Five voters explain their enthusiasm for Democratic candidates, causes and activism
described why they are motivated to challenge President Trump’s agenda.
During the 2016 presidential race, much of the political excitement and energy centered on Donald Trump and his massive, rowdy campaign rallies. Now, his presidency has sparked a new political movement, one focused on challenging him and his party’s agenda.
As the Democratic Party celebrates wins in unexpected places, party leaders hope they can sustain this momentum through November’s midterm elections so they can retake Congress.
As part of an ongoing series featuring the voices of Americans, The Washington Post dispatched five reporters to find out why some Democrats, left-leaning independents and even Republicans who were unenthused in 2016 are feeling more motivated to become politically engaged in 2018.
Kae Jae Johnson, a self-described “Obama Democrat,” could not bring herself to vote for Hillary Clinton, a choice she now regrets.
Johnson, 44, felt as though Clinton expected the support of black voters without explaining why she deserved it. Johnson also disagreed with some of the policies that Bill Clinton implemented during his presidency, including signing a 1998 law that denies federal aid to college students with minor convictions related to marijuana.
“I’m serious about how I vote,” said Johnson, who was living in Chicago in 2016, “and I didn’t want my name connected with voting for Hillary, because I really didn’t see her connecting with us.”
There was no way she was going to vote for Trump, so she didn’t vote.
Black voter turnout dropped nationwide in 2016. In Wisconsin, where Johnson moved soon after the election, turnout among African American voters was down 19 percent from 2012, according to one estimate, which helped Trump win the state by 22,000 votes.
Although Clinton won Illinois, Johnson regretted her decision.
“I realized that by not voting at all, I actually voted for Trump,” she said.
She thinks many of Trump’s actions have been wrong. Johnson says he has provoked hate and has not done enough to protect young undocumented immigrants who were brought to the United States as children.
She worries about her three children: Her 28-year-old daughter has a good job but can’t afford health insurance. Her 24-year-old daughter has a 4-year-old daughter and cannot find a job. And she feels that she constantly has to worry about the safety of her youngest, checking up on her 20-year-old son as though he were still a child.
“Someone has to step in and say, ‘We need to get back to the path of doing it right,’ ” she said. “It’s been scary, personally.”
Trump’s presidency pushed Johnson, who used to work as a union organizer, to become politically involved once again.
She got a job late last year with Black Leaders Organizing for Communities, a Wisconsin-based activist group. She and three other organizers have knocked on more than 8,000 doors in two Milwaukee Zip codes that have mostly black residents and some of the city’s highest poverty rates. They ask voters what issues matter most to them and encourage them to vote in every election. Her message: “These little races are important to win the big races.”
Recently, Johnson voted for a state Supreme Court position — something she had never done before. She supported Democraticaligned Rebecca Dallet, who won as a result of a rush of Democratic voters. That win has worried Republican Party leaders, and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) warned of a “blue wave” that could wash over the midterm elections this fall.
“It’s coming, it’s here, it’s going to blow a lot of people away,” Johnson said. “I think 2016 made Democrats step up. It was a wake-up call that we have to be better.”
Rachel Duntley-Walker showed up to the Tulsa polls on Election Day in 2016 ready to vote for a Democrat for president for the first time. But she had recently gotten married, and her driver’s license now showed her wife’s last name, while her voter registration had her maiden name, so she wasn’t allowed to vote.
Trump went on to win every county in Oklahoma, as Republicans often do.
Duntley-Walker, 35, grew up in a politically conservative, deeply religious family in the Tulsa suburbs. Her dad would take her to picket at abortion clinics, and as soon as she was old enough to vote, she registered as a Republican and voted for George W. Bush for president. She became a teacher but only passively followed politics, sometimes not even realizing an election was happening until “Vote Here” signs popped up in her neighborhood. She would often call her dad and ask, “What in the world are we voting for?”
“I voted Republican, no matter what their stance was,” she said. “If they had an ‘ R’ next to their name, I just voted for them.”
But Trump was different. She was deeply troubled by how he spoke about immigrants, as her students voiced concerns about their families.
“They were coming in and telling me that they were worried about being deported or that they were worried about their parents being deported,” said Duntley-Walker, who teaches seventhgrade math at a public charter school in Tulsa. “I don’t feel like any kid in America should ever live in fear, and I feel like that is what he is doing to our kids.”
Clinton was not only more compassionate to undocumented immigrants but also more supportive of public education, Duntley-Walker said. And as a newly married lesbian who is raising three children, Duntley-Walker felt as though Clinton supported her right to love and marry whomever she wanted.
Last year, one of her friends ran for the Oklahoma State Senate in a conservative Tulsa district as a Democrat. That candidate was Allison Ikley-Freeman, a 26-year-old lesbian who works as a therapist at a nonprofit mental-health agency. On the campaign trail, she questioned why Republican lawmakers rammed through a state budget with severe cuts.
Ikley-Freeman won by 31 votes — and showed Duntley-Walker that she, too, could make a difference in local politics.
“I don’t think I realized how important state and local issues were until my friend got into office, and then she was like, ‘You have more of a voice than you think you do,’ ” she said.
Duntley-Walker plans to update her voter registration and switch her party from Republican to independent. Although she will probably start to vote for more Democrats, she doesn’t yet fully identify with the party.
As Oklahoma teachers organized this month to demand raises and more state funding for their schools, Duntley-Walker attended marches and rallies at the state Capitol — activism that her father, a staunch Trump supporter, does not agree with or understand.
“I don’t want my kids to be shortchanged, and I feel like they have been for a long time,” Duntley-Walker said on Sunday, her skin lightly sunburned from days of protesting. “I don’t care about my raise. If I cared about it, I’d be in Texas. I care about the fact that my kids have to sit on desks that are cracked, that we have to share books within a whole grade, we have to beg parents to buy tissues and pencils and paper — and some of those times we don’t even get that provided.”
Frank Zahar is a registered independent who usually votes for Democrats, but he just couldn’t support Clinton.
Even now, it’s difficult for him to put his finger on what exactly he didn’t like about her. He thinks that as secretary of state, she should not have put U.S. personnel in a dangerous place like Benghazi, Libya. He just didn’t trust her — and he thought that Trump was the better candidate, so he voted for him.
“It was a mistake,” said Zahar, 77, a Vietnam War veteran and longtime resident of Virginia Beach who used to own a toy and kite shop and now delivers pizzas and drives for Uber. “I’m sure a lot of older white guys like me did the same thing.”
Zahar soured on Trump within months of him taking office. He thinks Russian President Vladimir Putin has been using Trump. Zahar is appalled that Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt has rolled back so many protections and regulations. He says he is disappointed by Trump’s continued meanness and what he sees as widespread corruption in the administration.
Zahar also feels let down by the Republican-led Congress. The tax cuts enacted last year benefited the wealthy more than anyone, he said, and he opposes attempts to undo President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act. He thinks Congress should once again ban assault weapons.
He longs for a time when lawmakers from both parties could meet in the middle on policy and work out an agreement over beers in Georgetown. While he agrees with many Republicans that immigration laws need to be tightened, he supports establishing a legal pathway to citizenship for young, undocumented immigrants who were brought to this country as children.
Zahar misses Obama, for whom he voted twice and calls “the most intelligent president we had in a long time.” And Zahar is back to voting for Democrats — including Ralph Northam for governor and Cheryl Turpin for the Virginia House of Delegates in November. Turpin was one of at least 15 Democrats to win a statehouse seat that had long been held by Republicans.
“People — you’re speaking to one of them — are upset and are going to turn against Trump,” Zahar said, taking a break from walking his dog Sunday afternoon. “That’s for sure.”
During the 2016 campaign, Christopher Vigil kept waiting for someone to break into the latest newscast and let everyone know that Trump’s campaign was just a joke.
“I thought someone was going to tell us, ‘We gotcha,’ ” said Vigil, 40, who registered as a Republican as soon as he was old enough but has voted for candidates from both parties, including Obama in 2008 and 2012.
Early on, he was excited by the Democratic presidential candidacy of Sen. Bernie Sanders (Vt.).
“I loved his views, his whole platform, his stance on equality,” said Vigil, who is studying audio production at Glendale Community College and lives with his mother in a single-story, red-tile roof home in Peoria, a suburb northwest of Phoenix. “Income equality, health care, education.”
When Sanders lost the nomination, Vigil wasn’t sure what to do. He didn’t like Bill Clinton when he was president, and he didn’t like Hillary Clinton, either, saying that the couple “left a bad taste in my mouth.” Still, he couldn’t vote for someone as “unbelievably flawed” and “grossly incompetent” as Trump, so he grudgingly voted for Clinton.
His dislike of Trump has only grown since then.
“The man is a blatant racist,” Vigil said. “It infuriates me the way he talks about us. I identify as Chicano, and we’re all brethren.”
Even though Vigil said he’s disgusted by Trump and the Republican Party, he has remained a registered Republican, mostly as a tribute to his great-grandfather. Meanwhile, Vigil has become involved with Our Revolution, a progressive activist group that spun out of the Sanders campaign and helps to elect like-minded candidates in local elections. Lately, he has spent his weekends canvassing.
Vigil is supporting Hiral Tipirneni, a Democrat running in this month’s special election for former GOP congressman Trent Franks’s seat in Arizona’s 8th Congressional District, which leans heavily Republican.
When asked what would push him to once again support a Republican, he responded: “Nothing short of bringing back Ronald Reagan.”
JEFFERSON HILLS, Pa.
The 2016 presidential election marked the first time that Kaitlyn Harrold could vote, and she cast her ballot for Trump.
It wasn’t an easy decision for Harrold, who lives south of Pittsburgh in Jefferson Hills. She was registered as a Republican, but she liked stances from both parties. She didn’t like Trump’s lack of professionalism, and she thought that it would be “cool to have a female president” — but she thought that voting for Clinton was almost like voting for Clinton’s husband. She wanted someone new, so she voted for Trump.
“He was the better of the two evils,” said Harrold, 21. “He’s not a puppet.”
Soon after the election, Harrold got a job working in a kitchen at a Pittsburgh hotel. After growing up and going to school in suburbs that were predominantly white and Republican, she experienced a bit of culture shock as she met fellow employees, customers and others whose “story was completely different than mine.”
“I started talking to people in the city who had very different lives from me,” said Harrold, who is now a sous chef at Carnegie Mellon University. “It just really changed my perspective on the way I viewed human life and people’s rights. I guess my morals changed, and I got a whole different viewpoint on things. I started doing my research . . . on the core values of the Republican Party and the core values of the Democratic Party.”
Meanwhile, she worries that Trump’s rude and crude behavior has permanently damaged the United States’ reputation around the world. She wishes that she had voted for Libertarian Gary Johnson.
About a year after the election, Harrold changed her party registration from Republican to Democrat. She’s now passionate about protecting the working class, creating jobs, giving workers more job security, and protecting Social Security, Medicare and abortion rights. About the only thing that she still agrees with Republicans on is the rights of gun owners.
On March 13, she voted in the special election held in Pennsylvania’s 18th Congressional District to fill the seat previously held by a Republican who resigned. Harrold is new to voting, but she’s pretty sure that she wouldn’t normally vote in an election like this. She voted for Democrat Conor Lamb, a young former prosecutor who spent vastly less money on his campaign than his Republican opponent — and unexpectedly won. To her, Lamb seemed honest and like someone who was running to help “all people in all communities” and would stick to his values no matter how popular opinion might shift.
By voting, she felt as though she had an opportunity to change Washington, which has become dominated by Republicans, and send a message to Trump.
“We’re not happy with the way he’s running the government and running the country,” Harrold said. “We needed a change — this isn’t working. The way that you’re acting isn’t working.”
“People — you’re speaking to one of them — are upset and are going to turn against Trump. That’s for sure.” Frank Zahar, a registered independent who voted for Trump
CLOCKWISE FROM TOP: Kaitlyn Harrold of Jefferson Hills, Pa., voted for Trump but became disillusioned and is now passionate about protecting the working class. Rachel Duntley-Walker is a teacher in Tulsa who plans to change her party from Republican to independent. Frank Zahar from Virginia Beach voted for Trump but soured on him within months of Trump taking office. Christopher Vigil of Peoria, Ariz., supported Sen. Bernie Sanders (Vt.) and is now involved in the progressive group Our Revolution. Kae Jae Johnson of Milwaukee says Trump’s presidency pushed her to work with a Wisconsin activist group.