Nov. 8, 2016, could be dubbed the Democrats’ Waterloo. Hillary Clinton, the sure thing, lost to Donald Trump in the Electoral College. Democrats are quick to point out her popular vote victory, but it hardly seems to matter now in the aftermath. From the shock came the awe, however, as local Democratic clubs have seen their memberships rise dramatically, a mixed blessing, depending on who you ask.
John Johnson watched election night coverage from his home. The results were an “utter shock” to him, and to his peers in the Democratic Club of Ventura, in which he serves as first vice president. The club scheduled a kind of regrouping meeting for its members the following Sunday, Nov. 13.
At any given meeting prior to the election, club leaders could expect 20 members to show up, give or take. On that Sunday, 75 arrived, in different stages of mourning and anger, filled to the brim with an unrefined need to take action.
“We just wanted to pull people together to vent and grieve if they wanted to,” said Johnson. “We were all invited to bring cookies and deal with the shock of the election outcome.”
Like a pendulum, the once-dour mood swung toward the side of passionate action and, according to Club Treasurer Patricia Butler, paid members (dues are $25 for an individual, $40 for a couple, annually) have increased from 20 to 127, forcing the club to elect a second vice president.
Since Trump’s inauguration, interest in left-leaning political groups has grown exponentially, not only locally but across the nation, the Democratic Party only one such affiliation to catch a membership windfall. In a report from the L.A. Times, the Democratic Socialists of America, a moniker that Democratic primary candidate Bernie Sanders used during his campaign, saw a threefold boost in membership as well, claiming 19,000 members nationwide.
Town halls hosted by Republican members of both the House and Senate have been flooded by enraged liberals and Democrats of various leanings, expressing anger over an attempted repeal of the Affordable Care Act; angry at the lifting of environmental protections and confounded by the rise of reported hate crimes perpetrated by individuals who, protesters claim, are empowered by the new administration.
In Ventura, Club President Matty Park says that “people are showing up [to meetings] because they want to do something.” The club has utilized the energy by placing new members into committees focused on registering voters, canvassing neighborhoods, phone banking and fundraising and, she says most importantly, on educating the electorate.
“Part of what happened here is that people don’t understand how government works,” said Park. “We want to help people learn as much as possible.”
The Democratic primary pitted Democrat Hillary Clinton against Independent-cum-Democrat Bernie Sanders, who drew passionate support from young voters.
“The excitement around Bernie Sanders was pretty much the same as around Barack Obama,” said Johnson. Sanders supporters didn’t just disappear when he officially endorsed Clinton at the Democratic National Convention either. Instead, supporters have spread out and inoculated themselves into the party’s core, registering as Democrats in hopes of effecting change to the party’s very being.
At the county level, Ventura County Democratic Party Chair Shawn Terris, who also serves as the chair of the Veterans Caucus of the California Democratic Party, says that it’s “too early to tell” whether or not Sanders’ dedicated supporters will be a burden or a boon, and that 2018 will be the real test of their commitment to the Democratic Party.
Since November, membership has spiked across all 16 Democratic clubs in the county, says Terris, the most notable being in Ventura, a “blue” city, and Simi Valley, a traditionally “red” city. She says that many of the new members are Sanders supporters.
“What I have seen and experienced with the Bernie Sanders supporters is that they are blaming the Democratic Party for getting a Republican into the White House,” said Terris. “So they feel that they need to restructure the Democratic Party.”
Terris does not paint a pleasant picture of Sanders’ supporters, comparing them to the Tea Party, a branch Republican group that skews hard right, or the House Freedom Caucus in the U.S. House of Representatives that represents Tea Party ideals, adamantly so. Sanders supporters, she says, are “misguided, they are angry, they are obstructionist and they’re not offering solutions.”
Now there are over 1,000 paying members of all of the Democratic Clubs in Ventura County, which Terris says “might not be a good thing.”
At the state level, the Democratic Party (as well as the Republican Party) hosts a complex structure of committees, elected positions and representatives. One can follow the ladder of elected officials and representatives down to California Democratic Party Assembly District election meetings, during which party Assembly District Delegates are elected. These delegates, also known as ADDs, are elected every two years, with 80 districts, 14 elected per district. For clarification, these delegates are not related to the Electoral College or the State Assembly.
On the weekend of Jan. 7 and 8, 2017, a meeting was held and Bernie Sanders supporters, sometimes referred to as “Berniecrats,” won over 600 of the 1,120 ADD seats across the state. In Ventura County, they won all 14.
There is a lot of work to be done in Ventura County, says Terris, not the least of which is attempting to win over the seat held by U.S. Representative Steve Knight, R-Santa Clarita, representing a portion of Simi Valley, who is up for re-election in 2018. “Bernie Sanders supporters have been involved with the Simi Valley Democratic Club and are getting a lot done,” she says, by hosting voter registration drives, raising money and helping to formulate a strategy to help “Simi Valley become less red,” but, still, she questions their commitment to the party.
“If there are two Democrats running for the 25th Congressional District against Steve Knight, is one of them going to be a Bernie Sanders supporter?” asked Terris. “I don’t know; it’s too early to tell.”
In Ventura, if there were any signs of tension between former Sanders and Clinton supporters, it wasn’t apparent at the Ventura St. Patrick’s Day Parade on Saturday, March 11. The Club marched the length of the route in hopes of showing strength and unity moving forward.
“What we’re trying to do is organize the Democrats to support our candidates, values and principles, and part of that is, we really feel the more people who know about how government actually works . . . the stronger we’ll all be,” said Park.
The Democratic Club of Ventura will host an informational meeting on Sunday, April 23, at 2 p.m. featuring guest speaker Assemblywoman Monique Limon, D-Santa Barbara. Location to be decided. For more information, visit www.demclubventura.org.
The VCReporter reached out to the Ventura County Republican Party for comment on the status and growth of local clubs and received no response.