Worried about Trump, Democrats in Md. begin to organize

"We are now the checks and balances," progressive organizer says.

Maryland Democrats, alarmed by the election of Donald Trump and worried about Republican plans to repeal the Affordable Care Act, are taking a page — or several — from the conservative tea party movement.

They are forming groups. They are crowding into public meetings, rallying for and against legislation and deluging switchboards on Capitol Hill.

Dozens of so-called Indivisible groups have cropped up in the Baltimore region alone, part of a movement that began when Democratic former congressional aides posted an organizing manual online after Trump's victory that drew on lessons from the tea party's remarkable success.

Groups have adopted names such as "Together We Will," "Citizens for Health Care" and "Baltimore Women United."

Organizers say the effort started as a response to Trump's victory, but is increasingly focused on local issues, such as the $130 million budget shortfall in Baltimore's public schools, and efforts to crack down on undocumented immigrants.

"It's all new energy that's been fueled by Trump's victory," said Martha McKenna, a national Democratic strategist from Maryland who is organizing in the state. "Everybody is working to fight Trump, but they're also finding local projects that they can put their shoulder into."

In a state that supported Democrat Hillary Clinton in November by a 26-point margin — and in which nine of 10 members of Congress are Democrats — the groups don't need to influence Maryland's federal races. But organizers say they are eying local races, and also the 2018 gubernatorial election, when Democrats expect a wide-open primary to choose a candidate who will take on popular Republican Gov. Larry Hogan.

The Pikesville/MountWashington Indivisible group started in Jonathan Kollin's living room shortly after the inauguration. The group quickly grew to more than 100 regular attendees and now meets in a synagogue.

Kollin, who is semi-retired from the signs and graphics industry, said part of the mission is to keep pressure on the state's mostly Democratic congressional delegation to hold strong against Republicans and Trump.

"We have to do something," he said. "We can't sit and yell at our television set."

Before they can become a force in state and local politics, analysts say, the groups have to overcome some of the same challenges that confronted the tea party. They must maintain the energy that is high now, but which could dissipate with time. And the jumble of disparate groups must find a way to coordinate their efforts so they don't trip over each other at election time.

"There's a lot of energy, and that's important because midterm elections are very much built on energy," said Brad Bannon, a Democratic strategist. "Republicans found a way of collecting the tea party energy, and it definitely helped them win big in 2010.

"The question is whether Democrats can do the same thing," he said.

The effort has also manifested itself in Rep. Andy Harris' congressional district, where the Baltimore County Republican has come under pressure from groups such as Citizens For Health Care to hold a town hall meeting to discuss GOP plans to repeal the Affordable Care Act. Harris, a long-standing critic of Obamacare, has held several telephone town halls this year.

When a constituent pressed Harris during one of those telephone conferences on whether he would meet with voters in person, the congressman said thousands of people had dialed into the calls.

Harris, who met Saturday with small groups of constituents in Bel Air, said repeatedly he would hold a "brick-and-mortar" meeting once Republicans presented a draft health care bill, and he has scheduled a town hall forum from 6 p.m. to 7 p.m. March 31 at Chesapeake College in Wye Mills.

Harris says he has hosted dozens of such meetings since his election in 2010.

"I bet you I've done more town halls than any other congressman in the State of Maryland," he said. "People do get a chance to hear my opinion."

The tea party was also born out of frustration with the election and early steps taken by a new president: Barack Obama. Some of its members were concerned about the bank bailout signed late in President George's W. Bush's term. Others were uneasy with an economic stimulus package that added billions to federal budget deficits.

But it was Obama's national health care law, debated through 2009 and narrowly approved by congressional Democrats against the unanimous opposition of Republicans the following year, that caused conservatives to coalesce and provoked large rallies.

"The ideas were what mattered," said Del. Neil C. Parrott, a Washington County Republican who founded a tea party group in 2008 and went on to play a leading role in some of the largest political battles in Maryland at the time, including the ballot initiatives on same-sex marriage and in-state tuition for undocumented immigrants.

"The tea party created a significant political force in America on both sides of the aisle, showing that many people wanted the country to be fiscally responsible," he said. "We wanted people to have economic freedoms, and we wanted to follow the Constitution."

Yet Parrott said he doesn't see a direct parallel between that effort and what's happening with Democrats now. Parrott said the Democratic groups are not organic, but rather are being organized from the top down — and funded by Democratic interests.

"I'm not saying that the grassroots at the bottom isn't happening," he said, "but it's being generated from the top."

Democrats said the same thing about the tea party in 2009 — arguing it was an AstroTurf movement funded by national Republican interests. While national groups played a role, the movement worked: It knocked several centrist Republicans out of office and shifted the Republican Party to the right.

And that raises another important question about the Indivisible movement in Maryland: Will it support centrist Democrats, or push the party to the left?

Many organizers of the Democratic groups in Maryland said they are supportive of the state's Democratic officials, and they deny receiving funding from on high. At Kollin's meeting, attendees passed a hat to cover the fee to rent the room in the synagogue.

What is true is that some of the Maryland groups have their genesis in a volunteer network that supported Clinton. Courtney Watson, a former Howard County councilwoman who co-chaired Clinton's campaign in Maryland, created a group of volunteers for Clinton nearly two years ago.

"By the time the election came, we had maybe 50 or 60 volunteer leaders all across the state, all having phone calls every Monday night, to coordinate Maryland's response," Watson said.

Many of those same people helped to facilitate the creation of the groups, Watson said. She started an organization called "Do the Most Good."

Now, she says, her group and others are attracting new activists who had not previously been involved in politics.

"What we're seeing really is an energy and an effort that is not limited to the tried-and-true Democratic activist," she said.

Two hundred people poured into a meeting room at Saint Paul's United Church of Christ in Westminster this month to ask questions of aides to Democratic lawmakers.

In a county Trump won last year by a 2-1 margin, people asked about a single-payer health care system. And they asked aides what their representatives were doing to confront rhetoric they see as offensive.

"I'll wait for an answer," said Roxanna Harlow, a 46-year-old sociology professor.

Harlow has been pushing for universal health care coverage for years. The lawmakers' aides said they would get back to her about health care.

A member of a group called Healthcare Is a Human Right-Maryland, Harlow had personal experience with the issue a few years ago when she left a steady job — and insurance coverage — to form a nonprofit.

Days after the meeting, Republicans on Capitol Hill unveiled legislation to repeal the Obamacare law and replace it with a measure that would, among other things, eliminate the requirement that people carry insurance or face a tax penalty.

Harlow said her concern is broader than just health care.

"There is this movement to, what feels like, roll back people's rights," she said in an interview. "We can't let that happen."

Paul Fitzpatrick was fed up with sitting at his home in Arnold growing more frustrated at the news.

Fitzpatrick came across the Indivisible guide online and started attending Democratic meetings in Anne Arundel County and asking people if they were interested in starting a group. Many, he said, were like him: "Long-time voters, first-time activists."

While some Indivisible groups have focused on pressuring members of Congress, the Anne Arundel group decided to work on county and state issues, including those pending before state lawmakers in Annapolis.

"Knowing that seven of eight members of Congress are Democrats and were vocal about maintaining a strong front — we asked: How much movement can we make at the federal level?" said Fitzpatrick, a federal employee.

And so members have attended rallies and hearings on state legislation to prohibit local governments from coordinating with federal immigration enforcement authorities. Some rallied this month for a ban on hydraulic fracturing.

Already, the Annapolis and Anne Arundel Indivisible members have claimed a victory: the Annapolis City Council has approved legislation to ban city officials from questioning people about their immigration status or assisting federal immigration officials in most cases.

Indivisible members were in the packed council chambers when the legislation passed.

A spokesman for Anne Arundel County Executive Steve Schuh said the Republican has not noticed an increase in Democratic activism. When the county applied to a federal program this year to deputize correctional officers to serve as federal immigration agents, spokesman Owen P. McEvoy said, the county received fewer than a dozen emails.

"The county executive believes everyone has the right to voice opposition in policy debates," he said by email, "but he does believe our particular immigration policy position is shared by a majority of Anne Arundel County citizens."

Those involved with the groups say it's only a matter of time before they turn more fully to local politics.

John Wells recently started an Annapolis Indivisible group. The retired web developer and his wife often host large social parties, so he figured he could host a political meeting. He invited like-minded progressives, set up speakers and passed around a microphone.

The result, he said, was "stunning."

He said the Indivisible movement is giving citizens the ability to hold their elected officials accountable.

"We are now the checks and balances," he said.

john.fritze@baltsun.com

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