In a battleground Central Valley House district, it’s women who are leading the troops
TURLOCK, Stanislaus County — If Democrats defeat four-term Central Valley GOP Rep. Jeff Denham in one of the nation’s most competitive congressional races next week and retake the House, it will be because of women who took Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-San Francisco, at her word when she urged opponents of President Trump: “Don’t agonize, organize.”
This has been dubbed the Year of the Woman in politics because of the record number of women running for office. But the Central Valley race is symptomatic of another trend, especially among Democrats: Women, often with little political experience, have taken lead organizing roles even before candidates appeared to challenge incumbents.
Their common theme: They moved beyond complaining to their friends to getting involved in a local race. They used social media to organize, not just repost the latest story from the liberal echo chamber.
More than a year ago, Crystal Sousa and Janet Smith organized a protest against Denham in Turlock. Fifteen people showed up, “and we were so excited,” Sousa said. The name of their group, Be the Change Turlock, seemed optimistic in a town with little history of activism.
“I’ve lived in Turlock and now (nearby) Denair for 35 years, and I’ve never seen yard signs for a Democrat,” Sousa said. “I’ve never seen people at farmers’ markets or at fairs advocating registration for Democrats. People were scared, and I think it’s because the other side was louder and angrier.”
She and Smith connected through a Facebook group of like-minded neighbors who were concerned after Trump’s election, and eventually joined with more than a dozen other local and national groups to work together. Neither was politically active before.
But they were concerned about what Trump was saying about appointing anti-abortion-rights judges to the Supreme Court. And Smith worried about what might happen to her two children, who are gay.
“Oh, sure, I voted,” Smith said. “But before we started, I didn’t even know where Denham’s office was.”
Central Valley Activists Hound Jeff Denham Long Before Candidates Appeared
Janet Smith, a co-founder of Be the Change Turlock, shows off some of the street activism props the group used to protest Rep.Jeff Denham
Video: San Francisco Chronicle
Over the past year, they went door to door to find out what issues mattered to their neighbors. They learned who might support a Democrat and who wouldn’t vote Democratic in a thousand years.
“We knew people (from the Bay Area) would show up closer to the election, and we wanted to be ready for them when they did,” Smith said.
On a recent Saturday morning, Sousa and Smith stood on the corner of North Olive Avenue and East Tuolumne Road in Turlock, where 369 volunteers had gathered to learn where they would be going door to door to campaign for Josh Harder, the Democratic venture capitalist challenging Denham. Many had driven over the Altamont Pass from the Bay Area to meet there with local organizers. The day Sousa and Smith were planning for had arrived.
Sousa looked around and said, “It’s so beautiful and rewarding.”
For Democrats to flip the House, they need to persuade more Millennials to vote in a midterm election. It’s an uphill climb in Denham’s district, where only 19 percent of registered voters under age 35 voted in the 2014 election.
That might change. Tom Steyer, the billionaire San Francisco hedge fund manager-turned-Democratic activist, has invested $120 million through his NextGen Rising organization in getting young voters to the polls in 2018 and into his campaign to impeach Trump.
He spent $3.5 million in California and hired organizers like Yvette Schopp-Ortega. She’s been canvassing since she was a teenager, when she spent summers with an older cousin who was a union organizer in Los Angeles.
Since January, Schopp-Ortega has been going from home to home in Modesto, speaking English at one door, Spanish at the next. She’s focused on recruiting new voters from Modesto Junior College, which she attended. She has registered 1,603 students there — more than at any other community college targeted in Steyer’s national program.
One of her biggest supporters is her mom, who immigrated to this country from Mexico, then worked for nearly 40 years at a Kraft factory in Modesto until it shut down a few years ago. Now 63, Schopp-Ortega’s mom works the swing shift doing maintenance in a Tracy warehouse. Much of the work Schopp-Ortega does is on behalf of women like her mom, whom she calls “my hero.”
“My mom keeps asking me when I’m running for office,” Schopp-Ortega said. But she prefers to remain behind the scenes. “Honestly, I like making a difference like this. I want to be able to hold people accountable.”
Then there’s Beatrice von Schulthess. Shortly after Trump won, the 60-year-old San Franciscan approached her boss at the bookstore where she worked and said, “I need to quit.”
“I felt a threat to our democracy in a way that I’ve never felt in any way before,” von Schulthess said. “I didn’t feel that I could go on about my life and rely on somebody else to make change.”
In those early days of the Trump administration, there were dozens of political start-ups trying to channel the energy and passion of people like von Schulthess. She hooked up with Swing Left, which pairs activists with Democratic campaigns in the nearest swing district.
For von Schulthess, that was Denham’s Central Valley district, which she had only driven through on her way to the mountains.
That’s changed. She has made dozens of weekend trips there over the last year, including driving there every weekend since the June primary.
Denham derides such day-tripping volunteers as importing liberal “Bay Area values” for his opponent, whom he has dubbed “Bay Area Harder” for the brief time the Democrat lived in San Francisco.
Von Schulthess, however, says Central Valley voters aren’t that different from people in the Bay Area. They care more about health care and making sure their families are covered, she said, than they do about the investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election.
“I was scared to death at first when I went there,” von Schulthess said. “I was thinking, ‘What’s it going to be like and what would they think of me?’ But it turned out that we had a lot in common.”