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How Trump's Election Is Energizing Democrats In A Central Mass. Town05:48
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State Sen. Anne Gobi speaks during a Brookfield Democratic Committee event at the Brookfield Inn on Sunday. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
State Sen. Anne Gobi speaks during a Brookfield Democratic Committee event at the Brookfield Inn on Sunday. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
This article is more than 3 years old.

The election of President Trump is galvanizing grassroots political resistance across the country.

It's true across Massachusetts, including in the central part of the state, where Trump carried more than 40 towns — from the New Hampshire border south to the Connecticut line.

Many of these towns are former manufacturing hubs, where abundant water power fueled mills that brought jobs and prosperity. But much of that industrial base is gone -- and, like parts of Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin -- this part of Massachusetts voted for jobs, or at least for change represented by Trump.

His election shocked Democrats in this area, who are just getting around to asking: What happened, and what now?

"Since the election, we have had so many people call and say, 'We want to do something! Don't know what it is, but we want to do something!" said Anne Gobi, a Democratic state senator who represents 28 towns in central Massachusetts, all but three of which voted for Trump.

(Jesse Costa/WBUR)
(Jesse Costa/WBUR)

On a recent cold winter evening, Gobi was in Brookfield, another Trump town, where she urged a room full of about 30 Democrats and progressive independents to organize and get involved in local politics.

"That's one thing that the Republicans in our area have done very well," Gobi told her audience. "And guess what? That shapes the town. And that's what we do not do well as Democrats, and I think for too long we have rested on our laurels, saying, 'Well it's Massachusetts. We're going to be OK.' But guess what? It's not OK. It's not OK."

More Activists Coming 'Off The Bench'

Just before Gobi spoke, the Brookfield Democrats elected Danielle Kane to be the chair of their town Democratic committee. It was a big moment in small-town politics, an example of the kind of grassroots organizing that is happening across the country.

Kane, 44, had never been involved in politics before this; in fact, she wasn't even a registered Democrat until recently. And the Brookfield Democratic Committee was pretty much dead, until she decided to resurrect it.

Danielle Kane is the newly elected chair of the Brookfield Town Democratic Committee. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Danielle Kane is the newly elected chair of the Brookfield Town Democratic Committee. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

"After the election, when I felt like I needed to contribute somehow, one of my goals was to get involved and let people know that there is a contingent of Democrats and progressives in this area," said Kane, who's aware she represents a new wave of grassroots political activism. "The Women's March spurred a lot of people on. There are organizations forming all over the region. We had an event this afternoon with a new group called Brookfield Indivisible. Everyone is trying to get motivated."

Indivisible is a national grassroots organization modeled after the Tea Party movement. It was started by a group of former congressional staffers to resist the Trump agenda, and has already spawned some 4,500 chapters across the country, including many in Massachusetts, from Boston to the Berkshires.

"What I'm seeing is more people interested in coming off the bench," said Beth Coughlin, who helped organize the Indivisible chapter in Brookfield, and who is planning to run for town selectman.

"I think what we saw during the election was a lot of people who wanted to see some kind of change coming off the bench," Coughlin said. "And the people who felt we were perhaps secure in some of the positive changes that we'd had in the last eight years were kind of back on our heels. So what I'm seeing now is that pendulum swing back."

Danielle Kane, left, and Beth Coughlin, right, facing the room (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Danielle Kane, left, and Beth Coughlin, right, facing the room (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

What Bernie Sanders (And Bill Clinton) Understood

Although Brookfield is among some 40 central Massachusetts towns that voted for Trump in the general election, it would be wrong to say this part of the state is solidly pro-Trump.

On the contrary, in the presidential primaries most of these towns cast more votes for Bernie Sanders than they did for either Trump or Hillary Clinton. In Brookfield, Sanders beat Clinton by almost 2 to 1 — but in the general election, it chose Trump over Clinton.

"They were the towns that really heard the change message and the move away from the kind of 'corporate' Democratic Party," said Coughlin, who added Democrats failed to reach many working class voters in central Massachusetts -- just like the party failed across parts of the American Rust Belt. "There's a lot of that pain still being felt in this area. Bill Clinton got it right: 'It's the economy, stupid.' "

Peter O'Connell, the newly elected treasurer of the Brookfield Democrats, agrees with Coughlin's view of why so many central Massachusetts residents voted the way they did in November.

"They felt the Democrats were not listening to them and they voted for Trump," O'Connell said. “Bernie Sanders is right that Democrats did not listen to the anger of inequality that fueled this election.”

Brookfield (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Brookfield (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

According to O'Connell, the Brookfield Democratic Town Committee used to be active before residents lost interest, for a variety of reasons: They were too busy, nobody wanted to run for public office, and politics became too divisive.

"It’s very discouraging to see how polarized the town has become," he lamented.

But O'Connell was encouraged to see so many people turn out for the recent meeting on the cold night. "It would be unusual to see this many people under any circumstance in Brookfield," O'Connell said.

It is clear that Trump's election has changed things.

"Many people … felt they could not do nothing," O'Connell said. "They had to do something” — something to resist the Trump agenda.

If Tip O'Neill, the late Massachusetts congressman and former House speaker, was right that "all politics is local," Democrats in central Massachusetts believe the resistance needs to start locally -- in towns like Brookfield.

This segment aired on March 16, 2017.

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Anthony Brooks Twitter Senior Political Reporter
Anthony Brooks is WBUR's senior political reporter.

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