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Better late than never? Opposing Trump, Democrats take lessons from Tea Party

Minnesotans are turning up the pressure on their representatives.

About 100,000 attendees demonstrated at the Women’s March in St. Paul the day after inauguration.
MinnPost photo by Corey Anderson

Joy Stroup never really got involved in politics until Donald Trump was elected president.

A homemaker and substitute teacher from Plymouth, Stroup felt disgusted and defeated when Trump’s Electoral College victory sent him to the White House. Galvanized by that feeling, she demonstrated at the Women’s March in St. Paul the day after inauguration, along with her 14-year old daughter and about 100,000 others.

The experience left Stroup with energy and passion to spare, but no obvious outlet for it. “After the march,” she said, “it’s sort of like, OK, now what do we do?”

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A friend pushed her to start putting calls in to Rep. Erik Paulsen’s office, the Republican who represents her district. That led to paying close attention to Paulsen’s votes on key bills in Congress, which led to Stroup hosting people at her home to write postcards to Paulsen, expressing their opinions on Trump and the issues.

It’s pushed her out of her comfort zone. “But it feels like you’re doing something,” Stroup said. “When you hear there’s thousands of people doing the same thing, you don’t feel silly for doing it.”

Indeed, there are lots of Joy Stroups in Minnesota: people who didn’t really engage in political activism before the election who now feel like they have to do something to stop Trump and his GOP allies in Congress.

Turning up the heat on Republican reps

It is natural that Paulsen is a top target for Democrats and Trump foes looking to turn the heat up on the GOP.

The mild-mannered former state legislator from Eden Prairie has represented the 3rd Congressional District since 2009, winning reelection handily each time. Democrats thought they had a shot to knock him off in 2016, but he dispatched former state Sen. Terri Bonoff by 13 points.

But Hillary Clinton bested Trump in these largely affluent, west metro suburbs by nine points. Paulsen himself declared he would not support Trump after the Access Hollywood tapes were released, but some people here are watching to see how closely the congressman hews to the president’s agenda.

Stroup and others have participated in activism with local chapters of a group called Indivisible, which aims to organize grassroots resistance to Trump. Indivisible picked up steam after its organizers posted a guide to Tea Party-style resistance that went viral after the election.

There is an Indivisible chapter for the 3rd District, and members have been active in spearheading protests, such as a February 4th event outside Paulsen’s Eden Prairie office, where demonstrators demanded he hold a town hall meeting open to the public.

That’s a major sticking point with activists, who say Paulsen hasn’t held an in-person meeting where constituents could openly ask questions since 2011.

A Paulsen spokesman did not confirm or deny that claim, simply saying that Paulsen “has held over 100 town hall events reaching hundreds of thousands of constituents since taking office.”

Rep. Erik Paulsen
MinnPost file photo by Brian Halliday
Rep. Erik Paulsen

In the past, Paulsen has held so-called “telephone” town halls, in which constituents are called randomly (by ZIP code) and can ask questions directly on a phone call.

He has done two so far this year; the calls typically last an hour, with the bulk of that time reserved for questions. Paulsen’s office says he gets to as many questions as he can, and that several thousand people can listen in to the call, even if their questions aren’t handled.

This is not enough for CD3 activists, however, who hope to get Paulsen in front of constituents to answer their questions. It’s a key element of the Tea Party playbook: put members of Congress before angry audiences and make them explain what’s going on — in this case, Trump’s initiatives and the GOP’s designs on programs like the Affordable Care Act.

Already, rowdy town halls in Colorado and California have led to bad press for Republican congressmen, some of whom snuck out of forums to avoid questions or got escorted out by police details.

A strong majority of 6th District Rep. Tom Emmer’s constituents back Trump and the GOP, but some constituents are promising to give him an earful at an upcoming town hall later this month. (Emmer is a prolific holder of town halls, with 24 in his first term alone.)

The Facebook page advertising Emmer’s town hall features numerous comments from constituents angry with Trump — and with Emmer’s enthusiastic backing of his agenda, including his executive orders. Several people expressed they plan to go, to register their displeasure with Emmer in person.

Senators spotlighted, too

The front lines of resistance to Trump’s agenda, of course, aren’t in the House of Representatives, but in the Senate, which has the power to debate and vote on the president’s selections for cabinet positions and the Supreme Court.

Encouraged by celebrities, politicians and advocacy groups, people have flooded the phone lines of U.S. senators since Trump’s election, registering their opinions on a variety of topics, such as presidential appointees and his executive orders.

Minnesotans find themselves on the backburner of Senate drama: those receiving the most calls have been potential swing votes, like moderate Democrats who could plausibly vote with the GOP — such as North Dakota Sen. Heidi Heitkamp — or moderate Republicans who could provide Democrats a crucial no vote, like Maine Sen. Susan Collins.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar
MinnPost file photo by Devin Henry
Sen. Amy Klobuchar

Sens. Al Franken and Amy Klobuchar are not considered key swing votes. Neither has been among the most hard-line Democrats in opposing Trump’s picks, only voting against his more high-profile nominees.

Klobuchar and Franken voted against Secretary of Education pick Betsy DeVos, Secretary of State pick Rex Tillerson, and Attorney General pick Jeff Sessions; Franken also voted against CIA chief pick Mike Pompeo. They approved the remainder of the eight nominees who have come to the floor thus far for a vote.

The two are almost certain to vote against controversial upcoming nominees, like EPA administrator nominee Scott Pruitt and Secretary of Health and Human Services nominee Tom Price. But Minnesotans are flooding their offices’ lines with calls anyway.

Franken’s D.C. office, which typically receives no more than 1,000 calls a month, got over 12,000 calls in January. Over half of those calls were to express opposition to the confirmations of DeVos and Sessions. Klobuchar’s offices in Minnesota and D.C. received close to 20,000 calls in January.

Jena Martin, a pathologist from Minnetonka, has been putting in calls to both Franken and Klobuchar. She even went to the senators’ Minnesota offices to deliver monkey wrenches — to, symbolically, throw into the confirmation process.

To Martin, it’s especially important to hold Democrats accountable to a party base that is hungry to see Trump’s agenda blocked at every turn. The Tea Party strategy, after all, was more focused on pushing Republican officials toward extreme opposition to Barack Obama than it was about confronting Democratic politicians.

“We want A-plus representatives, not B-minus one,” she says. “The days of settling for B-minus Democrats is over.”

Martin said she is calling Klobuchar in particular because she’s disappointed with her votes so far. “Klobuchar is not holding firm,” she said, though she understands that the senator is up for reelection in 2018. “She’s better than Mitch McConnell, but no, I’m not happy.”

Getting a rise out of them

Anti-Trump activists have ambitious goals, such as defeating Republicans like Paulsen and laying the groundwork to take back Congress.

The Tea Party they are emulating ultimately ended Democratic control of Congress, but it was unable to stop Obamacare’s passage. Democratic-aligned activists hope they can do more to block specific GOP policies in Washington.

For now, though, the Trump administration and 115th Congress are only a few weeks old, and making elected officials squirm is a desirable — and achievable enough — objective for the nascent movement.

Even if Paulsen doesn’t hold a public forum, Nancy McRae, a marketing consultant who lives in Excelsior, wants to make life as uncomfortable as possible for the congressman.

She is new to activism, but in the past few weeks, she has called Paulsen’s office several times to register her concern over GOP plans to dismantle the Affordable Care Act, among other things.

McRae said she hopes “Paulsen never for one day feels comfortable that he’s got this sewn up in his district.” If he refuses an open town hall, she said she’ll help put a cardboard cut-out of Paulsen front of his office. “That might get a rise out of him.”

Getting involved is bittersweet for these new activists, though: there’s no small amount of guilt that it took Trump’s ascension to the presidency to get them in the street and on the phone.

“It’s a shame we weren’t more vocal before the election,” Joy Stroup said. “We’re at where we are because we weren’t vocal.”

“So many people were so divided, people stopped talking about it because it was ruining relationships,” she said. “I think it would have been worth ruining a few relationships to not have Trump in office.”