Democrats try to direct protesters into the voting booth | Emerge Pennsylvania

By James Boyle

Every two years, a small group of political newbies spend about 90 minutes on a Saturday at the Northampton Public Library for a crash course on how to run for public office.

The normally low-key affair had something a little extra in the atmosphere for this year's session, held in early February, said co-organizer and speaker Kathy Horwatt, a Langhorne Borough council member.

Horwatt says she has participated in the training for the past 25 years, but the most recent workshop saw one of the biggest increases in attendees, most of whom seem to come from the Democratic Party.

A tense atmosphere has surrounded Washington, D.C., and permeated communities around the country since the election and inauguration of President Donald Trump, sparking a renewed interest in politics. Local activist groups have started forming in Bucks and Montgomery counties, such as Lower Bucks Indivisibles and Rise Up Doylestown, to respond quickly to Trump's policy proposals and executive orders.

Protesters line streets and fill up public parks in demonstrations held on almost a weekly basis. Town halls hosted by Washington lawmakers have descended into shouting matches from voters concerned about the future of the Affordable Care Act or the possibility that Russian leadership had a hand influencing the campaign. Phone lines, emails and, in the case of U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., fax machines are filled with constituents demanding their voices be heard. 

It's impossible not to draw parallels between the 2017 scene and the Tea Party movement that erupted in 2009, sparked by government bailouts to faltering financial institutions deemed too big to fail and emboldened by President Obama's push to pass the Affordable Care Act. Those protesters learned something eight years ago that the Democrats hope today's activists catch: The most effective change can happen from within the machine.

"Rallies are great ways to get involved and try to make a difference," said Anne Wakabayashi, executive director of Emerge Pennsylvania, an organization that trains women to campaign. "Getting elected to public office has the greatest impact, but it requires a big commitment."

Wakabayashi says that her organization focuses on helping women looking to run with the Democratic party, and that applications for Emerge's six-month workshop doubled this year.

"We went from our usual level of 30 to 35 applications to 65," said Wakabayashi, on the phone from her Harrisburg office. "Three-quarters of those applications came after the election. The women are coming into the training session fired up. They are angry at what they are seeing and channeling it into doing something good for their community."

The applications are whittled down to 25 women, who attend 70 hours of workshops over six months, held in different parts of the state.

Amy Sanchez-Hamilton, of Warminster, will be in Pittsburgh this weekend for the next session, her third since January. She said the local Democrats approached her last year about running for election, but she wanted to get a full picture of campaign life before signing up.

"I couldn't do it without some research," said Sanchez-Hamilton. "The workshops have been pretty intense, they bring in some heavy hitters to talk to us. They fill you with a lot advice and information. It's exhausting, but in a good way."

A landscape designer with two degrees in horticulture, Sanchez-Hamilton serves on Warminster's Environmental Advisory Committee and is an adviser for Middle Bucks Institute of Technology's landscape and design program.

She will not appear on any ballots this year, but Sanchez-Hamilton says she would like to start campaigning either next year or in 2019. Environmental issues would be one of her top priorities, Sanchez-Hamilton says, but she hasn't decided which office to challenge.

"State offices are coming up next year, township supervisor is up again the year after," she said. "That all depends on timing with my life and career. I just want to make a difference in my community."

Sanchez-Hamilton says she could be ready to run next year. What's unknown is whether or not the Democratic party can maintain the intensity and successfully spark the Trump protesters into action at the voting booth for the 2018 U.S. House and Senate elections.

The Tea Party's activism translated into a stinging rebuke of Obama's policies when voters flipped both legislative houses back to GOP control in 2010. Matt Levendusky, an associate professor at the University of Pennsylvania's department of political science, says it's way too early to tell if the current movement has real staying power, but the signs are there.

"Until we have deadlines for filing (for 2018), we won't really know what came of all of this," said Levendusky in an emailed response. "That said, something is definitely in the air, much as the nascent Tea Party was in 2009. Back then, Democrats dismissed it as nothing, and now some Republicans seem to be doing the same. If I had to guess, Republicans will come to regret that in November 2018, just as Democrats did in November 2010."

Democrats tried to pick up legislative momentum from the Occupy Wall Street protests that started in 2011, but did not make real, palpable progress. John Cordisco, executive director of the Bucks County Democratic Committee, says that this time is different, as more people are attending local party meetings and showing up at municipal meetings.

"I've personally seen the increase of attendance," said Cordisco. "The Tea Party was basically formed around one issue, taxes. In this case, we have people interested in a multitude of issues, like the environment and women's rights, and they feel the need to voice their opinions. There's much more staying power."

Regardless of the national impact, Bucks County Republican Committee Chairwoman Pat Poprik says it will have little effect on the local elections. In 2016, Bucks County gave thin margins to Democratic Presidential nominee Hillary Clinton and Attorney General Josh Shapiro, but, save for a few exceptions, the Republicans take over the more local the ballot gets.

Congressman Brian Fitzpatrick in November comfortably defeated Democrat Steve Santarsiero in the 8th Congressional District, and all incumbent Republican state representatives held on to their seats, as did incumbent Democratic state Rep. Tina Davis in the 141st District. Bucks Democrats also kept the 31st District seat blue when Perry Warren defeated Republican Ryan Gallagher by a handful of votes. The Bucks County Board of Commissioners has remained in Republican control for nearly three decades, and currently all row officers are Republican.

"We'll be fine," Poprik said. "We're going to run the same campaigns we've always run and take nothing for granted. The county doesn't swing that much once you get past the top of the ticket. Republicans have done a good job at the state and municipal level in Bucks, people are very happy where they are."

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