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Highlighting Women as Engineers of NJ’s Blue Wave

Members of grassroots groups highlight the thousands of hours of groundwork and advocacy they contributed to help flip congressional seats, say the work will go on

Women protest
Credit: NJTV News

Now that the blue wave has engulfed New Jersey, flipping possibly four of five congressional seats in favor of Democrats, women who were central to that outcome are ready to bring their fight to Washington, D.C.

Although the candidates and their teams were the public faces of the campaign, they were fortified by extensive networks of volunteers — many led by women — to engage voters and get them to the polls. Groups like NJ 11th for Change, Blue Wave NJ, New Jersey Citizen Action and NJ 7 Forward were mostly run and staffed by women and were responsible for mobilizing voters across the state to turn out in record numbers.

“Make no mistake, women were the driving force [behind the blue wave],” Dena Mottola Jaborska, associate director of New Jersey Citizen Action, said at a press conference in Trenton on Thursday. Mottola Jaborska said women “powered and steered one of the largest grassroots campaigns that this state has ever seen.”

Dena Mottola Jaborska
Dena Mottola Jaborska of New Jersey Citizen Action, said women “steered one of the largest grassroots campaigns that this state has ever seen.”

Mottola Jaborska was joined by eight other speakers and many more representatives from these grassroots groups as they highlighted the thousands of hours of groundwork and advocacy that went into electing Democrats to Congress in the midterm elections. Now, the women said they are looking to keep communities engaged and to focus on holding their gains down the ballot in forthcoming elections, especially in 2020.

“We will continue to do this work, we will continue to send postcards to voters, we will continue to canvass and continue this effort including our policy work,” Cindi Sternfeld, founder of Indivisible Lambertville-New Hope, said. “Today we renew our commitment to uplift, to resist and to persist.”

Women have moved ‘in a more Democratic direction’

Indeed, on a national scale the largest-ever share of women voted for Democrats in a midterm election, with white, college-educated women in particular swinging heavily left in 2018. Fifty-nine percent of these women voted for Democratic candidates in the House, compared with just 49 percent in 2016, according to CNN exit polls.

Women of color, meanwhile, maintained their strong Democratic voting record this time around just as they did in 2016. Ninety-two percent of black women and 73 percent of Latinas voted for Democratic House candidates in 2018, compared with 94 percent and 69 percent respectively in 2016.

Susan Carroll, professor of political science and gender studies at Rutgers University and a Senior Scholar at the Center for American Women and Politics (CAWP), said women were critical to the fact that the Democrats took over the House.

“Women have clearly moved in a more Democratic direction, Carroll said. “It seems to coincide with the Trump administration’s policies,” including immigrant family separations at the border, Judge Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the Supreme Court amid sexual assault allegations, and Republican efforts to undo the Affordable Care Act.

Suburban revolt

And, while the Trump administration’s policies have long been unpopular with people of color, some are now calling this new groundswell of white, educated women voters and activists a “suburban revolt.” In 2016, 53 percent of white, female voters cast their ballots for President Donald Trump but these last two years have seen a significant shift in the other direction.

Analilia Mejia
Analilia Mejia: A lot of women of color "already knew that the systemic inequities were hurting our communities and families."

Analilia Mejia, executive director of New Jersey Working Families, said it’s about time white women started organizing. From the moment these new grassroots groups started popping up in the wake of Trump’s election and the Women’s March, she’s been acting as a resource “offering help and assistance to my sisters in the suburbs.” She said she watched women staging protests at House representatives’ offices and thought, “Ladies, where were you my whole life? Glad you’re here.”

“Someone needs to point to the fact that the sky is blue,” Mejia said. “It’s not that political activism is more prominent or better defined or more structured among my white sisters, it’s that for a lot of women of color we already knew that the systemic inequities were hurting our communities and families. We were experiencing that first. Then the Trump administration unleashes some real hateful, detrimental policies that are now impacting my white suburban sisters who had more comfortable existences, who were maybe shielded from these inequities because of structural inequalities and systemic racism and now they’re being exposed to it and they’re waking up.”

‘On the shoulders’ of women and people of color

Mejia said that though New Jersey is very diverse, the impacts of things like redlining and school segregation mean African-Americans and Latinas of color especially are on the front lines when harmful policies hit the state — something that white women and those in better socioeconomic situations don’t always feel immediately.

“We’re all on the Titanic, but we’re in different parts of the boat and those in First Class are the only ones getting lifeboats,” Mejia said.

Saily Avelenda, executive director of NJ 11th for Change, said much of the grassroots organizing in the state is being built “on the shoulders” of women and people of color.

“We didn’t create a movement,” Avelenda said. “We took what they had done quietly and without recognition for a very long time and are getting more press for it.”

Certainly, in the 11th Congressional District the “suburban revolt” thrived. The district is 73 percent white and has a median household income of $108,260 and 54 percent of all residents hold a bachelor’s degree. Coupled with a Republican opponent who notoriously voted against the Equal Pay bill in the state Legislature and a moderate female Democratic candidate with a sterling résumé, the 11th was fertile ground for women activists like Avelenda. Ultimately, Democrat Mikie Sherrill was able to work in parallel with Avelenda’s group to boost their signal and drive voters to turn out in her favor.

The vote-by-mail advantage

Avelenda and the other women behind NJ 11th for Change built a formidable Facebook community with more than 8,200 active members as well as a robust door-knocking campaign to educate and motivate voters to cast ballots for Sherrill.

“You have to make people invested in the process,” Avelenda said. “I think fear does not motivate people to vote, it might motivate people like me, but it’s not a message for everybody. The only thing that motivates people to vote is something that affects them directly and that you can only get at a door knock, or at a talk around the table. That you don’t get with a piece of literature or a TV ad. There is no other way to turn out people. You have to talk to them.”

But not every district had the homogenous voter base and ideal candidate like the 11th. In the 3rd Congressional District, where votes are still being counted though Democrat Andy Kim has declared victory, the key to flipping that seat from Republican control lay in vote-by-mail ballots (VBMs) rather than election night turnout.

The 3rd is split down the middle between Republican Ocean County and Democratic haven Burlington County. It’s 75 percent white but the median household income is only $74,537 and 34 percent of residents hold a bachelor’s degree. Typically, lower-income, less educated white voters have been Trump’s core base — something Republican incumbent Tom MacArthur banked on in this election. And after MacArthur dominated time during their NJTV debate last month and turned out impressive numbers early on election evening, things seemed over for Kim. Then, county clerks started posting vote-by-mail results and everything changed overnight. Indeed, Burlington County alone counted more than 25,000 mail-in ballots.

Tammi Bathke, 57, from Mount Laurel is the healthcare director for Action Together Burlington County, an offshoot of the Action Together NJ grassroots organizing group created by Uyen Khuong. She’s one of the key figures behind the massive vote-by-mail initiative that appears to have put Kim over the finish line, though officials will still be counting ballots over the weekend.

Forming posses, chasing calls

Bathke helped form a so-called “post-it posse” encouraging people to write messages on colorful slips of paper, stuff envelopes, and mail postcards and vote-by-mail applications to voters in the district. She said they also focused on changing the public wording from “absentee ballot” to “vote by mail,” ballot which she said was more likely to get people living in the district to fill them out. Her group also analyzed the available voter database to target Democratic women voters and created a system of “chase calls” following up with people about sending in their ballots.

“Look what we did, we won a race,” Bathke said. “Nobody thought we could do it. They said ‘You’re wasting your time.’” She said in the district they reached out to 82,176 voters, sent countless applications and 1,048 postcards, and made 8,946 vote-by-mail chase calls, all funded and run by volunteers. They had “post-it posse” parties at Panera Bread and in living rooms, to which people came and brought their own stamps and envelopes.

When Gov. Phil Murphy signed the new broadened voter law in August — designed to make voting easier and more accessible to New Jerseyans — county clerks said it was creating confusion; it has since put the results of the 3rd district race in limbo. Bathke said it was the people on the ground that did the work to educate the community about how to vote by mail.

“Murphy helped and put a lot in and we thank him for that, but some of it caused confusion for people. We were able to steer the ship back in, we did the follow-up phone calls.”

Bathke said county instructions weren’t uniform and people thought vote-by-mails weren’t for them initially. She said when they made their chase calls, they had to explain the law in addition to empowering people to vote at all.

‘You borrow courage from each other’

The women at the forefront of these grassroots organizations say that even though the midterms are over, and they were victorious, they’ll continue to sustain these networks and call on them in future elections. Bathke calls it “banking the blue” for whenever it’s needed.

“It’s sitting there in a vault and we banked it. All you have to do is just go pull it out. It’s like having a rainy-day fund,” she said.

Cindi Sternfeld
Credit: NJTV News
Cindi Sternfeld of Indivisible Lambertville-New Hope

Sternfeld, a former teacher and administrator for the New Jersey School for the Deaf, said leading a political organizing group made her more confident in other aspects of her life and for that reason, she’ll continue to stay connected to those she organized with.

“I feel like a big part of this movement is teaching and learning,” explained Sternfeld. “You borrow courage from each other.”

For Sternfeld and many other women like her — especially retirees — the reason these grassroots groups were so successful is because they gave everyone, volunteers and voters, a purpose.

“People should know that they are needed,” Sternfeld said. “They matter, they will make all the difference.”

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