California: Behind the ‘orange curtain,’ women plan for change
by Tamsin McMahon in Newport Beach, Calif.
Eileen Padberg was a loyal Republican for 53 years.
She joined the party out of high school, set up a Young Republicans association in Anaheim, Calif., and became a prominent California political consultant, managing dozens of campaigns, including Clint Eastwood’s run for mayor of Carmel.
She clung fiercely to her Republican identity – even as she chafed against the party’s embrace of social conservatism. She published a book about the two years she spent in Iraq teaching local women how to compete for work on U.S.-sponsored reconstruction contracts. Pro-choice, she fought to remove the issue of abortion from the Republican platform – but lost.
Over the years, she watched as her political friends left the party and urged her to do the same. She believed Republicans would return to the roots that had attracted her to the party: small government, personal responsibility, a strong national defence.
But this fall, as Republican lawmakers in Congress picked apart a California university professor’s accusations of sexual assault, Ms. Padberg, a sexual-assault survivor herself, finally decided she’d had enough. She dumped her party affiliation and registered as an independent.
“The words that I was hearing from those old white guys were just insulting,” she said. “I couldn’t do it any more.”
She believes she is not alone, that many women like her have been turned off by the Republican Party under President Donald Trump – and that their anger will be a potent force in Tuesday’s midterm elections. “I’ve been holding on by a thin thread for a long time,” she said. “And I suspect that if I went that way, there are a lot of women who did.”
Ms. Padberg, 74, lives in the city of Laguna Niguel, in Orange County, a network of subdivisions, office buildings, theme parks and shopping malls that sprawls down the California coast south of Los Angeles. Places like this have become the battleground in American politics: suburban and traditionally conservative, populated by affluent white voters and an influx of immigrants attracted by good schools, safe neighbourhoods and decent jobs.
In California, moving to Orange County has long been described as going behind the “orange curtain,” the line where the state’s blue politics become red. But Orange County has been gradually turning purple: Demographic and economic shifts have transformed white, middle-class neighbourhoods whose fortunes were tied to the defence industry into a diverse mix of knowledge-economy professionals and service workers.
Two years ago, voters here backed Hillary Clinton by almost five percentage points, the first time the county has supported a Democratic presidential nominee in 80 years. Ms. Clinton’s win here has thrust Orange County into the forefront of the Democratic Party’s efforts to capture the House of Representatives this fall – the first time in years that California has been so central to national politics. The party has poured manpower and money into flipping the region’s four Republican-held congressional seats. Barack Obama and Joe Biden have both come to town.
Central to that push will be Orange County’s female voters. In a region where white women were long counted on as reliable Republican voters, the 2016 election has brought Democratic women out of the shadows.
“For many of us, our politics was something we kept close to the breast,” said Lorellen Green, a physician and former professional dancer. “It took something sort of cataclysmic like this for us to start saying, ‘I’m a Democrat.’”
The energy among women on the left has inspired a flurry of grassroots efforts to get Democratic voters to the polls and to start building the kind of ground game that Orange County Republicans have steadily constructed over decades.
After the 2016 election, Joanna Weiss, 46, a corporate attorney who is now a stay-at-home mom, started keeping track of all her female friends grieving Ms. Clinton’s loss on social media. When she got to 35 names, she invited the women to her home. “We’ll drink a lot of wine, write letters to Congress and maybe we’ll form a political action committee,” she told them.
More than 20 women showed up. Soon the meetings grew too large for her house. Eventually, Ms. Weiss formed Women for American Values and Ethics (WAVE), which she describes as a support system for progressive women in Orange County.
The group now has about 700 members and has created its own Super PAC, an independent political committee that can spend unlimited amounts on advertising as long as it doesn’t co-ordinate directly with parties or candidates. It has raised more than US$200,000, according to public records, including US$75,000 from an April fundraiser hosted by comedian Chelsea Handler.
On a breezy night in October, more than 60 people attended a WAVE ballot party – an information session about candidates and ballot measures – in upscale Newport Beach.
Linda Sanchez, a Democratic congresswoman from neighbouring Los Angeles County who was invited to kick off the party, pointed to a man in the audience who had raised his hand to ask her a question.
“Every time I talk to a group of people, we open it for a Q&A – and women never ask the first question. And I’m tired of that,” she said. “I am not going to answer this man’s question.”
The man lowered his hand. The room, filled mostly with women, broke into applause.
Across town, another group of women gathered at Ms. Green’s home for the inaugural meeting of the Women’s Activist Book Club. The women were members of Imagine Action OC, a grassroots group that has also hosted ballot parties, fundraisers and candidate meet-and-greets. “I see this as part of being a good mom,” said Faye Hezar, one of the group’s organizers and a commercial property manager who moved to California from Iran. “I don’t want my children and my grandchildren to live in a country like this.”
Both Democrats and Republicans caution that Ms. Clinton’s victory here in 2016 may be less a sign that the county’s politics are moving leftward than an indication that many of the region’s moderately conservative voters did not take to Mr. Trump.
Renette Crone was among those early Trump skeptics. Her choice for the Republican nominee was Marco Rubio. But over time she has come to appreciate how the President’s unorthodox style has confounded his political opponents both at home and abroad.
“He does make us cringe,” said Ms. Crone, who has put her interior design business in the affluent waterfront community of Corona Del Mar on hold so she can co-ordinate midterm efforts for the Newport Harbor Republican Women’s Club. “You just have to shrug it off and say: We don’t get our spiritual guidance from Donald Trump.”
She concedes that women are galvanized on the left but believes Republicans remain the establishment party in Orange County. Her group primarily targets fiscally conservative women with messages about Republican tax cuts, rather than expounding on the future of Roe vs. Wade. “We don’t need to go to battle on social issues,” she said. “We’re all about keeping it in the mainstream.”
Where a blue wave may run aground in Orange County is among moderate conservative voters who feel alienated by Mr. Trump’s rhetoric but have reservations about the far-left elements of the Democratic Party.
Voters like Lisa Bauer. A retired human resources manager for the county government, Ms. Bauer, 58, is a long-time Republican. She supported Ms. Clinton in 2016 but also backed her local Republican congresswoman, Mimi Walters. Since then, she has felt increasingly put off by Mr. Trump, whom she describes as “particularly insulting to women,” and by Ms. Walters, whose office has not responded to any of her requests.
This year, she has offered to volunteer for Ms. Walter’s Democratic opponent, law professor Katie Porter. But she has registered to vote as an independent, worrying that the Democrats sometimes push their progressive policies too far. She points to a proposed bill in the state legislature – vetoed by Governor Jerry Brown – that would have allowed undocumented immigrants to serve on local city councils and school boards.
Those positions should be reserved for U.S. citizens, she said. “That’s what gives the Democrats a bad name.”
Orange County’s Democratic candidates have tried to appeal to moderate voters by flashing their conservative bona fides.
Harley Rouda, a real-estate developer challenging veteran Republican Dana Rohrabacher, and lottery winner Gil Cisneros, who is running for a seat vacated by Republican Ed Royce, openly talk about being former Republicans.
In a hotly contested race in a neighbouring, Republican-controlled suburban swath of Los Angeles County, ads for Democrat Katie Hill feature her father, a police officer and Republican voter, and describe how she grew up around guns.
Sheila Bigelow, 64, has volunteered on Ms. Hill’s campaign as a way to “make it up to the universe” for voting for Mr. Trump.
A NASA employee who works at nearby Edwards Air Force Base, she wasn’t bothered by his comments about grabbing women – but changed her mind when he attacked Meryl Streep on Twitter.
“I said: Wait a minute. He’s going to be president in the next few days. Why is he going after the greatest actress of our generation?” she said. “It’s just gotten worse and worse and worse.”
She is skeptical, however, that there are enough voters who feel that way in this long, dry stretch of Southern California. “I disagree with practically everything that Trump has to say, but on this thing I think he’s right: There may not be a blue wave.”
Ms. Padberg views things differently. A veteran of more than 100 Republican political campaigns, many of them supporting female candidates and women’s issues, she sees changes coming.
“I think women finally got it. We finally said: We’re done here. And I think it shows up in this election. Not just in Orange County, but across the country.”
Michigan: For suburban women, politics is inescapable – and more enticing
by Adam Radwanski
Lori Goldman recalls the doom and gloom in the hours after the 2016 election, as women in her Facebook feed posted they couldn’t bring themselves to get out of bed. But Ms. Goldman, apolitical for much of her life before starting a women’s group earlier that year to support Hillary Clinton, saw opportunity in the despair.
“Another Republican could have won,” the 58-year-old resident of the Detroit suburb of Bloomfield Hills says over coffee at a local Starbucks, “and [right now] I’d be sitting on my couch watching daytime TV.”
Instead, she explains, she responded to Donald Trump’s stunning victory – the first Republican presidential nominee to carry Michigan in almost three decades – by reaching out to every woman she encountered. Her fledgling organization Fems for Dems, which began with her immediate social circle, has now grown to a volunteer force with a 1,500-strong e-mail list, as it runs candidate meet-and-greets, phone banks and canvasses ahead of the Nov. 6 midterm elections.
Jill Wilkinson remembers the same response to Mr. Trump’s win very differently. She wasn’t prepared for what she saw when she went to her gym in neighbouring Birmingham the following morning.
“I was absolutely amazed,” she says. “There are these women weeping over the election. I’m like, really? Because the last two rounds, when Obama won, we weren’t allowed to weep or moan.”
To Ms. Wilkinson, set to take over as president of the Birmingham Republican Women’s Club, “the weeping of the next day has only fed on itself like a cancer.” She isn’t a fan of Mr. Trump’s personality, but loves his policies – especially tax cuts that help her business – and resents being castigated by friends and family for refusing to express anything but hatred for him.
Ms. Wilkinson and Ms. Goldman (who does not weep when discussing Mr. Trump and his supporters but does use some profanity) may not agree on much politically. But one thing to which they will both attest is that the Trump era has caused many women here to experience politics in a new way. Elections and political activism have at once become more divisive and more unifying, more exhilarating and more anxiety-inducing – and more a part of the identity of people who previously avoided discussing politics in polite company. It’s a shift that’s likely to last beyond Tuesday’s vote – perhaps even Mr. Trump’s presidency.
Among the dominant storylines this U.S. campaign season is that their demographic – white, college-educated, suburban and female – represents the most important group of swing voters. If enough such women migrate to the Democrats out of distaste for Mr. Trump, opinion research suggests, they will play a decisive role in wresting control of Congress from the Republicans.
That certainly applies to Michigan’s 11th district, where Ms. Wilkinson lives and volunteers and where Ms. Goldman’s Fems for Dems bases much of its activism. Until recently, it was reliably Republican, partly because it was drawn that way by the state legislature. Mr. Trump carried it by five points in 2016, and congressman Dave Trott was re-elected by a wider margin. But it has long been moderate in its conservatism and has been inching toward competitiveness, which both sides attribute to an influx of young families – many including highly educated women, of whom there were likely already more than in any other Michigan district.
But to cast suburban women merely as targets of campaigning politicians underplays the extent to which many have actively joined the front lines of the battle for their country’s future.
With Mr. Trott retiring, both parties have young women as candidates in the 11th. For the Democrats, it’s 35-year-old Haley Stevens, who was chief of staff on the Obama administration’s auto task force. For the Republicans, it’s 37-year-old Lena Epstein, who co-chaired Mr. Trump’s campaign in Michigan. In a sign of which voters the GOP are zeroing in on, Ms. Epstein, by no accounts a moderate, has been running an ad showing her getting ahead in a world dominated by older men. (Ms. Epstein was also involved in a strange controversy this week around her invitation of a Messianic rabbi to an event with Vice-President Mike Pence to mark last weekend’s massacre at a Pittsburgh synagogue.)
Both women won primaries in which older male candidates were initially favoured, a common story in a year in which there has been a massive increase in the number of female candidates, nationally and especially in this state.
Ms. Epstein notwithstanding, that change is most obvious on the Democratic side. Here and in other Michigan districts, the Democratic ticket is dominated by female candidates. In addition to incumbent Senator Debbie Stabenow, that includes candidates for governor, secretary of state, attorney-general and, as an indicator of grassroots engagement, lots of women running to serve in the (currently three-quarters male) state legislature and local government.
“They really did create a wave,” says Dawn Crandell, a veteran of Michigan backrooms who runs a training program for Republican women to enter politics. “While we have good Republican women, we’re not anywhere near the numbers they’re at.”
Shannon Garrett, a Michigan Democrat who co-founded VoteRunLead – a national, cross-partisan organization similarly dedicated to encouraging women to seek public office – can easily pinpoint when the wave started. Before Mr. Trump’s victory, her group would run a web seminar and about 50 women around the country would participate. The first one after his election, she says, got more than 1,000.
“To get women to run, you have to ask and ask,” says Vicki Barnett, the Democratic Party chair for Oakland County, which includes much of the 11th district. “Suddenly there were no ifs, ands or buts.”
Ms. Barnett sees something similar behind the scenes, with more women stepping into roles as campaign managers. And then there’s what is happening at the volunteer level.
On a Wednesday evening in October, three women take a break from a Fems for Dems phone bank in Troy, another suburb in the 11th, to discuss their activism. One, a young assistant prosecutor named Suzanna Shkreli, who stepped in late in the last campaign to run for the Democrats in the neighbouring 8th district, attests to the increased energy: “When I was running, people kind of mailed it in. … What I’ve seen in 2018 is a lot of anger, a lot of people motivated to get out there and say, ‘I’m not going to wake up the next day like I did after the 2016 election.’”
The other two, Tina Catron and Catherine Bansek, are political novices.
Together they answer the question: Why would women unengaged in the last election, when Mr. Trump’s style of politics (and attitudes, like those expressed in his infamous Access Hollywood tape) was well known, be much more active now?
Their answers boil down to three factors frequently cited by other women who have become motivated Democrats: They didn’t really think Mr. Trump would win, they believed that if he did he’d become more conventionally presidential and, in some cases, they didn’t like Ms. Clinton either.
Late in the conversation, Ms. Catron, a 41-year-old Troy resident, makes a confession: “I voted independent in that election, because I literally could not walk in there and with a good conscience pick one over the other.”
Now knowing the “ramifications,” she wouldn’t do the same thing again. She’s here mobilizing others not to be nonchalant, either. Her takeaway from such efforts: “Women are pissed.”
To which Republicans respond: Not all women – at least not the same way.
Deb O’Hagan, a former Republican chair for the 11th district who turns up for coffee in a car festooned with Trump-friendly stickers, acknowledges the Democratic side has been fired up in this campaign. But she contends that plenty of people are quietly very happy with Mr. Trump’s economic policies, even if they don’t like everything about him.
Ms. Crandell suggests that, unlike Ms. O’Hagan, many of her party’s female supporters are deceptively restrained. “I don’t think you will ever find thousands of Republican women marching,” she says. “I do think there’s enthusiasm on the Republican side. … I just think Republicans engage differently than Democrats do,” more in keeping with traditional suburban restraint.
There is also a common argument that the saga involving sexual-assault allegations against Supreme Court appointee Brett Kavanaugh accelerated a Republican awakening, about an inescapable culture war, that Democratic women had already had.
“Kavanaugh has woken people up like you wouldn’t believe,” Ms. Wilkinson says. “Going out to destroy a man … The vitriol has really inspired people. We can’t stay home, we can’t be lackadaisical, we have to get out and fight for not having people who would put on such drama.”
Ms. Goldman, naturally, disagrees with that assessment. “We were already motivated, but now we’re supercharged,” she says of Democrats and the Supreme Court fight, “to the point where you might think I’m a crazy person. I hope you’ll come back in a couple of years and you’ll find I’m conversant and calm.”
But she doesn’t really intend to sit back after the midterms. “We’re going to take a week off,” she says, before kicking off a two-year plan to keep converting women to activism, including through a sister organization, Fems for Change, aimed at less partisan civic engagement.
Beside her at Starbucks, Julie Campbell-Bode, another Fems for Dems organizer, warns about any success for her side on Tuesday allowing backsliding into apathy.
“The moment you give an inch of room to go back and say everything’s okay now, we as a society quickly go back to where we’re comfortable,” she says. “So we have to continue to push the boundaries.”
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