UPDATE: Nov. 8, 2017 10:13am Democrats won in 13 of the 14 races Sister District helped fundraise and get out the vote for, including Danica Roem, who is now the first openly trans woman to serve as a Virginia legislator (unseating a Republican who introduced a bathroom bill discriminating against trans people–how is that for poetic justice?!). For the first time in a generation, Democrats may even control Virginia’s House of Delegates, pending final vote counts.
In the wake of November 8, 2016, Jennifer Tattenbaum did what a lot of us did after wrapping our heads around the horrific news that Trump was somehow elected to the highest office in the country. She realized that voting once every four years—or just voting, period—wasn’t going to cut it anymore.
“My laissez-faire attitude about politics had been a bad thing,” said Tattenbaum, a software product manager who lives in Ditmas Park. “I thought everything would be fine and I didn’t have to do anything. The election of Donald Trump taught me that’s not true.”
Her political awakening at first was scattershot. “I researched and signed up for 20 different progressive left-wing groups,” she said. Sister District Project is the one she stuck with, in part because it felt, and remained, the most organized. Founded ten days after Trump won by a California public defender named Rita Bosworth, the group channels the power of progressive voters in solidly blue places to win Democratic seats in districts around the country.
So far, the project has taken hold mainly on the coasts—Tattenbaum’s team is one of seven in New York and over 45 nationally in states like Massachusetts, California, and Washington. But already Sister District has fundamentally changed the way that its members engage in politics, and today’s elections are a litmus test of their foray into contests across state lines.
Sister District’s premise is simple: Turn red states blue. After 2008, Democrats seemingly lost sight of any office lower than the Obama’s, while Republicans resolved to regain power at the state level, where they could redraw state and Congressional districts following the 2010 Census, pass voter suppression laws and secure the path for even greater control of state governments and the U.S. House of Representatives. The plan, which they literally called “REDMAP,” worked out nicely for them: Republicans now control 32 state legislatures and 55% of the House.
To help change this unfair/criminal advantage, Sister District, which is open to men and women, organizes volunteers by the state congressional district they live in, divvies them into teams, and assigns each one a “sister” race or races in Republican-held districts around the country that they stand a good chance to swing. Fundraising, phonebanking, and door-to-door canvassing are all part of their get out the vote efforts. Grooming Democratic candidates who can ultimately assume national office is baked into their mission, too.
The format gives volunteers in places like New York City, where most of us vote Democrat down the line, the opportunity to make a tangible impact outside our own echo chambers.
“My state representative, senator, they were all voting the way I wanted them to vote,” said Tattenbaum. “Sister District gave me a way to not feel cut out of the process, to instead feel like I could do something.”
Michelle Feldman, a fellow Sister District “captain,” or lead organizer, on Tattenbaum’s team, works at the Innocence Project, and came to the group with much more political experience. Still, Sister District’s ethos struck a similar chord. Living in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, a “super blue district,” has always been frustrating, she said. “Now I feel like my efforts are making a difference in a swing district.”
Gaining Democratic seats in next year’s midterm elections is the ultimate goal, not just to reset the balance of power in Congress but because the 2020 Census will allow state governments to redraw districts yet again. On this off year, Sister District put its muscle behind competitive races in Washington and Virginia that could swing their legislative chambers blue–or at least shade them lightly.
Washington’s one pivotal race is for a state senate seat that could give Democrats control of both the executive and legislative branches, as they have in Oregon and California. It’s expected to draw a record-setting $9 million dollars in campaign spending.
In Virginia, where the Republican candidate for governor, Ed Gillespie, is the one who devised the REDMAP plan in the first place, Sister District’s 25,000 members have all helped fundraise and increase voter turnout for at least one of 13 House of Delegates races. Tattenbaum and Feldman’s team focused on Shelly Simonds’ race in Newport News and a more high-profile candidate in Richmond, Danica Roem, a reporter who could become the first transgender legislator in Virginia if she defeats the anti-LGBT Republican running against her.
“Sister District is raising money for candidates and shining a light on races that most people wouldn’t pay attention to,” said Feldman. She admits it’s impossible to attribute the success of these efforts to Sister District alone when groups like Flippable are actively supporting these same races. “But I think we’ve contributed to getting more people involved,” she said.
It has certainly fostered a community of progressives who are encouraged to participate in any way they can. As a mom of a six-year-old, Tattenbaum knew she wouldn’t be going on canvassing trips like Feldman, so she focused on things she could do locally with her son. “I’m trying to create opportunities for volunteers to bring kids with them and involve them in the political process,” she said. During one postcard writing session for Danica Roem, the kids colored the backs of the postcards before passing them along to the adults. “We had five- and six-year-olds sitting for two hours!” (A record for any kind of engagement at that age.)
Feldman, meanwhile was among the Sister District volunteers who traveled to Virginia in a chartered bus that was partially covered by the D.N.C.—a sign that Democrats are taking these state elections seriously. It wasn’t her first time canvassing, but it was her first time knocking on doors for a candidate that she couldn’t vote for herself. “I was actually nervous that people would view us as outsiders. But people in [Roem’s] district were really impressed that we came from so far away. It made them think we were really committed, so it really worked out well.”
We’ll know just how well by tomorrow. If Democrats gain even a few seats, Virginia may indeed be a bellwether of how the rest of the country will follow suit.
“2017 is important,” said Tattenbaum, “but it’s not as important as 2018.” Last week, an email was sent to all volunteers reminding them to note every phonebanking and door-to-door effort, so that they could assess the success of their efforts, and to send any ideas for team-building and civic engagement in the year ahead. A Sister District Summit in January will be another opportunity to regroup before the 2018 elections.
“The other thing I really like about Sister District,” said Tattenbaum, “is that it’s constantly trying to refine its operations. This is a learning opportunity to see what works, and what doesn’t.”
To learn more or to join a Sister District team near you, visit sisterdistrict.com.