National News

These Women Mostly Ignored Politics. Now, Activism Is Their Job.

Posted May 10, 2018 3:07 p.m. EDT

CONNEAUT LAKE, Pa. — The next stop on Kathy Rentz’s mission to rescue American democracy was the Pizza Hut on Route 322. In a drably lit room in the back, more than a dozen people were already gathered, huddling over cheese sticks, pitchers of Diet Pepsi and maps of state legislative districts.

The subject was how to end gerrymandering. The meeting opened with a brief talk about how parties in control — Republicans, in Pennsylvania’s case — draw districts to lock in power. But it quickly turned to political tactics. Should they hand out flyers at the upcoming food festival? Better to go to a stubborn lawmaker’s office in shifts or all at once?

Rentz offered her counsel. “I think,” she said, “we’ve got to pester the life out of these people.”

For most of her 74 years, Rentz was a mildly attentive Republican; since retiring eight years ago as a high school French teacher, she was content to spend her time gardening, knitting and spoiling her grandchildren.

Now she is the kind of person who writes “Not For Trump’s Golf Trips” across her federal tax return. She leaves a plastic bin filled with canvassing paperwork outside her front door in case fellow activists are looking for something to do. At candidate forums in VFW halls 45 minutes from her home, there in the back sits Rentz.

“I’d really like to go down to Philadelphia for my grandkids’ piano recitals,” she said. But all this, she continued, “is now my job.”

At regular intervals this past year, the scale of the grass-roots fervor on the left has been on full display. Thousands take to the streets for another national protest; another record is broken for the number of candidates running for Congress; another special election ends in a shock Democratic victory, like the one by Conor Lamb in a Pennsylvania congressional district that Donald Trump carried in 2016 by 20 percentage points.

Beneath all of this is a machine that keeps humming. In suburbs, exurbs and small towns around the country, and here in politically contested western Pennsylvania, the machine has been powered to a large degree by college-educated women in midcareer or retirement. Like Rentz, they often have no prior interest or experience in politics. But with the election of Trump, they were aghast at how they felt the political system, which most had taken for granted to the point of indifference, had allowed things to fly so far off the rails.

“I knew it was possible,” said Beverly Graham, a retired special education teacher in rural Mercer County, Pennsylvania. “But I didn’t think it was probable.”

These days they can be found in Pizza Huts, Panera Breads, living rooms and libraries, plotting political strategy to help Democrats wrest back power. They meet in small groups — dozens in western Pennsylvania alone — with names like Oil Region Rising, Slippery Rock Huddle, Progress PA, 412 Resistance, Indivisible Wexford. They have undergone a civics crash course, learning the intricacies of voter canvassing, candidate recruiting, database building and the often arcane rules of local politics.

Their goals have become both narrower and more ambitious: Yes, to achieve Democratic victories in this fall’s midterm elections, but also, more fundamentally, to rebuild the Democratic Party from the ground up, including in long-neglected places won by Trump. In party primaries in Pennsylvania next week, they will be focused not just on the congressional and governor races, but on their local Democratic committees, the county-level governing boards — an office so little celebrated that many of the seats have long sat vacant.

“It was not, ‘Oh my God, the Democratic Party is too far to the left or to the right,'” said Lara Putnam, a history professor at the University of Pittsburgh who has both participated in and studied the new grass-roots groups. “It was that we assumed the infrastructure was there and it’s not.”

Around Pittsburgh, the grass-roots groups have coalesced into a sprawling and potent political operation. A super PAC is even being formed. But farther outside the city, where the resources and activists are scarcer, the task of a political overhaul falls to anyone willing to put in the work. Rentz was drawn away from her lifelong Republican voting habits by President Barack Obama, whom she very much liked, though she did not support him beyond casting a ballot. Neither Hillary Clinton nor Bernie Sanders inspired much fondness.

But she “hated hated hated” Trump. This was not out of objection to any particular policy, but to nearly everything else: The name-calling, the bluster, the “Access Hollywood” tape, the mocking of the disabled, the tolerance of hate groups, “the fact that he couldn’t complete a sentence.”

She spent election night — her birthday — alone in the house where she had lived in the decade or so since separating from her husband. Once Pennsylvania was called, she went to bed dejected, a mood that darkened further when her youngest daughter called at 3 a.m. in despair. A week followed of venting on Facebook and subsequent unfriending, a foretaste of months of broken acquaintances to come. How could her and her friends’ core values have been so different all this time? Invites to lunch were turned down, social gatherings barely tolerated. “What are we going to talk about?” she mused. “'How are the kids?'”

Looking around for the like-minded in Lawrence County, which went for Trump by nearly 30 points, Rentz discovered how isolated she was. She roamed Facebook seeking people who wanted to go the women’s march in January 2017, an experience she likened to surfing

She found one woman in another part of New Castle who was also on the same hunt. She went to a march-planning conclave at a Panera Bread the next county over. Eventually she found a bus to Washington with a group out of Perrysville, organized by another former schoolteacher, Michele Knoll, who is now campaigning for the state Legislature.

At long last, Rentz thought, these were her people.

When she returned, she began going to the meetings and marches of a relentlessly busy women’s group in nearby Mercer County. After three months of watching and learning, she called Richard Christofer, the chairman of the Lawrence County Democratic Party. She introduced herself and announced that she and another woman wanted to form a group, Lawrence County Action.

“Have at it, girl,” he said.

Democrats in Lawrence County, on paper at least, still slightly outnumber Republicans, and as recently as the early 2000s, hundreds would gather for lavish Democratic Party banquets at the Scottish Rite Cathedral overlooking downtown New Castle. Joe Biden, Ted Kennedy and Bill Clinton all made visits. The election ground game was a force.

“There was patronage and the old system and after that was the strong labor movement,” said Christofer, sitting in his office at the New Castle Sanitation Authority. A life-size cutout of Dean Martin leaned in the corner; everywhere else there were souvenirs — photographs, Christmas cards — of Democratic luminaries.

“The old system doesn’t work anymore,” Christofer said. Campaigning had years ago become organized around the candidate, not the party, but recently the national campaigns stopped showing up at all, at least here. Unlike the Republican Party, he said, the Democratic establishment, state and national, didn’t seem to care. “Forget grass-roots politics, they just abandoned all that,” he said. In 2016, “we didn’t have banners, we didn’t have signs, we didn’t have anything.”

With a sour taste from the experience, he has not done much campaigning work since 2016 and is not running again for chairman. Still, he is not entirely pessimistic about the party’s future. “Did you meet with that Rentz lady?” he asked.

Grass-roots groups across the state have been focused on gaining control of the Democratic State Committee, which oversees nominations for statewide candidates and the platform, and have been aggressively recruiting candidates in an effort to dislodge the existing — and to many, sclerotic — local leadership.

“I don’t really understand why they hold these positions when they’re not doing anything,” said Christina Proctor, who is running for committee in her county southwest of Pittsburgh.

But some party veterans, while praising the enthusiasm of the grass-roots activism, ask whether there is a broader vision. The volunteers seem less focused on ideology than the Tea Party, which hammered out a clear dogma of smaller government, galvanizing voters and leading to a makeover of the party and, eventually, the federal government. For all the tireless work of these new groups, what’s the long game?

“Is it just to make yourself feel good or is it to make change?” asked Matthew Mangino, a Democratic former district attorney in Lawrence County. “'I don’t like this president and I’m mad as hell and I’m going to put some door knockers on people’s doors and I come home and feel good about myself’ — is that really going to accomplish something?”

When asked for their political vision, some activists say that attaining certain policy goals isn’t really the point.

“It’s sort of like, what can we do more than what do we think,” said Graham, the former Mercer County teacher, who is now running for local party committee. “I don’t want to sound sexist, but I do think that women are less ideological and more practical.” For Rentz, there are perks to this new life: The dinners with her new friends in Mercer County and road trips with her new friends in Butler County; the old and almost forgotten acquaintances she comes across while door-knocking; the others she meets for the first time who seem as isolated and discouraged as she once was.

The night of the Pizza Hut meeting, Rentz stopped for a quick dinner at a warm and jovial seafood restaurant up the road. Retirees sat around the bar catching up. One man spotted Rentz.

“What’ve you been doing down in New Castle these days?” he asked.

Her “Be The Wave” pin was hidden by her coat; her tote bag, full of literature for the gerrymandering meeting, was in the car. The man only knew her as Kathy Rentz, retired French teacher.

One day, she said, she would tell him.