New faces fuel Wisconsin’s ‘resistance’ movement, hope to achieve what past uprisings could not

April 16, 2017 GMT

If the “Wisconsin Resistance” achieves what past liberal opposition movements have not, activists such as Adam Wood could be among the reasons.

Wood, 34, is an organizer for Indivisible Madison. It’s a local chapter of the national Indivisible movement, which launched after the November election as a “tea party of the left.”

Wood said the Madison chapter has attracted many like himself: 20- and 30-somethings with little to no political background.

“It’s just a lot of people that are completely new to political activism,” Wood said. “The November election was a tipping point that brought a lot of people out, and a lot of people in.”

In the rubble of the 2016 election, one of the most dispiriting in decades for Wisconsin Democrats and liberals, newly energized activists are pushing back against Republican control of federal and state government. Many embrace the “resistance” label, referring to a loose national coalition that sprung up, postelection, in opposition to President Donald Trump.

Some groups are in their infancy but show early signs of momentum. In many cases, they’re more focused on electing like-minded candidates to city councils and school boards than to Congress or the White House.

The Democratic Party of Wisconsin says it has gotten nearly 600 new members postelection, fueled by increases in Dane, Milwaukee, Waukesha and Outagamie counties.

A new political nonprofit, Our Wisconsin Revolution, is building what it hopes will be a permanent presence in the state on the message of U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, who won the state’s 2016 Democratic presidential primary.

The activist groundswell has drawn comparisons to six years ago, when liberals and Democrats mobilized against Gov. Scott Walker’s proposal to roll back public sector collective bargaining — what became known as Act 10.

That didn’t unfold as organizers had hoped: The proposal became law and Walker survived a recall election and went on to win a second term.

For this to have a different ending, activists on the left are highlighting what they call the lessons of Act 10. Chief among them: avoid splintering, find a way to sustain the enthusiasm over time and don’t just oppose someone or something — but offer appealing alternative candidates or platforms.

For now, Indivisible Madison is not endorsing candidates for office. Wood said that could change, and he thinks the group could see candidates emerge from its ranks in 2018 and beyond.

Our Wisconsin Revolution says recruiting and electing local and state candidates will be among its chief aims.

Time will tell if these developments yield progress or more frustration for Wisconsin’s beleaguered Democrats. But Michael Basford, chairman of the Dane County Democrats, said a postelection bump of about 200 new members is lifting his group’s spirits.

“We’ve had a significant youth movement,” Basford said.

Election results

a wake-up call

For Gina Walkington, the November election results were a wake-up call.

They spurred Walkington and three friends in the Kenosha area, all with left-of-center viewpoints, to discuss what to do next. “We were feeling like our fundamental values were in jeopardy,” Walkington said.

The four women’s social- media discussions blossomed into a new group, Forward Kenosha. Describing itself as nonpartisan and progressive, Forward Kenosha’s Facebook group has enlisted more than 1,400 members.

The mission: spurring voter engagement in the Kenosha area and keeping an eye on Trump and the area’s congressman, U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Janesville.

Forward Kenosha is having monthly in-person meetings with guest speakers, including state lawmakers. They’re doing podcasts. They held rallies on health care, both in support of former President Barack Obama’s health care law and in opposition to the American Health Care Act, the failed replacement offered by Trump and Ryan.

Walkington said she did phone calls for Obama’s presidential campaigns and for Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton last year. After the last election she decided to go all-in, and not just in an election year.

“I never fully actually understood how making phone calls was not enough,” Walkington said. “Engagement needs to be all the time.”

Spurring activists to near- constant involvement also is a goal of Indivisible Madison and other Indivisible chapters in Wisconsin, according to Wood.

The group is organizing town hall meetings and group visits to the offices of elected officials. On social media it sends out “calls to action” that include lawmakers’ contact information, along with short blurbs about a particular issue or bill.

“It’s not a script, but it says: ‘Here’s the issue and here’s what we’re asking for,’” Wood said.

Trump as a sustaining force for liberal activists

The January Women’s March on Madison, which drew more than 75,000 marchers to State Street shortly after Trump’s inauguration, foreshadowed the heightened interest among the party’s rank and file, Democratic Party of Wisconsin chairwoman Martha Laning said.

“Without a doubt, we’ve felt the groundswell of grassroots energy throughout the state,” Laning said.

U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Black Earth, said his office received more than 7,300 constituent contacts — calls, emails and letters — about the American Health Care Act when it appeared it might receive a U.S. House vote. Virtually all opposed the measure. A typical hot topic triggers 2,000 contacts, Pocan said.

Pocan was in the state Assembly during the Act 10 protests. One of the enduring lessons he said the experience provided was the need to sustain activist enthusiasm all the way to Election Day. In the case of Act 10, more than a year passed between passage of the law and the 2012 recall election, Pocan noted.

Now Pocan predicts a different dynamic.

“Donald Trump has given us many things to sustain people,” Pocan said. “There’s always something new to be upset with and organize around.”

Not all the energy is rooted in resistance. Bernie Sanders supporters hope to convert his popularity in Wisconsin, particularly among Democrats and liberals, into a lasting political movement.

Sanders launched a national organization, Our Revolution, last year after conceding the Democratic nomination to Clinton. Wisconsin is one of seven states where there’s enough interest to form a state-level chapter, said Peter Rickman, an organizer and officer for Our Wisconsin Revolution.

The group has big ambitions: develop into a political nonprofit — funded with member dues, with chapters in every corner of the state — that recruits and elects state and local candidates.

Some would run as Democrats; others, as third-party candidates. Many of the local races are nonpartisan.

‘Current administration has to be resisted’

Wresting control of state and local Democratic parties, as Sanders enthusiasts have done elsewhere, is not the group’s plan here, Rickman said.

“Many of our activists call themselves Democrats. But we’re by no means limited to that,” Rickman said.

The group’s foundation is what Rickman calls the “Sanders platform” — changing how campaigns are financed, health care for all, reducing the cost of college, retirement security and combating income inequality and climate change.

That message has drawn more than 1,000 attendees to the group’s 27 regional organizing meetings held throughout the state in recent months, Rickman said.

Political parties also are feeling the impact.

After Nov. 8, Dane County Democrats say their dues- paying membership hit near 1,300, up from about 1,100 on Election Day.

One of the biggest proportional membership increases came in deep-red Waukesha County, which saw a 40 percent postelection increase swell its ranks to more than 400 members.

All figures were provided by the Democratic Party and could not be independently verified.

Alec Zimmerman, a spokesman for the Republican Party of Wisconsin, said it measures success not by party membership but by voter contacts, of which state GOP activists made 4.7 million in 2016. Electoral victories, not party membership, are what count he said.

“Wisconsin Democrats can try to distract from their disarray with meaningless noise all they want, but apparently it’s having no impact on fielding serious candidates for state Supreme Court or governor,” Zimmerman said.

But it may be having an impact elsewhere. In deep-blue Dane County, Democrats saw results in local races in the April 4 spring election. The county’s Democrats endorsed a slate of local candidates who cleaned up, winning in 35 of the 38 races in which the party made an endorsement.

Still, tensions among Democrats, some of which flared during and after the presidential campaign, have not evaporated. Much of it is between those who supported Sanders and those who backed Clinton in the presidential campaign.

But many also feel the urgency of opposing total GOP control in Washington, D.C., and Madison, Basford said.

“The time for squabbling is winding down,” Basford said. “People are coming to the understanding that the current administration has to be resisted.”

“I never fully actually understood how making phone calls was not enough. Engagement needs to be all the time.” Gina Walkington, a founding member of Forward Kenosha