for Georgia House District 36.
“We also spend time identifying what seats are uncontested or open,” Cox added. “If no one has thrown their hat in the ring, we say, let’s see if someone in our group will raise their hands.”
It’s a more unpredictable environment for Republicans, who control every statewide office and have commanding majorities in both chambers of the Legislature.
No GOP women are among the leading contenders for the three major open offices — governor, lieutenant governor and secretary of state. One of the only high-level GOP candidates is Tricia Pridemore, who recently launched her campaign for a soon-to-be vacated state Public Service Commission post.
“My message is the same whether I’m talking to men or women. And I think the success of that message is the same whether I, as the messenger, were a man or a woman,” Pridemore said, adding that the voters she’s met on the campaign trail share a desire for “lower taxes, a better education for their children and safer communities to live in.”
‘Keep doing it’
The newfound surge of female activism is aiming to advance onto new shores. Not for all women, of course. For some, taking part in the women’s marches here or in Washington was enough. But for others, such as Lauren Edholm of Woodstock, it was just a jumping-off point.
Edholm, 29, arrived in Washington in time for Trump’s inauguration, which she spent visiting the National Museum for African American History and Culture. The next day, she joined some 2.6 million participants in the Women’s March and met with veterans about the early days of the women’s rights movement.
“It was the most inspirational thing I ever attended,” Edholm said. “Afterward, I said to myself: ‘This is your time to go do something. Figure out how to make that happen.’ ”
She came back home and contacted Georgia’s WIN List, a political action committee that recruits, trains and works to elect women to the General Assembly and statewide offices. She went through the group’s Leadership Academy and has her eye on running for a state House seat in 2020.
“We just have to get out there and do it,” Edholm said. “And keep doing it.”
That was the message, too, from Mindy Stombler, a Decatur activist who held a sign at the rally Saturday emblazoned with a famous quote from U.S. Rep. John Lewis of Georgia: “Get in trouble. Good trouble.”
Like many other women at the event, she said she was not deeply involved in politics until the 2016 election. Trump’s victory changed that. She now makes regular calls to state and federal lawmakers and volunteered for a string of campaigns last year. This year, she said, she’s focusing on voter registration.
“This is more than a march. This is a movement,” she said.