By John Bender
This week, Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez and U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders kicked off a nationwide tour hoping to energize Democrats ahead of mid-term elections in 2018.
They also want to reach out to progressives upset with President Donald Trump’s victory last November and disappointed with the Democratic Party. In Rhode Island some progressive women are getting engaged for the first time and trying to find their political voices.
On a recent weeknight, a group of about 30 people – almost all women – gather in a parish hall at a Unitarian church on the East Side of Providence. They’re here to learn political organizing tactics. The training session is put together by the progressive national organization Indivisible, which was founded after President Trump’s election. For most here, this is their first foray into political activism.
“Politics had never really interested me before,” said Diane Philips of Cranston. Trump’s election motivated her to come to the meeting. She and others hope to stop a federal agenda they consider dangerous.
“It’s kind of exhilarating and it’s also really exhausting, because you have to try to keep track of everything you feel like you should be keeping track of and that can be difficult,” said Susan Johnson of Warwick. Before tonight, Johnson had never been involved in politics. “I’m definitely out of my comfort zone, because I’m kind of an introvert. But I’m doing it because I think it’s necessary.”
Necessary because Johnson says she’s worried that President Trump will cause damage to the environment, and close the country to immigrants in need.
Leading the training is Jane Tucker. The Pawtucket resident is a nurse, now a stay-at-home mother of two and political organizing newbie. But you’d never guess it, as she begins the session confidently leading the group in an exercise.
“Can you all shout out on the count of three, what scares you the most about Trump?”
Tucker uses the resulting din to highlight the power of organized messaging. Tonight they’ll work to articulate that message, and send it clearly to Rhode Island’s state and national lawmakers. Tucker and those gathered are part of a growing voice within the Democratic Party, pushing their leaders to be more liberal, and chastising them when they don’t toe the progressive line.
Tucker explains how to get in touch with lawmakers, what their jobs entail, and how to follow legislation. She said she couldn’t have imagined herself training up-and-coming political activists just a few months ago.
“I don’t come from a family of people that have ever done anything political at all, so this is not something that is in my realm at all,” said Tucker.
She said most of the people showing up to the trainings are women. At tonight’s meeting, they’re also largely white, though the group holds trainings across the state in an effort to increase diversity.
The 2016 election of Donald Trump has also energized women on the right in Rhode Island. Though Lee Ann Sennick, the state’s National Republican Committeewoman, said with Republicans in control of Congress and the Whitehouse, conservatives have been quieter.
“When you’re the party that is in power, sometimes it is easier to think ‘ok, well this is just going to happen now,’” said Sennick. “And it isn’t something we have to keep fighting for, and that is concerning.”
But Sennick said the state’s historically small Republican Party is gaining momentum. She said there’s a pipeline of talent getting ready for elections in 2018, including several female candidates for the General Assembly.
On the left, Donna Personeus is also trying to get women elected to public office.
“I’m no longer an on-the-couch voter,” said Personeus in her Bristol art studio. “I’m looking at legislation. I’m going to the state capital. I am voicing my opinion.”
Personeus, a Barrington resident, is hoping to turn an energized group of women into campaigns for offices from school committees to the General assembly.
Personeus has helped launch Emerge RI, a local chapter of the national group focused on getting Democratic women into elected office. Emerge RI follows the state's Democratic Party Platform. And Personeus has a message for the ruling Democrats in the state: “watch out.”
“We want to put a little pressure on them, to say ‘wake up if you’re a Democrat, you’re a Democrat. Start acting like one,” said Personeus. “And if they don’t want to look for possible female Democrats that would like to run against them.”
She says there are more than 100 people now involved with Emerge RI, most of whom have no political experience.
Chris Carson, national head of the League of Women Voters, says they’re all part of a growing nationwide trend of women getting involved in politics.
The non-partisan League doesn’t support specific platforms or political parties. Carson suggests the upswing has more to do with what she calls a toxic political atmosphere than Republican or Democratic policies.
“I think there’s a renewed understanding that you have to get in and work within the system, and it has to start at the local level as well as state and national,” said Carson. “You’ve got to get your hands dirty if you want to call it that.”
Measuring the impact of a new level of progressive activism will take time. Yet for now, President Trump’s election has sparked a surge in Rhode Islanders’ willingness to get politically involved.
Editor's note: a previous version of this article said that the Emerge RI platform was pro-choice and pro-gun control. Emerge RI platform follows the RI Democratic Party platform which is not explicitly pro-choice or pro-gun control.