Can Hidden Networks of Suburban Women Swing the Midwest Blue? - OZY | A Modern Media Company

WHY YOU SHOULD CARE

Because a new political network is emerging from the shadows.

By Mark Oprea

The Sunday evening at Brown Barn Tavern in Chesterland, Ohio, was one of the first times Katie Paris had spoken in public to a political audience. It won’t be her last.  

“The gender gap in politics has never been bigger than it is today,” Paris told a group of 30 name-tagged women in their 40s and 50s at a November meeting of the Like-Minded Geauga County Friends. “People in red counties are feeling alone — I get that. Well, we are here. I’m here to say, we are here for you.”

Paris, a 40-year-old mother of two living in Shaker Heights, an affluent Democratic stronghold on the fringe of Cuyahoga County, is talking about a new organizing trend emerging across the Midwest — but growing particularly rapidly in Ohio — of women emerging from the shadows as a political force.

Ohio, a former swing state, has moved swiftly to the right since President Donald Trump won by 8 percentage points in 2016; Republicans have dominated, save for Democrat Sherrod Brown’s 300,000-vote Senate win in 2018. Yet, brewing in these red counties, from Geauga in the north to Warren in the south, is a contrasting rally cry: Ohio is a swing state, and suburban women who were often previously politically inert will be the ones to make it such in 2020. This is not the same crowd as the women’s marches or Indivisible groups that sprouted in 2017, and their rhetoric doesn’t have the sharp edge of Trump’s fiercest critics. Many have kept their nascent activities hidden on private Facebook groups and invite-only events, only to emerge for 2020 as a new network — unconnected to any campaign or party, but designed to boost Ohio Democrats’ flagging fortunes here.

We’re not a kumbaya center. We’re actually concerned about the future of our state.

Katie Paris, Red, Wine & Blue

These groups range from the Organized Progressives Standing United (OPSU) and the Bay Village Nasty Women to the Progressive Women in Westerville and Positively Blue in Dublin. The OPSU had 20 members when Julie Womack, 51, of Mason, Ohio, joined it in November 2018. Now, it has 500. In September 2019, a few months after leaving a left-leaning media job in Washington, D.C., Paris launched Red, Wine & Blue, a statewide network of blue-leaning women (and some men) pushing for higher political involvement in 12 suburban Ohio counties. A dozen groups have since joined her network.

“We’re not a kumbaya center,” Paris says. “We’re actually concerned about the future of our state.”

The women often worry about drawing too much heat in communities where they have felt politically isolated. “Democrat is a dirty word down here,” says Womack, whose group was “secret” when she joined it but is now public. She sees OPSU’s rapid growth as a mirror of her own need for political outspokenness — especially in Warren County, which went for Republican Gov. Mike DeWine by 36 percentage points in 2018. “I’m at the point in my life now that I just don’t care. To label yourself a Democrat or a progressive [here], you’re going to feel ganged-up upon. You’ll stand out.”

A lawyer turned stay-at-home mom, Womack was a greenhorn when it came to serious politics until 2016. Trump, she says, altered that. In 2018, she joined Moms Demand Action, the anti-gun violence group, and campaigned for congressional candidate Nikki Foster. This year, she landed a part-time organizing gig with Red, Wine & Blue. “I’m just not one to sit around anymore,” Womack says.

LBP_6264

Lindsay Pollock.

Similar to Paris and Womack, Lindsay Pollock, 40, started the Like-Minded Geauga County Friends out of Bainbridge three years ago as a soundboard for silent Democrats feeling isolated in a red county, where Pollock moved from left-leaning Lyndhurst with her husband and two kids in 2011. While often switching between “open” and “secret” on Facebook, the Friends maintain strict rules despite their unrelenting push to win the county: no Trump bashing, no bad-mouthing Republicans and no senseless complaining about the day’s headlines. “I want it to be a constructive experience,” Pollock says.

These organizing groups know their limitations. They acknowledge that as stay-at-home-moms in their 30s and 40s, their message may not resonate with working-class women in urban or rural areas. Most of the groups’ headquarters — Dublin, Shaker Heights and Mason — are in cities flashing six-figure household incomes and median home prices well over $200,000. While Paris admits that the majority of Red, Wine & Blue’s demographic is White, college-educated and affluent, she’s not discounting, say, the sheer power of the urban Black turnout in 2020. “The way we see it is it’s just time for us to do our part too,” Paris says.

It might not be enough, suggests Richard Perloff, a professor of political media and communication at Cleveland State University who believes that the narrative of suburban women turning Ohio blue in 2020 may be “overly optimistic.”

“I think that there’s an opportunity here, sure,” he says. “But what are the issues that are going to mobilize women? They’re concerned about their families, their future, their children — but what it really comes down to is who ends up being at the head of the ticket.”

At November’s meeting of the Like-Minded Geauga County Friends, the mood was anything but cynical. For two hours, first-time canvassers sipped on craft beers and talked health care or gerrymandering woes with 2020 congressional candidates Hillary O’Connor Mueri and Betsy Rader. Some brought their children, others their husbands. As Paris spoke, everyone nodded, as if Paris were announcing her own candidacy for office — something she says is highly unlikely. “Honestly, I stand on the shoulders of these women. It’s not about me. It’s them.”

Whether or not Ohio is labeled by others as a swing state isn’t what’s critical to Paris and the other women, it seems. They’re clear about their mission: Politically rouse as many women as possible. 

As for winning over a right-leaning county like Geauga? “Never say never,” Paris says. “As we like to say, ‘This is a marathon, not a sprint.’”

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