Nine neighbors gathered in a south Minneapolis living room on a recent stifling weeknight to sip cold drinks, munch cookies and talk politics.
Action, not outrage, was the focus of the two-hour meeting: registering voters, calling U.S. senators about Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, tracking a net neutrality bill.
These residents of Minneapolis’ Fulton and Linden Hills neighborhoods are players in a new, hyperlocal political phenomenon. Yearning to make a difference and eager for community connections but not aligned with political parties, they are emerging hubs of clout heading into November’s elections, which will determine control of Congress and the fate of President Donald Trump’s agenda.
“It’s better than cursing at the TV. Working in a small way on the local level is the right fit for me,” said Chuck Kantor, 70, explaining the group’s appeal. His wife, Carol Greenwald, a 67-year-old retiree, said she joined the group after being part of the Women’s March in St. Paul on Jan. 21, 2017.
She got involved because “the only way I could feel better was to be active,” Greenwald said. “To be hopeful, I have to do something.”
Gregg Peppin, a veteran GOP consultant now advising Jim Hagedorn’s First District congressional campaign, is skeptical about the ability of small neighborhood groups to attract independent and swing voters who aren’t part of the Democratic base.
Will those voters be swayed by “a visceral dislike of Trump … or are they driven by issues? If it’s personality, it could be a better year for Democrats,” Peppin said. But if issues matter more, he said, independents and “labor Democrats” are likely to stick with the GOP because of Trump’s economic record.
State Rep. Frank Hornstein, DFL-Minneapolis, was surprised when he was asked to visit the Fulton/Linden Hills group. “This is my ninth campaign and I haven’t seen anything quite like this,” he said.
The former community organizer has encountered several similar groups. “They are changing the political landscape,” he said.
Such groups are “about empowerment and also the sheer pleasure of solidarity,” said Lara Putnam, a University of Pittsburgh history professor. “Purposeful action with others who share your values is … incredibly fulfilling.”
With Harvard University political scientist Theda Skocpol, Putnam has tracked similar groups in several states, including North Carolina and Ohio. “What is underway is a national pattern of mutually energizing local engagement,” they wrote in February in the journal Democracy.
Most groups, including those cited by Putnam and Skocpol, consist of Democrats dismayed by Trump’s policies. Fewer Republican grass-roots networks are as new or as rooted in neighborhoods.
In Jude Schaaf’s living room on Xerxes Avenue, the Fulton/Linden Hills group settled in. Most members are retired; few knew each other well before the group was formed in 2017.
Leader Margaret Tobin embarked on the evening’s agenda. First, a guest from Plymouth asked the group to volunteer for the congressional campaign of Democrat Dean Phillips, urging them to buy $25 Phillips T-shirts.
Greenwald and another member described League of Women Voters’ voter registration training, which they planned to put to use at an Open Streets event on E. Lake Street. A sign-up sheet was passed around.
Tobin shifted the discussion to pending national issues, including the Supreme Court, the separation of immigrant families and food stamp rules.
Tobin, 60, said earlier that “the sense of community” within the group has been a welcome offshoot of their work. “We’re all ordinary folks who just feel compelled to do something,” she said.
For Juliann Brunzell, the catalyst to action was Trump’s first proposed Muslim travel ban last year. “I went ballistic,” said the retired police officer, 67, who has a Mexican son-in-law. She called a neighbor and said that she had a bottle of wine and Cheetos to share while they discussed the issue.
Next they e-mailed everyone on the 4900 block of Garfield Avenue. Three-quarters of them showed up for the first meeting, and Garfield 2018 was born. The group raises money and has a get-out-the vote campaign. Wine and Cheetos are still served at every meeting.
Heather Kurth’s activism takes a different form. She organized weekly rallies outside U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar’s Minneapolis office during the first 100 days of Trump’s tenure. She still arranges them monthly with the help of 38 like-minded area residents in a group called Resist Trump Tuesdays and a list of 200 e-mail addresses.
Kurth, 43, of Maple Grove, said members are motivated by disparate issues such as the environment, and they have differing views about Democratic candidates and the DFL. They all agree, she said, that the group helps them “keep feeling positive and not despair.”
Bryce Tache, 48, joined a Diamond Lake neighborhood group that was formed in Minneapolis in early 2017, but he decided last month that he needed to do more to oppose Trump’s policy of separating immigrant families.
Now he protests every night at 6 p.m. at Diamond Lake Road and Portland Avenue. He’s often joined by a couple of dozen other people. “This is just something that connects me with other people who share my values,” Tache said.
Republican groups don’t parallel the structure of those created by Democrats, but organizers say they’re generating plenty of energy, too.
The demise of a Tea Party group led Jake Duesenberg, 35, of Lake Elmo, to organize Action 4 Liberty in 2010. It recruits and donates to candidates who endorse its goal of improving Minnesota’s business climate. Its events attract as many as 200 people.
Working outside the Republican Party, he said, makes sense because “just having an ‘R’ behind your name doesn’t mean you have somebody that’s actually going to deliver.”
Erik Mortensen, 39, of Shakopee, is one of Action 4 Liberty’s success stories. The group helped him win the endorsement of Scott County Republicans over incumbent state Rep. Bob Loonan. Mortensen said the group’s distance from the GOP was helpful. “A lot of people are tired of Republican vs. Democrat,” he said.
The 1st Tuesday Conservatives group was founded five years ago when Joe Remley, 72, of White Bear Lake called six friends. Now as many as 60 people attend meetings the first Tuesday of each month. The focus is on issues, not candidates, who aren’t welcome.
“Voting is only 10 percent of the process,” he said. “Influencing others is the process.”
Rebecca Brannon, 27, of Eden Prairie, was a volunteer coordinator for Trump’s 2016 campaign. She isn’t counting on the state Republican Party to sustain support for him.
Through a private Facebook group with 500 members in Minnesota and a public page with almost 10,000 followers, Brannon is concentrating on voters outside the GOP base. She said she’s found that many voters “are tired of both parties.” Brannon now works for a GOP outsider candidate for the U.S. Senate, Bob Anderson.
Other local groups are more closely tied to the president and his party. Vicki Ernst of Chanhassen, chairwoman of the nine-year-old Carver County Conservative PAC, said that interest and enthusiasm are high for fundraising events like a hog roast held Saturday.
Trump “has really motivated people because he’s living up to his campaign promises,” she said.
The president has kept Dan Peterson motivated. The plumber from Hopkins, 57, stood on freeway overpasses in 2016 to promote Trump’s campaign, and now he’s marching in parades and making calls to national radio shows on behalf of Republican gubernatorial candidate Jeff Johnson.
Peterson is wary of nonprofit political groups and prefers being a solo political operation. “It’s one way for me to get into the fight,” he said.