For months after the 2016 election, islander May Gerstle, a Hilary Clinton supporter, found it difficult to discuss politics with islanders who had supported Bernie Sanders. “The hurt was just too deep,” she said, noting it was true for others. “We felt like wounded warriors.”
But as time went on, she became increasingly troubled by what she saw as the Trump administration’s assault on the nation’s democratic institutions — a “perilous crisis” at the highest levels of government, she says. So when a couple of Sanders supporters reached out to her to see if she would join their effort to “unify for democracy,” as they put it, Gerstle decided to sign on.
After months of sometimes hard discussions, the group — made up of almost equal parts Sanders and Clinton supporters — is now ready to take their message to Vashon’s greater community, hoping a collective voice for unity will inspire local activism, influence the state Democratic Party and maybe even spark a larger movement.
The group plans to hold two meetings — one this Sunday, and the next one on Saturday, May 19 — to begin a wider conversation about participants’ top concerns and the importance of “a more unified, powerful and creative progressive electorate,” Gerstle said.
“Everything starts at the local level. Food, clean air, recycling. You start somewhere, and generally speaking, you start at the local level and grow,” Gerstle added. “And who knows? Maybe we have an exportable model. Maybe we can help other communities unify as well for what is truly a very important cause.”
The first meeting will be facilitated by islander Craig Beles, a well-known lawyer who specializes in arbitration and mediation. Kevin Jones, a political activist on Vashon who launched the “Unifying for Democracy” effort, said participants will be asked to form discussion groups at each of their tables, where they will decide together what they see as the top threats to democracy, the most pressing issues of the day and steps they can take “to achieve an outcome more aligned with what we want.”
The ideas and concerns from that first meeting will be shared with political leaders at the second meeting, Jones said. Scheduled to attend the second meeting are Sen. Sharon Nelson (D-Maury Island), the retiring Senate majority leader; Dylan Cate, an organizer for the Washington State Democratic Party, and Shaun Scott, who works for U.S. Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Seattle).
Terry Sullivan, another one of the organizers, said he hopes the three political leaders will help the group “figure out how to translate what we care about into governmental action.”
Sullivan and Jones, like Gerstle, witnessed the acrimony after Donald Trump’s surprise victory, the accusations and counter-accusations that threatened to undermine the progressive movement. But the Trump administration has created a powerful sense of urgency, Jones said. “We’re in completely new territory. … Those who are dissatisfied need to be effective together.”
Conversations at the two sessions might take a number of directions, the three organizers said. Some might decide the most crucial issue is to flip Congress in the mid-term elections later this year. Others may decide voter registration drives are key. Someone in the group might decide he or she wants to run for office.
The stakes are high, Jones said. “We need to be as capable and engaged and as cooperative as we can be.”
Success, Sullivan said, would be a series of conversations that leave people energized, hopeful and open to working collaboratively. The effort, he added, “is an experiment in democracy. We don’t know where it’s going to go. But we’re not going to sit down and argue about what’s right. We’re going to try to find common ground.”
The meetings will take place from 1:30 to 3:30 p.m. Sunday, May 6, and from 9:30 to 11:30 a.m. Saturday, May 19, at the Vashon Presbyterian Church.