Grassroots Activists Behind Midterm Blue Wave in NJ Say They’re Not Going Away

Colleen O'Dea | January 28, 2019 | Politics
Most groups are still active. Some are keeping their focus on the U.S. Congress, some on state and local politics. A few are retooling

Swing Left campaigned for Tom Malinowski (D-7) in last year's midterm election.
It would be easy to imagine that the grassroots political groups that were instrumental in creating a blue wave in New Jersey last November would have closed shop and moved on after their victories in the midterm elections. On the contrary, many have become active at the state and local levels, plan to serve as watchdogs to elected officials, and continue to build their organizations in advance of 2020.

The groups, which supported Democrats but included some people who were independent or previously had voted Republican, operate under such names as Indivisible, Action Together, Swing Left, and NJ 11th for Change. And while they each have different priorities, almost all of them plan to stay involved far into the future.

“One of the concerns expressed after the midterms was that we would lose momentum,” said Cindi Sternfeld, leader of INDIVISIBLE Lambertville NJ/New Hope PA. “It was clear to us that everyone wanted to stay engaged and so we surveyed the group, we looked at what had been effective over the past two years in terms of engagement, and we will be incorporating Indivisible National’s best practices, which are summarized in the Indivisible Guide 2.0.”

Indivisible began soon after the 2016 election with an online guide written by a group of former congressional staffers to encourage resistance through local activism against the agenda of President Donald Trump.

Local groups embraced the idea and began forming. They started holding weekly protests at Republican House members’ New Jersey offices and rallied supporters to call the members’ Washington, D.C. offices to voice their concerns on such issues as the attempted repeal of the Affordable Care Act.

From offense to defense

Following last year’s midterm elections, the national Indivisible organization has retooled from a defensive stance to an offensive one, and published a new guide to help push for progressive policies in the Democratic-controlled House and in the states, and to keep Trump in check.

“This is the road to stopping Trump in his tracks, locking in the gains we made, and advancing an alternative vision for the country rooted in democracy, inclusion, and respect,” wrote Indivisible co-founders and co-directors Leah Greenberg and Ezra Levin in a blog post on the group’s website. “This is the road to retaking the White House in two years.”

Credit: NJTV News
Cindi Sternfeld of Indivisible Lambertville-New Hope
The group’s national website advocates for certain issues, urges members to take actions and drives them to the sites of local groups, which then organize their own priorities. “We’ve identified top concerns of members of the community and we will be utilizing expertise from both within the group and outside to help educate and activate us” for 2019, said Sternfeld, who, along with other leaders, held a Facebook live chat with members to lay out the group’s new game plan.

That includes adding civics lessons to monthly meetings, explaining things like the elements of a primary election and how the government’s budgeting process works. “All these different components to how power works in our country, that we might not know all the details about but once we know about, we can be more effective,” said Sarah Gold, a member of the leadership team. The organization is also going to be adding regular “springboard” meetings focused on specific issues.

Indivisible NJ-5 plans to continue operating well into the future,” said Jeff Fox of the group focused on the state’s northernmost congressional district. “We have worked on state and local issues over the past two years and will continue to do that, too. We have had local Assembly people and State Senators speak and answer questions at some of our monthly meetings.”

Fox is a relative rarity in this new grassroots movement, whose leadership is predominantly female.

A force in state politics

A number of groups have already shown their commitment to continued activism and to being a force in state politics. For instance, several got involved last year in the ill-fated effort by some Democratic leaders to change the way New Jersey’s legislative districts are redrawn every decade. The groups organized their members, attended press conferences, testified in Trenton and vowed to oppose in this year’s Assembly elections those who voted for the redistricting legislation. Facing widespread opposition, lawmakers pulled the bills.

U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez spoke with members of Blue Wave NJ and NJ 11th for Change in Washington, D.C. in 2018.
“We are definitely not done,” said Saily Avelenda, executive director of NJ 11th For Change.

Starting in 2017, the group rallied regularly outside the Morristown office of former U.S. Rep. Rodney P. Frelinghuysen, protesting loudly against his votes and positions. In the face of this, and other issues in Washington, D.C., the Republican announced he would not seek re-election. It was particularly surprising, since Frelinghuysen was chair of the powerful House Appropriations Committee at the time. The group wound up supporting Democrat Mikie Sherrill, who easily won the district that had been red for decades.

“We are focusing on state politics in 2019 — the legislative races but also shining a light on the power plays that our state legislators have been doing while they think people aren’t watching,” Avelenda continued. “We are definitely watching now.”

In addition to opposing the redistricting legislation, NJ 11th For Change is demanding more accountability and transparency in the awarding of state tax incentives to businesses and was among the groups that spoke out against the reported recent challenge to state Democratic party chairman John Currie.

Some are taking a break

“This movement, one year ahead of normal party operations, alarms us and we call on Democrats, both in leadership as well as rank and file, to oppose this abnormal process due to its lack of transparency, its clear intent, and timing,” read a statement signed by Avelenda and 13 other women, referring to the challenge to Currie. “As the tumultuous 2018 comes to a close, we call on party leaders to reflect on the outcome of the national elections and think about what they can do to increase transparency and involve more constituents in the process.”

Like Avelenda, half of those who signed the letter are with grassroots groups that did not exist three years ago.

Not all the groups may continue. Some said they are retooling or taking a break, as organizing can be time consuming and it can be hard to find people with the time or energy to help.

Jan Cohen Reisen of Action Together Hunterdon County said she’s unsure of what’s next for the group that worked to hold accountable former 7th District U.S. Rep. Leonard Lance, unseated by Democrat Tom Malinowski last November.

“Everyone is so busy right now that we have to think about regrouping,” she said.

Looking for more volunteers

But other groups in what had been a reliably red county have been active. These include Tewksbury Area Indivisible and Progressives of Lebanon Township.

Credit: ATNJ
Uyen Khuong of Action Together New Jersey
Uyen Khuong, co-founder and executive director of Action Together NJ, put out a call shortly after the midterms for more volunteers to work with the organization and to get involved in Democratic party politics, including serving as committee members.

“Folks, many of us have been trying to make lemonade out of lemons for the past 2 years. We need to pass the baton, so who is willing to step up?” Khuong posted on Action Together Facebook sites. “Why join the Dem party? Do we need to? YES! The Dem party has what we outsiders do not have: the power of ballot. They get to decide that there is a ‘line’ or not, whose names get on the line, and this influences greatly how we as citizens vote. We cannot do anything about this pro or con unless we are in the party.”

She said that in Morris County in 2017, she and others pushed people to join the county Democratic party and helped fill 90 percent of more than 300 vacancies on the county committee. Many ATNJ members also are serving as Democratic municipal chairs.

The leaders of grassroots groups are committed to seeing their efforts continue and grow, and to have some influence over democracy at all levels of government.

Avelenda said NJ 11th For Change plans to push “for more transparency and accountability at the state level,” as well as working on this year’s state legislative elections. And the group will continue to keep an eye on Congress and new Rep. Sherrill to ensure she is “accountable” to her constituents.

“2019 will be a busy year for us.”