The Illinois primary election on March 20 is shaping up as a test drive for dozens of new grassroots political groups that popped up in the Chicago area in response to the 2016 presidential election.
These are groups that were formed by friends and neighbors who came together in their home communities in the aftermath of the first Women’s March and then expanded through Facebook networks.
Most of the group leaders are women with little or no prior political experience, although they have caught on fast — in some cases with help from existing Democratic power structures eager to harness their energy.
The main defining characteristic of the newcomers is a dissatisfaction with the election of Donald Trump and the direction of national politics.
But their increased civic engagement also promises to have ripple effects throughout state and local politics as community members get off the sidelines and into the action, much as the Tea Party redefined the politics of the right.
The phenomenon seems most common in the suburbs, although groups have been formed in the city, too.
In Naperville, there’s ACE, which stands for Act. Connect. Engage. In New Trier Township, there’s Grab the Wheel.
The political newcomers go by We the People in Mount Prospect, Our Voice in Glen Ellyn and Illinois 123GO in Beverly.
Most common are chapters of the suddenly ubiquitous Indivisible, an umbrella group for progressives who have embraced its practical how-to guide for political novices.
These include Indivisible South Suburban Chicago, Indivisible DuPage, Indivisible Glen Ellyn, Indivisible Hinsdale, Indivisible Naperville, Indivisible Wheaton Warrenville and more.
“I’ve never seen anything like this,” said Mark Walker, the Wheeling Township Democratic committeeman who has observed the development with both interest and excitement.
“I think they’re going to have impact. They’re going to be new players and even new voters,” added Walker, who hopes so because he will be running for state representative in the November election and could use the help.
The groups already are having some impact, particularly in Illinois’ 6th Congressional District, where some two dozen joined a coalition for the purpose of unseating Republican U.S. Rep. Peter Roskam in the fall.
But they also are expected to play a role in a Democratic intra-party skirmish in the 3rd Congressional District, where U.S. Rep. Dan Lipinski is facing a primary challenge from the left in the person of LaGrange businesswoman Marie Newman.
Although nearly all the new groups say they will avoid endorsing candidates in the primary, their efforts to simply educate voters to where their elected officials stand on issues important to progressive voters is influencing both those races.
The congressional candidacy of Naperville bookshop owner Becky Anderson Wilkins, one of six Democrats vying for the party’s nomination to face Roskam, actually germinated through her involvement in Indivisible Naperville.
Indivisible South Suburban Chicago is typical of the new groups. It has trained deputy registrars to sign up new voters, held candidate forums and participated in get-out-the-vote postcard-writing parties.
The latter was aimed at voters in the 6th District, even though most of the group’s members live in the 2nd Congressional District of U.S. Rep. Robin Kelly.
Its leaders, Holly Fingerle of Olympia Fields and Deborah Orr of University Park, say they try to point their members to opportunities where they can have an impact.
Both women say they’ve never been involved in politics; likewise for 20 percent of their members.
They count 30 active members, 150 individuals who have participated in at least one of their events over the past year and a Facebook network of 600.
Clare Duggan, founder of Illinois 123GO, is a little different. Duggan has a background as a political activist, mainly involving social justice protests when she was younger. Trump’s election got her back in the game.
Her group, which counts 700 members in its database, comes from within a 45-minute driving radius of her home in Beverly.
Everyone who has watched these groups take shape can see the possibilities, though some remain skeptical their activism will translate into actual votes.
“The question is how long it will last and what shape it will take,” observed Duggan.
It’s bound to last at least through 2020.