Politics & Government

Indivisible hopes to shake up S.C.’s red-state politics

The day after Donald Trump was elected president, Elizabeth Jones woke up feeling like a lot of progressives who were not expecting the bombastic New York billionaire to win the White House.

“I woke up and I was upset,” the 66-year-old retired educator said. “I, physically, felt like I had to do something. I couldn’t just sit around.”

Jones started to travel from her home in Columbia to town-hall meetings in Clemson or North Charleston held by South Carolina’s U.S. senators. Along the way, she met other disappointed voters.

From those beginnings – the chance meeting of liberal voters in the aftermath of the Democratic Party’s devastating loss — was formed the Midlands chapter of Indivisible, a loose affiliation of activist groups that has sprung up nationwide in the Trump era.

The movement takes its name from the “Indivisible Guide,” a document by former Democratic congressional staffers outlining how to engage local members of Congress to oppose Trump’s Washington agenda.

“In the beginning, it was a PDF that said what to do, how to start a group,” said Linda Tovar, who helped organize an Indivisible chapter in York County. “A week later, we started one.”

In South Carolina, there are about 50 local Indivisible-related groups or events on the “Act Locally” page of IndivisibleGuide.com. Some are organized around the state’s seven congressional districts; others are focused locally or regionally.

The groups have popped up at town halls with their own props, organized protests outside congressional offices and canvassed for candidates in special elections. While some liberal activists dislike the comparison, the tactics mirror those of the Tea Party early in the Obama administration.

While Indivisible isn’t a strictly partisan organization, Democrats say they welcome anything that boosts support for their party.

“You can’t be afraid of groups like Indivisible,” said Trav Robertson, new chairman of the S.C. Democratic Party. “I see these as groups that can help fill a void the Democratic Party has in some areas, and I hope we can work together where we can.”

‘You were the one yelling at Lindsey’

Activists like Jones have become a presence wherever members of Congress hold town halls.

Jones made one road trip to see her congressman — U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson, R-Springdale — at a gathering in Graniteville. With signs banned from the venue, Jones trolled Wilson with a sock puppet on her hand. Some crowd members also chanted “You lie” at Wilson, a reference to his infamous outburst at President Barack Obama.

Stephanie McCummings joined the Midlands Indivisible group after she attended U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham’s contentious Columbia town hall in March.

Julie Edwards was one of several Indivisible members at that town hall, wearing an “R.I.P. Me” T-shirt to protest the proposed Republican health-care plan.

“(Edwards) reached out to me after the town hall and asked, ‘Do I want to join their group? ’ ” said McCummings, a teacher and community volunteer. “I thought, ‘Where did I meet her?’ And she said, ‘You were the one yelling at Lindsey Graham.’”

Like others, Edwards says she was inspired to join the Indivisible movement after November’s election results shook her view of the world.

“I thought I had a pretty clear idea of how the world works, and what other Americans thought,” said Edwards, a USC pharmacy graduate. “Then I realized we don’t all have the same vision. We all love our country, but we don’t see it moving in the same direction.”

Edwards says the first official event for the Indivisible Midlands group was the March 8 “Day Without a Woman” rally at the State House. Since then, the group has joined other marches and protests or started their own, depending on the issue in the news.

‘Not 100 percent gung-ho’

The Indivisible movement could play a role in the 5th District’s June 20 special election for Congress. Democrats are hopeful they can flip the GOP-held seat after stronger-than-expected Democratic performances elsewhere in the country.

The activists could give a boost to Democrat Archie Parnell of Sumter in the race against GOP nominee Ralph Norman of Rock Hill.

Already, the number of local Democratic volunteers has doubled since Indivisible SC5 and similar groups started this year, said Jim Thompson, head of the York County Democratic Party.

But the group’s members aren’t uniformly Democrats.

In her group, York County’s Tovar says there is a split between volunteers who canvass for Parnell and those who plan to vote for Green Party candidate David Kulma.

A few ideological differences don’t bother new Democratic Party state chairman Robertson if Indivisible can help Democrats overall.

“The way I look at it, I’ve got a twin, an older sister, a mom and a dad,” Robertson said. “We’re bound by the fact that we’re family, so once we start working toward a goal, it’s OK if some are not 100 percent gung-ho.”

Skeptics don’t expect Indivisible to make much of a difference.

“We wouldn’t consider them a threat,” said Drew McKissick, new chairman of the S.C. Republican Party. “Successful activists promote ideas, not disrespect, which is something some of them could learn.”

Even if Indivisible drums up enthusiasm among Democrats, McKissick notes more than twice as many Republicans voted in the 5th District’s primary as Democrats.

“The further to the left they go, the more they’re going to alienate people,” said Allen Olson, former chairman of the Columbia Tea Party, who rejects Tea Party-Indivisible comparisons.

‘I’ve woken up’

Sam Edwards, sister of Julie Edwards, is one of those newly engaged by the November election results and Indivisible.

“In South Carolina, I gave up on having elected officials that I would want to elect,” said Sam Edwards. “(But) I’ve woken up. Before, I’m not sure this is a group I would have joined.”

For others, including McCummings, Indivisible is the latest in a long history of activism. “According to my mother, I’ve been revolting against the system since I was in Pampers.”