There are many ways to resist President Trump, and not all of them involve clogging the streets of American cities in mass marches, throwing your body onto the asphalt of a busy intersection, or jamming your senator’s phone switchboard to beg him to stop taking away your grandma’s kidney dialysis.
Just ask Anna Payne, barely 30, spending this tropically humid mid-October Monday night tromping down the leaf-covered cul-de-sacs of Langhorne in her stylish jeans and sneakers with bright purple laces, knocking on glass storm doors ringed by fall pumpkin paraphernalia and tiny American flags.
If she’s lucky, the diminutive Payne will hand her election brochures to a voter who had no clue there’s an election on Nov. 7. “It will be here before you know it!” the cheerful budding politico tells one before hustling off to the next storm door, where a muffled voice screams, “We’re eating dinner!” Payne sheepishly props her literature on the doorstep and turns, undeterred, to her phone and her map showing the next likely voter.
Welcome to life in the dreary trenches of a counterrevolution. For Payne, the first few steps of the 1,000-mile journey toward reclaiming her vision of America in the aftershocks of last November run past the basketball hoops and the beige siding of the middle-class subdivisions of central Bucks County. The young financial-services worker is running for the Middletown Township Board of Auditors, a three-member panel that hires and signs off on professional auditors who review the books in this sprawling township of more than 45,000 people.
Payne is just one of thousands of first-time candidates — many of them women, some of them millennials like her — who’ve emerged mostly on the Democratic side in the post-Trump fallout. They carry a sense that last fall’s failures won’t be washed clean without people taking action on every level, even if that means showing up for monthly town party meetings or running for the most unglamorous posts, the jobs no one wanted before the cataclysmic events of Nov. 8, 2016.
This summer, the group Emily’s List — long devoted to electing more women to political office — reported that it had been contacted by a whopping 16,000 mostly first-time female office-seekers, or more than 16 times the number who reached out in the election cycle that included Trump’s election. A few are seeking the shiniest objects, like a seat in the U.S. Congress, but many are running for school board, town council … or auditor.
Many are finding out politics is a lot harder than it looks. It’s not just the fund-raising — those yard signs and handouts don’t grow on trees, it turns out — or the entrenched old-boy networks in a lot of jurisdictions, but also the bizarre intrigues of dealing with flesh-and-blood human beings in an election that looked so winnable on cold paper. On the other side of Philadelphia, in Delaware County, for example, a promising first-time female candidate won the Democratic primary for County Council in May — without telling voters she’d secretly decided to drop out of the race weeks before the votes were cast.
That’s why political junkies are more eager than usual to watch next month’s off-off-year elections, to see whether voter rage over Trump — some 64 percent of Americans currently think the nation is on the wrong track — actually brings more voters to the polls, and to see whether political novices can break through the ennui of a nonpresidential year.
There are already some encouraging signs, especially on the farther left side of the political dial, for some outsiders who’ve been backed by the Sen. Bernie Sanders-affiliated group Our Revolution, which endorsed upstart Democrat Lawrence Krasner in the Philadelphia DA’s race and Birmingham’s Mayor-elect Randall Woodfin, who wants a $15 minimum wage and free community college. Other newcomer candidates were die-hard Hillary Clinton backers in 2016 — a heavily female cohort that now forms the guts of the loose coalition calling itself the Resistance.
Payne’s first-time bid for political office is in part the momentum of her 2016 efforts on behalf of Sanders, which earned her a delegate slot at last year’s Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia and helped her garner an Our Revolution endorsement, which has brought in a few extra dollars for a campaign that will cost Middletown Democrats some $20,000.
But Payne also sees political activism in the time of Trump as a matter of life and death. Diagnosed at birth with cystic fibrosis — the genetic disorder that can cause lung infections, difficulty breathing, and other symptoms — Payne has depended on good health care as she endured frequent hospitalizations to push through Neshaminy High School and Bucks County Community College, toward her full-time job at a local credit union, which allowed her to move out of her mother’s house and buy a condo last year.
Some of her medical care is paid for through a Pennsylvania Medicaid program called Medical Assistance for Workers with Disabilities that Trump and congressional Republicans want to cap as part of their never-ending push to repeal Obamacare. That effort — as well as proposals that would allow insurance companies to bring back lifetime caps or make rates unaffordable for patients like Payne with preexisting conditions — has added fuel to her fire to make a difference through politics. Before the Affordable Care Act was on the books, Payne said, her mother’s insurance plan had kicked her off at 19, forcing her to go solely on Medicaid for a time.
“They weren’t interested in covering me before, so why would they be interested in covering me now” if Obamacare is repealed, asks Payne, who, like most Sanders acolytes, would love to see a movement toward single-payer health care.
This raises the question: Can a citizen save America from a health-care catastrophe or other ravages of Trumpism by serving as a township auditor, where the most ambitious goal — as stated by Payne — is simply to bring “transparency” to how the books are balanced in a large suburban township?
“The people who are upset or part of the Resistance, looking to do anything they can, they can put new people in their township,” Payne said, noting correctly that over the last couple of decades, the GOP has out-hustled Democrats in local elections in places like Middletown, where Democrats now have a registration edge yet the township has long been run by Republicans.
Female candidates like Payne are stepping forward right when the gender imbalance in this country is having a moment. Just log on to any news website and read the headlines — from the piggishness of powerful men of every stripe from Harvey Weinstein to Bill O’Reilly to the male-dominated legislatures and bureaucracy pushing to take away women’s reproductive rights and even assailing birth control while nominating man after man to key government posts, under the leadership of a confessed “[p-word] grabber” in the Oval Office. Surely someday we’ll see a woman in the White House, but right now even a foot in the door of the Middletown Township Municipal Building can’t hurt.
But that fierce urgency of now is doubly felt by Payne, who never forgets that her CF diagnosis — despite major medical advances — still comes with a shortened life expectancy.
“I’m really lucky that I’m healthy enough to do things — that’s why I’m jumping at the chance to do this now,” Payne told me of her candidacy, adding, “I don’t know how long that will last” — defusing the moment with a hearty laugh. “I know one day I won’t be able to knock on all of the doors.”