Elections

Could President Trump be the best thing that ever happened to political activism?

Kris Savage admits it. She was focused on her own life.

Like many, she paid a little bit of attention to politics, enough to serve as a precinct chair and vote. But much of her attention centered on her grandchildren and volunteering at their schools.

That changed more than a year ago, when Republican Donald Trump was elected president.

Sad and frustrated, Savage, a Democrat, started attending marches and protests — and even founded a local chapter for Indivisible FWTX, a grassroots protest movement responding to Trump's election.

Progress was slow; only a few people attended the first few meetings.

After that, dozens started showing up, helping send postcards to elected officials, researching proposals that were before Congress and getting involved with issues being considered by the Texas Legislature.

Now, more than a year later, there are hundreds of people — people like her, who hadn't been politically active before — volunteering with the group.

"It's pretty exciting," said Savage, 67. "Our civic engagement in Tarrant County is really booming. I'm seeing that everybody I know is involved with something.

"There's kind of a hunger to change things and then a big realization that if you want to change things, you have to do something," she said. "Your vote is what counts."

But the local growth in political activism is far from limited to Democrats.

Trump's election also has inspired countless Republicans, particularly those involved with the Tea Party, to work harder than ever.

"We had grown accustomed to losing a lot of battles, but in Trump's first 100 days we started winning," said Julie McCarty, president of the politically powerful NE Tarrant Tea Party. "We learned it can be done if someone has the guts to do it and Trump did. It fed our enthusiasm like never before!

"And now we want more."

Who will vote?

As political activism began rising last year, many wondered how long it might last.

Texans tuned in to politics, followed the news more closely, worked on behalf of candidates, registered to vote, even reached out to elected officials to weigh in on key issues.

And now, Democratic candidates can be found next to Republicans up and down this year's ballot.

"This enthusiasm should help keep the base mobilized in a non-presidential election year when ... enthusiasm and turnout often lags," said Mark P. Jones, a political science professor at Rice University in Houston.

But will more Texans vote in the March 6 primaries and Nov. 6 general election?

Already, a record number of voters — 15.2 million Texans, including nearly 1.1 million in Tarrant County — are registered to vote. That's 150,000 more Texans, and 16,000 more local voters, than were registered in 2016, local and state election records show.

And some did much more than register to vote.

Thousands headed downtown for The Women's March in Fort Worth this year and last. Estimates show the crowd was a few thousand larger in 2017.

"Last year we focused on rights," Libby Willis, a Democratic activist and neighborhood leader who ran for Texas Senate District 10 in 2014, told the crowd in January. “This year, we are talking about what to do ... with these rights.

“We are going to march. We are going to vote. And we are going to win,” she said. “Be bold, and mighty forces will come to your aid.”

And the protest downtown outside the Republican Party's annual Lincoln Day Dinner — a key fundraiser that traditionally draws top statewide and local Republicans — drew hundreds last year. Dozens turned out this year.

Diana Schlotterback, a 34-year-old Aledo woman, was among those outside the fundraiser this year with her mother, Pam DeVoe. She said she would have liked to see more people turn out for the protest.

But even so, “I can still do this,” she said. “I feel it’s time to stand up and be brave, even if it’s just me and my mom and a handful of other people.”

Political observers say Trump will inspire many to stay active and involved.

"The Democrats are still activated because Donald Trump is still president," said Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston. "Trump has been the greatest motivator of Democrats to participate since Barack Obama.

"Democratic enthusiasm will stay on the gas pedal as long as Donald Trump tweets. "

Following footsteps

Republicans know how it feels to be frustrated with the president.

Shortly after Barack Obama became president in 2009, Republicans across the country were frustrated with how government was being run.

Many began attending grassroots events for the then-fledgling Tea Party, protesting the stimulus package and government bailouts. The events started small, then began growing, at times drawing thousands of frustrated taxpayers.

Then-Gov. Rick Perry, a Democrat-turned-Republican, even rallied the crowd at some Tea Party events, saying Texans were sending an important message to leaders in Washington, D.C.

“We will not stand for our pockets being picked,” he said during a 2009 rally at La Grave Field in Fort Worth. “We are part of a movement that is growing. … We will not be ignored.”

The Tea Party movement did grow through the years, sustaining itself so much that when some candidates such as Texan Ted Cruz were put into office, credit was given to the swelling political effort — which remains a credible force today.

When Trump took office, leaders didn't know what to expect.

"I feared that after Trump won the election and Republicans took over the House and Senate that folks would somehow decide we won and we're done," McCarty said. "I was wrong. It turns out our training for the past nine years has paid off. Voters now recognize the need to hold their elected representatives accountable.

"People's expectations are higher now. Now that Republicans control everything, they expected all our checklist items to be ticked off one by one. When that doesn't happen, they get angry. We've worked nine long years and have heard nothing but excuses. That didn't change when Republicans took over, and this actually served to motivate our members even more."

Membership not only grew in Tea Party groups, but within other GOP groups as well.

"Our membership was re-energized with President Trump's election," said Brooke Allen, president of the Fort Worth Republican Women. "Our membership has grown and a year later, we are seeing record numbers at our luncheons and events. We also have seen new members that prior to President Trump's election did not necessarily identify with the Republican Party.

"We are happy to have them and welcome them to the GOP."

And many believe the renewed enthusiasm within the party will be seen at the polls.

"We believe there will be more voters in the primary and general election this year than in past 'off-year' elections," Allen said. "However, we do not believe we will see the record numbers we saw in 2016 with the president on the ballot."

'Gone crazy'

Leaders with a number of local Democratic groups saw a boost in interest after the 2016 elections. And they say membership has since remained steady or continued to grow.

That's something Mark Bauer didn't expect.

In fact, after Trump won the election, his wife suggested they shut down the Northeast Tarrant Democrats group he started in 2007 because 'the country has gone crazy."

"I replied that we already had the room reserved and, if five people showed up, we'd call it a success," said Bauer, president of the group. "We had 120 people show up. We had seating for only 85 of them. Seventy percent of them were first-time attendees."

The group now averages about 80 people a month, keeping the new interest in activism strong.

One reason it remains strong, some say, is the attention Texas Republicans have paid to issues ranging from the so-called "sanctuary cities" law, known as Senate Bill 4, to the so-called bathroom bill, which was geared to determine where transgender Texans may use the restroom.

Maybe that's why there are more than 1,000 Democrats running for elected seats across the country, including at least 350 under the age of 40, said Celia Morgan, president of Texas Young Democrats, which has added more than a dozen new chapters since the 2016 presidential election.

"We have never seen this many young Democrats step up to run for office," Morgan said. "They're running for everything from local office to statewide office."

At the same time, new efforts such as Texas Women Rising — a group of 34 women running for the Texas Legislature — have begun on social media sites such as Facebook.

This group hopes to draw attention to the campaigns that include those for local legislative candidates Nancy Bean, Nisha Matthews, Beth Llewelln McLaughlin, Mica Ringo and Allison Campolo.

"Only three of the women in Texas Women Rising have run for elected office before this," said Arabella Meyer, director of communications for the effort. "A few of the other women have been active in politics before this year. The majority of the candidates who are part of Texas Women Rising are running for office for the first time this year."

'Got woke'

Mindia Whittier looks around and can see many people — including herself — who "got woke" to politics once Trump was elected.

She sees the attendance at marches and rallies but realizes that's not enough.

"I get concerned about showing up for women's marches and rallies," the 44-year-old mother of two said. "That can give a false sense of accomplishment. You show up and shake your fist. But that can't be the end point.

"You have to go to meetings, city council meetings, file open records requests, write letters to lawmakers and engage."

And stay involved, she said.

Over the past year, Whittier has donated to and volunteered for a political campaign, met with elected officials to discuss her concerns and even testified before a legislative committee in Austin.

"I can't not be part of the system and then complain about it," she said. "I have to show that if we don't want that outcome, we need to be part of the solution."

Anna Tinsley: 817-390-7610, @annatinsley



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