THUNDER on the Left

The dramatic actions of the Trump Administration are pushing the limits of the U.S. Constitution, angering people across the nation and generating a rising tide of activism on the left. (“A Progressive Counterrevolution in Northeast Florida?” Jan. 11)

The initial flow of activism following Donald Trump’s election has turned into a tidal wave during his first weeks in office. But some are wondering whether dysfunction and the establishment’s unwillingness to change will cause that wave to crash and recede without making much of a difference.

Progressive Activism Grows
Attendance at the first Jacksonville Greenpeace meeting was five souls; its second meeting on Feb. 18 had 50.

Attendance over the last three months at the local branch of Progressive Democrats of America (PDA) went from 15 to 30 to more than 100. Boa Register, campaign organizer of Jacksonville Greenpeace, told Folio Weekly, “Both organizations are now looking for larger venues to hold future meetings.”

Much of the momentum on the left has been driven by the Women’s March held the day after the inauguration (“We Will Not Go Away,” Jan. 25). Many of the local marchers have driven increased participation in meetings that support their causes, such as immigration, the environment and reproductive freedom.

The Jan. 31 meeting of the Duval County Democratic Party (DCDEC) also had a massive influx of newcomers, many from the Women’s March. According to organizers, the usual number doubled; there weren’t enough sign-in sheets for all the new participants.

This type of exponential growth has been common around the country, according to a Feb. 21 Huffington Post article. Similar growth patterns have been seen in Georgia, Colorado, Indiana, Texas and Utah.

Wait, Texas and Utah? Yes, Texas and Utah.

Northeast Florida: Growing Pains or Dysfunction?
Many newcomers didn’t like what they saw at the Duval County Democratic Party meeting on Jan. 31.

After the meeting, one new attendee, Warren Buck, wrote on Facebook, “As someone that was hoping to join a movement to fight what is going on in this country, I was bitterly disappointed in this meeting. It was pointless, petty and poorly planned/led.”

Seasoned activist and local Democrat Amanda Everett agreed, “It turned a lot of newbies off. In my opinion this should have been a meeting to welcome the new recruits into the fold. Instead, some of the oldsters used it as a forum to air their grievances.”

At the meeting, vanquished candidate for party chair Jimmy Deininger introduced a resolution to condemn Trump’s executive order on immigration from countries with majority-Muslim populations. Newly elected party chair, State Senator Audrey Gibson, refused to bring Deininger’s motion for a vote because there was no second. Deininger called for a vote to challenge the rule of the chair and was unsuccessful.

Another member made a lengthy presentation about procedure rules not being followed. Of this, attendee Harriet Hammel wrote on Facebook, “Our nation is in a crisis and all you can do is cite procedure?”

What some perceived as a disaster, others saw as growing pains that made the meeting appear dysfunctional to the uninitiated. Party insider and veteran Democrat Ciera Smith explained, “It was hectic because it was very energetic. The venue was a first attempt and no one planned on the usual attendance being doubled or more, thanks to attendees who were directed from the women’s march.”

Matt Killen from DCDEC’s communication team explained, “Democracy is messy, but it’s supposed to be. We’re going to make a difference together and one hectic meeting isn’t going to stop that.” He continued, “We were able to hold onto the crowd in the end.” Killen said newcomers’ email addresses were collected and the party will contact them to keep them involved.

Others, especially those turned off by Hillary Clinton’s candidacy, viewed the event in positive terms. By most accounts, the Democratic National Committee aided the candidacy of Clinton to the detriment of Senator Bernie Sanders’ campaign.

Although there have been changes in leadership on the local, state and national levels many former aspects of the party remain. As fans of the status quo are replaced by those looking for dynamic change, tension is expected. And there’s generational turnover as party leaders from the baby boomer generation retire, replaced by millennials.

When the DCDEC met again on Feb. 22, the operation ran more smoothly, but with a noticeable drop in attendance from the previous meeting. One longtime active member, found the reduction “unacceptable.”

Asked to comment on the smaller crowd, Gibson said, “The people who attended tonight are members of the party who actually want to get things done.”

First Mover Advantage
A number of new progressive organizations have been able to get members directly engaged in the political process. Jacksonville PDA and Jacksonville Greenpeace have participated in multiple rallies to oppose to the Sable Trail Pipeline. Greenpeace and organizations affiliated with local Indivisible groups have held rallies and staged call-ins to put pressure on elected officials.

This appears to be the type of activity with which critics of the DCDEC would like to be involved.

Lynn Heilmann left a comment on the DCDEC website after the Jan. 31 meeting: “[O]ver 100 people that showed up energized and ready to get to work were ignored.”

“[T]here was no mention of ways we could get involved,” said Crystal Jasey. Also commenting on the DCDEC website, she wrote she wanted to “make a difference, not just hold meetings.”

Traditionally, the DCDEC has been more involved in recruiting candidates to run for office and holding voter registration drives, and less active in supporting individual issues.

Can the Old Donkey Learn New Tricks?
The local and state Democratic parties have developed a legacy of dysfunction over the last 20 years. Until the mid-1990s, Democrats controlled most of the offices on the state and local level. There were plenty of jobs to reward faithful and hardworking Democrats and plenty of competitive seats to run for and win.

Since then, Democrats have become the minority party on the state and local level—almost completely shut out of statewide office. Gerrymandering has meant Democrats cannot be competitive in a majority of city council and state legislative seats in Northeast Florida. With fewer competitive seats, most of the energy expended in campaign season is between Democrats jockeying for advantage in primaries for the few seats they still control.

With few viable offices to campaign for and fewer elected officials to work with, there is little incentive to put in the hard and unglamorous work necessary to make the party machinery function. For the most part, the party has turned into a debating society, with little substance to discourage members from disrupting meetings or trashing the organization.

Still, many of the young guns breathing new life into the progressive movement are undeterred.

According to Jacksonville PDA Chair Lisa Peth, there are two forces super-charging progressive activism. First, Sanders’ presidential campaign reenergized many people on the left who had largely given up on, or never been a part of, the Democratic Party. The second was the election and early actions of President Trump.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke of the “fierce urgency of now” in the 1960s and President Barack Obama used the phrase to rally support for his agenda in this decade. But for many Americans, including those in Northeast Florida, fierce urgency IS now.

Progressive organizations, including the Democratic Party, will be able to effectively channel this new energy or the moment will be lost to history.