Monday, February 20, 2017
Northeast Florida activists oppose President DONALD TRUMP's wretched, wrongful conduct
Posted February 19, 2017 04:06 pm
By Matt Soergel
Jacksonville Florida Times-Union
A month into Trump presidency, local opposition takes root in conservative Northeast Florida
One month after Inauguration Day, the opposition movement against President Donald Trump is growing, even in traditionally conservative Northeast Florida.
Chapters of the Indivisible movement, which aims to pressure local legislators to resist Trump, have cropped up from Palm Coast through Nocatee and Clay County and up into Nassau County. Veterans of the Women’s March on Washington continue to meet to plot their next steps. Established progressive groups say their numbers are growing and their members are re-energized. Large crowds have swelled the Duval Democratic Party’s business meetings.
And in living rooms and at cocktail hours across the area, people are coming together to worry and to plan — such as the middle-aged group of about 30 who met in Ponte Vedra recently, acting on their mission statement “to become more active politically given the actions being taken or planned by the Trump administration.”
To be sure, the president remains popular in Northeast Florida, where the Democratic Party’s power has dropped drastically in recent decades.
Trump carried the region decisively, 419,814 to 289,552. He had just a 1.36-percentage-point victory in Duval County but carried the suburban counties around it by wide margins, getting 73 percent of the vote in Nassau, for example, and 81 percent in Baker.
But in national polls in this divided country he entered office with the lowest approval numbers for an incoming president in recent history. Those in the resistance movement see that weakness as an opportunity, and they’re adopting some of the techniques of the conservative tea party movement that bedeviled President Barack Obama.
Take William Reed, 84, a retired commercial lender. Carrying a cane and a sign that said, in part, “Subpoena Trump’s Taxes,” he joined a protest by about 90 people outside Sen. Marco Rubio’s Southbank office on Valentine’s Day.
The meeting was organized by local Indivisible groups — Reed is in the one from Clay County — who plan to make the Tuesday protests a regular feature at the offices of local members of Congress. They rallied to protect the Affordable Care Act, to protest Trump’s Cabinet picks and travel ban and to question his ties to Russia, among other issues.
“I’m a lifelong Republican and I’m very disturbed about the direction our country’s taking right now,” Reed said. “It never occurred to us that a crazy like Donald Trump could get elected,” he said. “We are on the verge of fascism, it looks to me.”
Reed said he’s never done anything like this, ever. His motivation, though, is elemental: “I got scared,” he said. “I fear for the republic.”
A Trump supporter with a microphone waded into the protesters and taunted them for an hour or more, saying “You lost” and at one point — after a nearby police officer told him to turn off the microphone — going into a profane rant about Hillary Clinton. Some protesters were clearly riled but most tried to ignore him, even as he held up his cellphone camera to record them.
“Love, not hate, makes America great,” they chanted at one point, drowning him out.
He was a minority of one. About a dozen other Trump supporters gathered peaceably on the sidewalk some 40 yards from the anti-Trump crowd, holding up signs for passing motorists.
Adele Griffin had several small placards wishing the president a happy Valentine’s Day. She’s never done anything like this before, she said. Never had the time. Now that she’s retired, she can show her support.
“When you hear the opposite side so much, you start to get in sort of a mind game and think, ‘Oh my God, no one supports the president,’ which is not true,” she said.
Carolyn Elmore stood next to her wearing a red “Deplorables” T-shirt (“I’m proud of it,” she said). She said she didn’t agree with everything President Barack Obama did, but she respected the office of the president and couldn’t imagine protesting like those in the anti-Trump crowd down the sidewalk. Besides, she suspects their motivations.
“I’ve been watching a lot of the news. I think a lot of this is orchestrated, paid for by the other party,” she said. “This morning there was a big thing on Fox News about that.”
Jeff Allstadt laughed at that kind of talk. “If we’re getting paid I want to know how to get in on that,” he said.
‘The idea is steady pressure’
Allstadt is an organizer of Indivisible Clay County and, at 58, was on the youngish side of the largely graying crowd outside Rubio’s office. He’s a lifelong political buff, though it took him until this day to make and carry his first political sign: A heart with the names “Trump Putin Rubio” inside it.
He was among a group of eight protesters who had an appointment with Rubio staffers that morning. They each had a form filled out with four requests (they’d like the senator to hold a town hall meeting in Jacksonville, among other things).
“The idea,” Allstadt said, “is steady pressure.”
Rubio’s office in Jacksonville released a statement later that day: “Staff in our offices have met with dozens of these liberal activists. This is nothing more than a strategy outlined in an online activist manual to carry out ‘mass office calling.’ In the manual, activists are instructed that ‘you and your group should all agree to call in on one specific issue that day.’ They are further instructed that ‘the next day or week, pick another issue, and call again on that.’ Their goal is to flood offices with calls and emails and then go to the press and claim they aren’t getting a response.”
The statement linked to a Google document called A Practical Guide to Resisting the Trump Agenda. It’s from the Indivisible movement, which was founded by a group of former congressional staffers. Its aim, which gives a nod toward the tea party’s methods, is to put pressure on members of congress on a local level, across the country.
Shiela Kerr, a retired college professor, said she’s taken it to heart as she makes calls for Indivisible Clay County.
“I don’t know how many busy signals I’ve got,” she said. “I just watch the TV and push redial, redial, redial.”
University of North Florida political science professor Michael Binder said that approach can work. Members of Congress always have re-election in mind, he said, and can get nervous when opposition grows as midterm elections in 2018 loom.
“That stuff matters,” he said. “You get enough people showing up at town halls, writing letters, calling members of Congress — there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that matters.”
Of course, Binder said, many people do little more than vent on social media. But even that, he says, can be effective; even if it doesn’t change any minds, it can stiffen the resolve of those who share similar views.
“If you see something once, twice, three times, you start to think,” he said. “Not everybody reads The New York Times, not everybody checks four or five news sources.”
‘Something needs to change’
Cathy Cosby and Jane Weekes, who live in Ponte Vedra, wanted to do more than fume on Facebook. So they invited friends for a party at the Cosby house, a chance to socialize and talk about current events. More than 30 people showed up. They called their group ACT, or Activists Cultivating Truth, and their goal is to research topics in the news to find out what really is true — and then to take action.
“I just felt like I can’t sit back and not do anything,” said Cosby, who was hoping to go to the Women’s March on Washington but couldn’t because of upcoming hip replacement surgery. “I know you can only do so much as a person.”
It was heartening to find others with similar concerns, Cosby said: “Particularly in Ponte Vedra, you feel like you’re all alone, you don’t have anybody who has the same political persuasion.”
Lisa Peth helped form a Duval chapter of Progressive Democrats of America in November, after the election. The group’s goal is to elect progressive candidates at all levels and to push the Democratic Party to the left. She said she hears from people who are scared of what the Trump administration could do, but the group is already looking ahead.
“When we get together no one really talks about Trump,” Peth said. “We’ve already decided that something needs to change in our political system.”
After the election, hundreds of people flocked to the monthly Duval County Democratic Party meetings. They’re usually business meetings where budgets are approved and minutes are gone over — the nitty-gritty of local politics.
‘Organized activity and substance’
State Sen. Audrey Gibson, the recently elected chair of the group, said some of the newcomers were frustrated there wasn’t more of a rally atmosphere there. Still, she sees the passions stirred by Trump as a chance for local Democrats to regain some of their mojo.
“People want to do something, but we also have to do it in an organized manner,” Gibson said. “You have to turn your anger and frustration into substance. Ultimately it’s organized activity and substance that get people elected.”
Kirstin Thompson, 27, drove to Washington to attend the Women’s March the day after the inauguration. In early February she attended a meeting in Jacksonville of several people hundred people, many of whom who’d also gone to Washington or to local marches that day.
They got together to plan where to go from here — whether it’s attending rallies, meeting with elected officials, writing letters or making calls. Thompson said Trump’s election has galvanized many.
“Going forward I think there is so much reason for hope,” she said. “People are coming together in so many ways. We’re going to get something good out of this. I know we are.”
Matt Soergel: (904) 359-4082