For Aaron Abel, it was Steve Bannon’s appointment as counselor to the president. For Eman Elkalban, it was the executive order on refugees. For Alanna Raffel, it was the fact that Donald Trump was elected at all.
Those were the tipping points — what sent them into the streets at a protest march for the first time. Or led them to call their congressional representatives every day. Or spurred them to think seriously about running for public office. Before this year, they said, they thought that voting was all the civic duty they needed to muster — and then President Trump was elected.
Something is solidifying behind the surge of recent protests through the streets and airport terminals in Philadelphia, behind the Tuesday ritual of people on their lunch breaks picketing Sen. Pat Toomey’s Center City office because of the Republican’s support for the administration.
After two months of grappling with the shock of Trump’s ascendance, the aggrieved are turning their anger and protest into concrete action in numbers that local Democratic Party officials say they have never before seen. Mothers of young children, midcareer professionals, and other formerly too-busy-for-activism Democrats have flooded party offices in recent weeks with emails and phone calls offering time, money — even their names as candidates for public office.
“These are new people to politics. These aren’t people who were [phone]-banking for Hillary Clinton,” said David E. Landau, a veteran Democrat who is chief of the party in Delaware County, where Republicans dominate lower-ballot elected posts. “A lot of them are saying, ‘I want to run for office.’ Everybody wants to run for Congress.”
In just a day and a half last week, 500 people signed up for the party’s hastily organized forum Wednesday night at Strath Haven Middle School in Wallingford on how to run for office and help other Democrats win.
The school parking lot overflowed with cars belonging to more than 600 people who crammed into the school auditorium for the event. Party officials and local elected Democrats implored the crowd to become active by talking to neighbors, running to become election judges, and campaigning for Democrats seeking to take control of local and county political offices, judgeships, and legislative seats. That is the only path toward regaining control of national politics, they said.
“How do you eat an elephant?” Democratic strategist Joe Corrigan asked from the stage. “One bite at a time.”
State Rep. Margo Davidson (D., Delaware) boasted that such a strategy had helped her and two other women on stage win state House and local school board seats formerly held by Republicans in a county that had been a GOP stronghold since the Civil War. Over the past generation, she continued, this approach has delivered national dominance to the Republican Party.
“If we get Democrats out and take territories this year, we can get rid of [Republican U.S. Rep.] Patrick Meehan in 2018,” Davidson said to hoots and applause. “And then, in 2019, if we do it again, we can take more territory. And then in 2020, Trump is outta here.”
In Republican-controlled Chester County, the only county in the region where the GOP still has a voter registration edge, more than 100 people attended a similar forum held the day before Trump’s inauguration.
An additional 800 people on the Main Line attended a “Resistance Forum” in Montgomery County during inaugural week.
One woman there successfully organized the Philadelphia Woman’s Rally the day after Trump’s inauguration, which drew tens of thousands to Center City.
“For us, the march was just the kickoff,” said the woman, Emily Cooper Morse, who planned the rally while juggling a family of young children and a supply-logistics job for a multinational chemical company. She had never before done such a thing.
In Philadelphia, the political-advocacy organization Philadelphia 3.0 says nearly 500 people have indicated interest in running for local ward seats in 2018.
Raffel, a 29-year-old occupational therapist who is considering running for an election board spot in her ward, said the surge of local civic engagement — and the sense that calling her representatives was making an impact — had convinced her she could make a difference in local politics.
“At the [Philadelphia 3.0] workshop, it felt like people from my generation are stepping up right now,” she said. “I feel empowered to be in that community.”
Even if they aren’t considering running for office, political newbies like Abel, a 27-year-old who helps run his parents’ towing company in Malvern, have been flooding the offices of senators and congresspeople for weeks with calls and letters.
Abel, a lifelong Republican voter, cast his vote for Clinton this year and first started calling his congresspeople after Bannon’s appointment. “I mean, Breitbart is insane,” he said of the website Bannon once edited and described as a platform for the far-right, white nationalist fringe movement known as the alt-right. Using a website that provides scripts for how to talk to congressional representatives, he now makes about five calls a day.
“Nothing approaches it — certainly in the time I’ve been in public office, and I can’t remember [anything like it] even before that,” U.S. Sen. Bob Casey (D., Pa.) said of the calls, letters and visits his office has been receiving lately. He said constituents’ calls about Trump’s cabinet nominees had “validated” his own concerns about some of the nominees, seven of whom he has either voted against or indicated he will vote against.
“Sometimes the confirmation process is kind of a sleepy, quiet process without a lot of consequence,” Casey said. “Now, it’s the subject of daily, almost hourly, debate, and that’s good. Both parties can benefit from that.”
The challenge facing Democrats and activists now is how to harness the energy of the newly mobilized, said Daniel Hopkins, a political science professor at the University of Pennsylvania.
“Donald Trump is probably among the better recruitment tools that a lot of organizers have,” he said.
The recent protests across the country are “not usual, but not unprecedented,” Hopkins said: The left took to the streets over the Iraq War, and the tea party was born out of those disgruntled over the election of President Barack Obama.
“One of the most powerful mobilizing forces in politics is a sense that there’s some threat to values or ideas that we hold dear,” he said.
Activists and the newly engaged can solidify around common ground, said Shani Akilah, the cofounder of the Black and Brown Collective, an activist organization whose leadership is entirely LGBT people of color.
“We don’t all have to be fighting around the same issues all the time,” she said. “We just have to know that when the time comes and it’s an all-hands-on-deck situation, all hands on deck can be there.”
Elkalban, 30, knows something about an all-hands-on-deck situation. The American-born daughter of Egyptian immigrants, she was in medical school in Cairo when Arab Spring protesters began gathering in Tahrir Square in 2010.
She didn’t go. “In Egypt, a president can serve for 30 years and that’s the norm. I felt like my voice would not be heard. What can really change?” she said.
Last weekend, she read Trump’s just-announced executive order — which halted the refugee program for four months, banned refugees from Syria indefinitely, and suspended travel for three months from seven majority-Muslim countries — with growing distress.
Elkalban watched as news spread of travelers detained at airports and the enormous protests in response. She thought of her own travels to visit her family abroad, and of families being detained in an airport for hours because of where they came from. And she thought of Tahrir Square.
“In Egypt, I thought, ‘I support you guys,’ but I supported them from the couch. To be here, in the country where we were taught that freedom is everything, and everyone’s accepted, and everyone’s welcome — this is a personal attack on everything this country stands for,” she said. “And it would be really un-American to say nothing.”
So she drove to Philadelphia International Airport and joined her first protest.