We’ve Got Issues: Energized progressives organize in GT County

May 8, 2017

The crowd reacts during a town hall event with Rep. Jack Bergman in April 2017.
Credit David Cassleman

Last November’s election was shocking for many progressives in northern Michigan. Democrats were expecting to do well in some races Up North. Instead, Republicans drubbed Democrats across Michigan and most of the country. 

Fear of President Trump and Republicans has inspired many progressives Up North to get active since November. They are hoping their energy can turn things around for Democrats. But that will be a challenge in an area that has been a Republican stronghold.  


Indivisible groups emerge

In the parking lot of Meijer in Acme, Lynne Van Ness is huddled with some friends on a rainy, blustery April afternoon. A group of Democrats has met to carpool to a town hall that Republican Rep. Jack Bergman is hosting in Gaylord.

Lynne Van Ness and Gretchen Iorio helped to found Indivisible Traverse City in January 2017.
Credit David Cassleman

Lynne Van Ness says she has been on an emotional journey since the election.

“It’s been depression. It’s been anger. It’s been determination,” Van Ness says. “And I think I’m in the determined area right now and I don’t think I’ll lose that.”

Van Ness, who lives in Traverse City, campaigned for state House candidate Betsy Coffia. Then, after President Trump’s inauguration, she helped start a group called Indivisible Traverse City.

Indivisible groups have popped up across the country in recent months. Organizers follow a 26-page guide that was published the day after the election.

“It was compiled by ex-Congressional staffers who decided that Tea Party tactics could be used to oppose the Trump administration,” Van Ness says.

The group has been rallying at Bergman’s local office every week, and members petitioned for the congressman to hold a town hall in Traverse City. It was eventually scheduled in Gaylord. Indivisible Traverse City has also been marching in the streets and meeting weekly.

A ‘horrendous’ election

Before Rep. Bergman comes out to talk, Richard Vegh is sitting near the front of the hall, wearing a sweatshirt, jeans and a backwards baseball hat.

Vegh is a student in Traverse City who works a couple part time jobs. He remembers the week of the election.

“It was horrendous. My sister cried. I was upset,” Vegh says. “A lot of people in my classes at [Northwestern Michigan College] were distraught. We just realized that our country was going in a terrible direction and it was horrifying.”

Richard Vegh with his mother at a town hall in Gaylord hosted by Rep. Jack Bergman in April 2017.
Credit David Cassleman

Vegh is on Medicaid and could lose coverage if the Affordable Care Act is repealed.

He says the election result woke him up politically and inspired him to join Indivisible Traverse City.

“A year ago I was completely disengaged I would say,” Vegh says. “I followed the news of what was going on in Washington but I didn’t know who was representing me even. And at this point I feel like probably every week I’m writing something. I’m calling. I’m doing something or I’m going to a protest or rally.”

The Indivisible group says it has had hundreds of people attend some of its meetings. 

Can progressives get organized? 

Longtime Traverse City Democrat Grant Parsons admires what groups like Indivisible Traverse City are doing. He joined a spinoff group himself. Parsons says Indivisible is well organized.

But Parsons says there is still too much disorganization in general among progressives. He says progressives and Democrats need to focus on the basics of winning elections, like raising money and signing up new voters.

“People are not looking at the core mechanism of the election process,” Parsons says. “They’re looking at the issue part of the process or they’re looking at the ‘I don’t like Trump’ part of the process, and that is just pure masturbatory politics. It just doesn’t go anywhere. You can dislike somebody all you want but it just doesn’t make anything happen.”

Parsons is an attorney who grew up in Traverse City. He served in leadership positions with the Grand Traverse Democratic Party in the 2000s.

Parsons says one persistent problem for Grand Traverse Democrats has been finding candidates to run. Many county commission races go uncontested by the party. In one district last year, a member of the Green Party beat a Republican to win a seat on the commission. No Democrat ran.    

Parsons says Republicans on the other hand have a disciplined system for grooming candidates.

“There is a continuity in the GOP that is truly extraordinary,” Parsons says. “They pass the baton. The Democrats sort of throw a jump ball up and they just see who gets it. It doesn’t work.”

In the past decade, only one Democrat has won a spot on the Grand Traverse County Board of Commissioners – Ross Richardson.

GT Dems promise focus on local elections

Current party leaders say it is tough to find candidates. Chris Cracchiolo took over as chair of the party in January.

“People are very hesitant to become part of a campaign that’s going to take hundreds of hours of time,” Cracchiolo says, “when they feel that the outcome is already determined.”

But Cracchiolo says in the months since the election he has talked to a number of local Democrats who now want to run for office. The party even held a training session for potential candidates at the end of April.

It is part of what Cracchiolo calls a renewed focus on local elections.

“We’re acting differently. We have more events,” Cracchiolo says. “We have more things to include people and that’s exactly what we want to do.”

2018 looms

To win races, Grant Parsons says it is going to take more than just finding good candidates. Parsons says Democrats also need to find more voters.

He says his pitch to anybody who will listen has been that Democrats need to get organized to do that.

“If all the marchers, if all the Indivisibles, if all the Democrats would get together,” Parsons says, “come up with a voting list, appoint block captains and register new voters and then get an effort to get them out for the election, I think they could win. I really do.”

Democrats and progressive groups will have a chance to prove themselves in Grand Traverse County next year. Each county commission seat will be on the ballot, and there is a state Senate election to go along with the state House race.