After months of strategizing in coffee shops and living rooms and relentlessly writing and calling their elected representatives, many of the Minnesotans who jumped into political activism following the election of President Donald Trump are shifting course.
Local branches of progressive groups like Indivisible and Stand Up Minnesota are still protesting outside congressional offices, packing town hall meetings and blasting Trump on social media. But increasingly, their members are also narrowing their focus to matters closer to home, tuning in to and speaking up at school board and City Council meetings or getting to know their state lawmakers.
And with about a year to go before the critical 2018 midterm election, many people who count themselves among "the resistance" to Trump and his agenda are throwing their time and money into political campaigns — or launching their own bids for office.
While GOP leaders say they expect the surge of activism from the left will do little to slow conservative momentum next year, progressives in Minnesota say they're going to be ready to stop it — as long as they can keep up the pressure.
"The way I see it is 2017 is the year of resistance," said Clara Severson, an Eden Prairie warehouse worker who helped found one of the state's most active Indivisible groups and recently quit her job to work for Dean Phillips, a DFL candidate hoping to unseat Republican U.S. Rep. Erik Paulsen. "And come 2018, I'm hoping it's going to be the year the resistance transfers all their energy to the candidates they're going to support."
Membership in groups opposed to Trump and the GOP-led Congress spiked in the weeks and months after Trump's inauguration in January. An estimated 90,000 people descended on the Capitol in St. Paul for the Women's March. Grass-roots organizations that started with a few like-minded people gathering over coffee swelled into meetings that packed churches and community rooms. Minnesota's three GOP congressmen found their phone lines inundated with callers pressing them on immigration, health care and other Trump policies.
But as the months passed, many groups saw their numbers ebb and flow as some newly minted activists ran out of time or grew weary of the drumbeat of news coming from the White House. More recently, leaders have realized they need to change their strategy to keep people motivated.
Mark Frascone, co-chairman of Indivisible Resistance of Eagan and Burnsville, said his group — which has directed much of its energy toward freshman GOP Rep. Jason Lewis — has around 400 members. Many, however, turn up for a few events and then disappear. Most of the group's events draw 20 to 30 participants, through Frascone said those numbers almost always include a handful of new faces.
"We've been going at this for nine months now, and that onslaught of feelings burns people out pretty quickly," he said. "But there's a handful of us who are working to keep people engaged in a way that's not wearing them out."
Many people, like Jessica Filiaggi of Duelm, Minn., signed up for one group and then another — and suddenly found themselves dedicating a large portion of their week to "resistance" activities. Filiaggi, who is affiliated with groups including Our Revolution MN, the Benton-Sherburne-Wright DFL organization and a handful of local grass-roots organizations, said it's become clear that people need a specific mission, like gathering to make phone calls, to want to stay involved.
"If it's just a monthly meeting, people just get kind of bleary-eyed," she said.
As a result, some groups have formed teams focused on specific issues. Others are hosting educational forums that help voters understand who represents them and how local government works.
Most are now seeing members link up with political campaigns, primarily of DFL candidates, though organizers are wary of publicly backing a candidate or party for fear of alienating members.
Running for office
Some group leaders have stepped down from running activist groups and stepped up as candidates for office.
Kathryn Eckhardt joined North Metro Indivisible, a group focused on Twin Cities suburbs like Blaine, Andover and Coon Rapids, as someone with only limited involvement in politics. She ended up leading the group, dedicating as much as 20 hours a week to its work — and eventually realizing that she could do even more if elected to office. Now she's running as a DFLer to represent District 35B in the Minnesota House.
Mindy Kimmel, a political newcomer from New Ulm, attended the Women's March, helped found the local "resistance" group MN Voices: Marching Forward, and recently decided to run for office as a DFL candidate for state House in District 16B. She is confident that some — if not all — of the people making time for activism will keep it up until next year's election.
"The people who feel in their heart and soul that things are so wrong that we have to step up and do something … I think they know they can't stop this thing from moving forward," she said.
Minnesota Republicans gearing up for next year's election — which includes races for governor, state House and several competitive congressional seats — say they're not worried. In a statement, Minnesota Republican Party Chairwoman Jennifer Carnahan dismissed groups like Indivisible as "front groups" for the bigger DFL political machine, rather than independent organizations offering fresh energy to the left.
"Minnesota Republicans are excited to win across the board and at all levels in the 2018 midterms, regardless of whatever Minnesota Democrats are calling themselves these days," she said.
Christiana Purves, a spokeswoman for the Republican National Committee, said "baseless, radical efforts by far-left groups" like Indivisible will end up backfiring on the DFL on Election Day.
"Democrats will be caught up in brutal and costly 2018 primaries that will divide their party even more and lose votes along the way," she said.
But activists like Renita Fisher, who has been a part of the Dakota County chapter of the group Stand Up Minnesota and serves as a leader of the statewide organization, said there's evidence something else is happening. A political newcomer, Fisher helps with DFL workshops on the election process, serves on a ballot referendum committee at her son's school and volunteers with an organization that runs workshops encouraging Republicans and Democrats to meet for civil conversation.
She said there are plenty of others like her who are transferring their newfound political energy back into their communities — and are likely to still be doing so a year from now.
"I keep thinking: If I drop the ball, who carries this forward?" she said.
Erin Golden • 612-673-4790