Resisting Trump in a bright red state
EDMOND, Oklahoma (AP) — Vicki Toombs was watching the returns on election night 2016 when her phone buzzed — a text from her 22-year-old son Beau in Chicago. Beau, who is gay, was afraid that the new administration would end the Affordable Care Act and with it the insurance he and his friends used to pay for the drugs that protected them from HIV and AIDS.
“I just felt the bottom drop out of my world,” said Toombs, 61. She felt she’d failed her son, as if Donald Trump’s election was somehow her fault. She had to do something.
So, in one of the reddest cities in one of the reddest states in the union, Toombs sought out the Resistance.
It wasn’t as easy as it might be in places like New York, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., where multitudes of college-educated, predominantly white women have joined a rolling boil of activism since Trump’s election. The Democratic party and liberals are plentiful on the coasts, but light on the ground in swathes of the country that hold the majority of electoral votes and congressional seats.
But even in Edmond, Oklahoma, Toombs has found her sisters-in-arms. And it’s the reach of anti-Trump forces into red states like Oklahoma that gives Democrats hopes of a national resurgence, though no one suggests that the heartland will change its political allegiance on a dime.
Regardless, the simple act of local liberals emerging from their shells has the potential to subtly change the dynamics in places like Edmond.
“It’s been a revelation,” Toombs said of joining a group of more than 300 Democratic women in Edmond, a place she believed housed only a couple of other members of her political tribe. “We’re excited and also apprehensive thinking of what the fall’s going to be like. I hold my breath, hoping we created enough energy.”
These days, Toombs texts her son excitedly to tell him about how she and her fellow activists have made calls and knocked doors for Democratic candidates running for special elections and helped win four of five legislative seats. How they have supported thousands of teachers who marched on the state capitol and won additional education funding from the GOP-controlled state legislature and Republican governor. How they helped recruit candidates for every possible office in November, from their local city council to state legislative seats where Republicans usually garner double the votes of Democrats.
In states like Oklahoma, activists often say they came “out of the closet” when they started wearing their political affiliations on their sleeves after years of hiding them to avoid conflict. Still, they blanch at the term “The Resistance” and try to avoid mentioning Trump, knowing the key to swaying their neighbors is finding common ground on local issues rather than rehashing divisive national debates.
“I don’t necessarily think minds have been changed on Donald Trump and we don’t encourage our candidates to talk about national politics,” said Anna Langthorn, chair of the Oklahoma Democratic Party.
The emphasis on local issues makes particular sense in Oklahoma, which has seen mounting dissatisfaction over the low-tax, small-government approach of the current GOP administration. About 20 percent of schools in the state are only open four days a week and Republicans this year had to raise some taxes to patch a hole created in part when the state’s leaders slashed levies on the oil and gas firms that dominate Oklahoma’s economy.
Activists and the Democratic party they’re hoping to rejuvenate have their work cut out for them in Oklahoma, which Trump won with 65 percent of the vote in 2016. But even though Democrats are clearly outnumbered in Oklahoma and in other red states — and even though they know they face long odds — they believe intensity is a great leveler.
“It only takes a couple of hundred people to elect your state representative,” Langthorn said.
Jeremy Pressman, a political scientist at the University of Connecticut, has kept track of demonstrations since Trump’s inauguration with another colleague. They totaled 6,700 in 2017 alone, involving 6 million people or more, not just in liberal cities but in small towns in red states like Alaska, Michigan and, of course, Oklahoma.
“We’re so used to seeing these maps every four years of us divided in red and blue, but these protests tend to make a counterpoint — in every red there’s blue and in every blue, red,” Pressman said.
But closeted as they are — and dispersed as they are — would-be activists sometimes find it hard to connect.
Janeen Axtell recalled how nervous she rode past the cattle pastures of eastern Oklahoma, en route to a rally of teachers at the state capital, three hours to the west.
She was sharing the Chevy Suburban with a half-dozen other teachers from the rural school district where she teaches high school science, and even though she’d been there eight years she knew nothing of her coworkers’ political leanings. Axtell didn’t even dare look them up on Facebook. But, during the trip, the gripes began to bubble up — about the cuts in education and social services made by the state legislature, the way the energy industry has a lock on state government. Axtell was relieved to find that she’d been surrounded by allies the whole time.
Still, a month later, Axtell hasn’t asked her newfound allies for their opinions on the president. Axtell unloads on Trump in safer confines — in conversations with other, like-minded activists across the state who, like her, are active in the Indivisible movement. It’s been a way for Oklahoma’s isolated liberals to keep their sanity, especially in rural areas.
Sherry Wallis, an information technology consultant who lives in the same county as Axtell, could barely handle the political isolation in 2016. “I was feeling very alone,” she said. “A lot of childhood friends I had and new colleagues I met, I don’t talk to anymore.”
Then she heard about a bus that would travel for 24 hours from Oklahoma to Washington DC for the initial Women’s March and she leapt at the chance. “It’s something I wouldn’t trade for the world,” Wallis said of the trip, which connected her with a new array of activist friends across the state. She thinks little of driving four hours to go to a meeting of activists.
Those connections are a lifeline for people like Wallis, who live in the most conservative parts of the state, where Trump/Pence campaign signs still adorn lawns. Liberals are rare out here, as are college graduates. Oklahoma ranks 42nd in the nation for the share of its population with a bachelor’s degree or higher — the group that has been most active since Trump’s election.
That’s given the Resistance a somewhat homogenous cast. In meetings in Oklahoma and elsewhere, activists wonder how they can draw younger people into their movement. Even at the recent March for Our Lives in Washington, D.C., organized by the teenage survivors of the Parkland school shooting, the median age was 49, according to surveys conducted by University of Maryland sociology professor Dana Fisher.
“There’s no data to say the Resistance is representative of most of America,” said Fisher, who’s writing a book on the movement. “But that’s not to say it can’t make social changes that way — the tea party wasn’t representative of America, either.”
Chelsea Abney grew up surrounded by red. She was a reliable Republican herself until 2015, when she took an online quiz during the party’s crowded presidential primary to see which candidate she should vote for.
The quiz told her she was a Hillary Clinton voter.
“I was horrified,” said Abney, 34, who lives in the Oklahoma City suburb of Mustang. “I couldn’t believe it.”
But as she checked the internet to try to convince herself to oppose Clinton, Abney said, “the more I fell in love with her.”
Despondent after the election, Abney was inspired by a plea from the comedian Chelsea Handler for people angry at Trump to get involved in local politics. She started volunteering for state legislative campaigns. Her father severed all ties with her but Abney was undaunted. “I couldn’t just sit here and watch the Kardashians anymore,” she said.
On a recent Sunday afternoon Abney gave marching orders to about a dozen canvassers who’d gathered in the living room of Danielle Ezell, Democratic state Senate candidate in Oklahoma City. “It’s actually proven this is how elections are won,” Abney told the volunteers before laying out goals for the day — get commitments for three yard signs from the voters on canvassers’ lists.
Taz Al-Michael didn’t need the pep talk. At 18, he volunteers for two other campaigns along with Ezell’s. Al-Michael, a college student, was brought to the U.S. illegally from Bangladesh when he was 9 months old. A program authorized by President Obama, that Trump wants to end, provides him with a driver’s license and protection from deportation. Trump’s election gave him purpose. “I just couldn’t take it anymore,” he said.
Al-Michael knocked on the door of Carol Cater’s humble bungalow in a modest neighborhood in central Oklahoma City. Cater, 73, hobbled to the front and cracked the door open, her show dogs inside yipping.
She asked Al-Michael, skeptically, which party he was with. When he said “Democrat,” she stepped outside.
“You’re the first Democrat to come and see me. Everyone who’s come by is a Republican,” Cater said. She agreed to take a yard sign.
But in Oklahoma, activists could reach every enthusiastic Democrat in the state and they’d still lose badly. Pat McFerron, a veteran GOP strategist there, said the party’s recent gains came in special elections when their motivated voters have outsized impact. In November, when more regular voters join them at the polls, it’ll be harder to make a dent.
“In a high-turnout environment, it’ll be difficult for Democrats to make inroads,” McFerron said, predicting they’d gain fewer than five additional seats in the legislature. Republicans hold 72 of the 101 seats in the lower house and 39 of 48 senate seats, as well as every statewide and federal elected office.
Jackie Phillips is hoping to overcome those long odds. The Republican state representative she’s challenging in November garnered twice as many votes as his Democratic opponent in 2016.
Phillips, 50, is a member of Edmond Democratic Women, the same group that Vicki Toombs joined after Trump’s election. It was founded around the dining room table of a former chamber of commerce director shortly after the election and now has more than 300 members.
On a recent evening, members of the group gathered at a popular pizzeria. They talked about how they used to keep their political views under wraps, and about the halting progress they’ve made. Even now, they sometimes find it hard to believe that they can be so public in their liberalism — such as when Phillips mentioned she had been talking with Planned Parenthood, anathema to the right.
Jill Ogden, a 42-year-old wine shop owner, gasped.
“You just said the two words out loud!” she exclaimed. “I’ve never said the words out loud!”