Nearly every Tuesday morning since President Donald Trump entered the White House, hundreds of protesters have met outside of Rep. Darrell Issa’s Vista office to push the Republican congressman to reject the new president’s agenda.
Loosely organized by volunteer leaders, they formed a dozen or so grassroots organizations with little if any background in politics and no real budget.
Some of that is now changing with the recent addition of a new group that plans to bring in seasoned political operatives charged with creating a long-term political movement in the district. It also has money from a Manhattan-based political committee.
Flip the 49th Neighbors in Action was legally formed in May, and is driven by stalwarts of progressive politics — organized labor and the local Democratic party. It brings skills to organize voter registration drives, organize communities and launch data-driven outreach programs.
“After the election in November, the old rules didn’t apply,” said David Lagstein, the political director of Service Employees International Union, Local 221 and a principal officer in Flip the 49th. “And one of the old ways is that from the perspective of labor and the Democratic Party and the emerging groups, there really needs to be an effort to work together.”
Terra Lawson-Remer of Encinitas, one of the group’s other officers and a former Obama-era adviser in the Treasury Department, said they’re combining elements of traditional campaigns and community organizing, backed with data-driven analysis to support the various grassroots organizations in the district.
“We’re a community organizing program,” Lawson-Remer said. “We’re focusing on the issues that are most important to them, and we’re trying to get people to do that work more effectively.”
Leaders say they are trying to create a sustainable movement within the district, rather than operate like a political campaign that surges in the months before an election and then disappears after polls close.
Ellen Montanari is also listed as an officer. She has long been behind the weekly protests in Vista and holds the city permit that makes the assemblies legal.
IRS records show that Flip the 49th formed as a so-called “527” organization, a type of group that has been criticized by both the left and the right as conduits for dark money in politics. Records from July also show that it has received $25,000 from Manhattan-based Fight for a Better America political group and another $235 from other sources. A new financial report is due in January.
Issa spokesman Calvin Moore said the addition of the Flip the 49th and the New York donation won’t make a difference in the election, and said it’s clear that the opposition to Issa is being covertly run by liberal insiders, not local constituents.
“They poured in millions of dollars to our district last year in a failed effort to topple Congressman Issa. Voters won't be any more receptive this time around, now that they've seen their shady playbook and the dark money backing their carefully scripted theatrics,” Moore said.
Flip the 49th has added structure compared to previous efforts, said Tazheen Nizam, who volunteered for Democratic candidates during the last two congressional races. Previously, a hodgepodge of groups worked alongside each other and often overlapped their efforts, she said.
“It was amateurish,” Nizam said. “We were organizations, but we were not professionals. I have a full-time job, a kid and a family. We were just amateurs.”
Now, groups meet monthly and there is a team that goes to neighborhoods with a list of addresses they should visit. They know the residents’ names, if they want a yard sign and what issues matter to them, she said.
Montanari said that the weekly protests outside of Issa’s district office are still led by people across the political spectrum who are fed up with national politics, but there’s now a way to coordinate the efforts.
“If there’s not some infrastructure there to support them, some paid staff, you really can’t get a lot done,” Montanari said. “We can hire people who can do some heavy lifting and the volunteers can get out and do what they want to do”
The leap in organization is, in part, due to money. Federal Election Commission records show that Flip the 49th received $25,000 from Fight for a Better America, the political-action committee in Manhattan. The group is known as a super-PAC because it can raise and spend unlimited money. It can’t, however, give directly to candidates or coordinate with them.
The super-PAC’s treasurer and chairman, Bill Kuhn, said his group’s founders and supporters are from liberal strongholds and want to put their money in Republican-held districts that can turn. They noticed the 49th District when Lawson-Remer wrote a detailed analysis of the 2016 election, in which Issa won by a mere 1,621 votes – the closest margin of any congressional race in the country.
“We obviously wanted to go to where there was a lot of activism and there was a lot of momentum and reaction to Trump, and, obviously, the margin of victory. We also had a local on the ground who wrote a strategy paper,” Kuhn said.
Moore said the funding shows that the opposition to Issa is disingenuous.
“Since the day the Indivisible Guide was published, it's becoming increasingly clear that political professionals in Washington and liberals from San Francisco have been calling the shots and paying the bills for these protest groups' antics,” Moore said.