Turning Red States Blue

Political activist group supporting out-of-state election candidates

Jodi Gurtov and Kaki Burruss from Sister District OR-4 and Marina Saltman from Deadwood Resist

Bonnie Henderson hasn’t forgotten a trip to the Democratic Party of Lane County’s headquarters in the months leading up to the 2016 presidential election.

After picking up a Hillary Clinton bumper sticker, the Eugene resident says she was asked if she wanted to volunteer for her desired candidate’s campaign.

She declined.

Henderson, 63, says she felt she was past her prime to be contributing to election races. In the ’90s, she campaigned against anti-abortion measures, and in 2008 she phone-banked to elect Barack Obama.

She felt she was “too old,” she says. “I’ve done that enough.”

But the decision is one Henderson now regrets.

“I have felt bad ever since,” she says, lamenting that millions of others made the same choice during the 2016 presidential race where Donald Trump’s support in a majority of states narrowly saw him win the electoral college vote.

Today Henderson is a leader in a nationwide progressive movement to turn red states blue, heading the local branch of the Sister District Project. The organization, started by four women lawyers in San Francisco, works to elect more Democrats to state legislatures in swing districts around the country.

In 2017, the project raised around $700,000 in support of candidates running for state legislatures and gathered 25,000 volunteers, according to its website. Fourteen of 15 candidates the Sister District Project supported in Virginia, Washington and Delaware were elected.

Sister District OR-4 is the organization’s branch representing Oregon’s 4th congressional district — a district held by Democratic Rep. Peter DeFazio since 1987. Henderson says that, along with five other district captains, she manages volunteers living in and around Eugene, in the Corvallis-Albany area and Oregon’s south coast.

According to Sister District Project co-founder Lala Wu, the organization has 165 volunteers in the district signed up to the project’s email lists.

District captain Leeann Ford, a business manager at the University of Oregon, signed up to lead the OR-4 branch after being impressed with the project’s state-level focus.

“What I like about the Sister District Project is how they do a lot of sophisticated research to try to identify the races they want to get involved with,” Ford says.

The Sister District Project uses volunteer researchers to identify races to support based on whether a candidate is running for a seat in: a Republican-controlled legislative chamber where Democrats are between one and four seats short of a majority, or a chamber held by a bare Democratic majority of one or two seats.

The organization also selects races with Republican-dominated state legislatures where success could sway Republican supermajorities or impact redistricting two years from now.

Wu, who helped start the Sister District Project, says state-level races are critical in responding to gerrymandering as well as forming progressive policies around the country. Six years into Obama’s presidency, Democrats lost 910 state legislative seats, according to politifact.com.

State legislative races “really are the lynchpin of democracy,” Wu says. “And Republicans knew this and implemented a strategy to take over state legislatures during the Obama administration, which is why we are trying to dig ourselves out of a pretty serious hole.”

After the Sister District Project assigns a campaign for its OR-4 team to support, the team works any way a candidate sees fit. The team’s activities include phone-banking, postcard writing and canvassing from a list of likely Democratic voters provided by the campaign, along with fundraising.

In November 2017, Sister District OR-4 supported Manka Dhingra, a first-time Democratic candidate who ran for a Washington state senate seat. Her victory overturned a Republican majority.

Sister District OR-4 raised $422 for Dhingra at a screening of the documentary Dolores it held at Eugene’s Broadway Metro on Oct. 18. The group paid $3 a ticket, charged $20.18 (to suit a 2018 theme) and donated the difference to Dhingra’s campaign.

In addition, three Sister District OR-4 volunteers from Deadwood held a community potluck, silent auction and square dance in September, raising another $492.82 for Dhingra. The group, organizers say, also raised $497.82 for Mike Mullin, who was elected to the Virginia House of Delegates during a time when Republicans controlled 66 out of 100 seats.

Now, having experienced success, the Sister District OR-4 volunteers are preparing to support Florida State House candidate Margaret Good for her Feb. 13 special election. On Jan. 25, they held a kick-off and postcard writing party at Eugene’s Claim 52 Brewing. A photo posted on the group’s Facebook page shows 26 volunteers writing messages to Florida voters.

Although some of the candidates the team supports are running for office far away, Henderson says she believes that being a part of the Sister District Project can bring change.

“I used to think that my own backyard was Eugene, District 4 and Oregon. But after the 2016 election, I realized that I have an obligation to the rest of the country,” she says.

“I think progressives are looking for a way to make a difference,” Henderson continues. “For some people, that’s showing up to town hall meetings, making phone calls, or going to rallies or marches. My interest is in electing more Democrats. That’s ultimately what’s going to make a difference.”

Learn more about the local branch of the Sister District Project and its upcoming events on its Facebook group, Sister District OR-4. You can also volunteer by signing up at sisterdistrict.com/volunteer.

This story has been updated.

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