Sonoma County Sister District chapter pairs donors in deep blue states with faraway candidates

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Considering that the guests of honor were three times zones away, this west Sonoma County garden party was a great success.

Fifty or so left-leaning local residents gathered Sunday afternoon at an estate west of Sebastopol to sip wine, dine on paella and raise money for a pair of minor political candidates who, should they win their races in November, will report to work 3,000 miles away.

Karen Mallard is a coal miner’s daughter and teacher in Virginia Beach, Virginia, and she once appeared in a campaign video cutting an AR-15 in half with a circular saw. Phil Hernandez attended William & Mary on a Gates Millennium Scholarship, studied at Oxford and then went to work as a policy analyst in the Obama White House. Both are running for Virginia’s House of Delegates, a body now held by Republicans, 51 seats to 49, and whose members stand for election in odd-numbered years.

Hernandez and Mallard are each expected to receive checks of around $3,000 from the Sonoma West County chapter of the Sister District Project, which threw Sunday’s sun-splashed bash on their behalf.

Sister District was founded shortly after the 2016 presidential election. Its mission is to flip Republican-held districts in state legislatures. It does this by recruiting volunteers from districts that are already safely blue.

“We’re in a blue district,” said Karen Walker, a west county chapter member sitting in the shade of three towering redwoods, raising her voice to be heard over the music of the jazz quartet Honey B and the Pollinators. “We don’t have anything to do here, no one to campaign for.”

“We’re just preaching to the choir,” added fellow member Mary Radu.

That’s why they’ve chosen “sister districts.”

“Ours is in Virginia,” explained Walker. These activists from a deep blue state are thus organizing phone banks, sending postcards and fundraising for candidates in the purple state they’re hoping to turn blue, as well.

They know firsthand this model works. Going into the 2017 elections, Republicans held a 66-34 majority in Virginia’s House of Delegates, but lost 15 seats to the Democrats. The names of most of those victorious Democratic candidates were familiar to the members of their faraway Sister District in west county.

“Politics gets very personal when the name of the candidate is the name you’re writing on the check,” said fellow member Harry Walker, husband of Karen Walker.

This west county chapter is one of 15 in the state. Monitoring the returns from a Sister District election party, many in attendance shared the reaction of fellow member Gail Sollid, who thought, “Wow, this really works!”

Republicans now hold a 51-49 edge in the Virginia House of Delegates, “and the only reason it’s not 50-50,” added Sollid, while selling $20 tickets at the raffle table, “is because of a coin toss.” She was referring to Republican David Yancey, whose race with Democratic challenger Shelly Simonds was declared a tie. To break the tie, officials put the candidates’ names in a bowl, and chose one. Yancey’s came out, preserving his party’s majority.

One of the goals of Sunday’s gathering on the 10-acre spread of hosts Theresa Beldon and Joe Pereira was to make sure that no bowls will be necessary this time around.

The founders of Sister District, which now claims 40,000 members nationwide, focused on state legislatures for several reasons. State campaigns are often short on cash. The dollars and time given by volunteers can have an outsized impact.

Also, state legislatures have the power to draw district lines for Congress. The resulting gerrymanders often create a lasting majority for the party in power — usually Republican, Karen Walker said.

“We’ve got to flip these legislatures,” she added, “because that’s where the gerrymandering happens.”

By focusing on this grassroots approach, groups like Sister District, Indivisible and Swing Left are enacting lessons learned from their bête noire, the Tea Party.

Sister District member Chris Aldrich, a retired teacher, recently took a call from a fundraiser at the Democratic Party. “I told the woman, ‘I don’t think you’re doing enough. We had a blue wave in 2018 because of grassroots groups like Indivisible and MoveOn and Sister District.’ ”

She told the woman on the other end of the line that Democratic leaders had been “too wishy-washy,” and that she wouldn’t be giving them any money “until you get your (act) together.”

Rather than take offense, Aldrich said, the caller was eager to find out more about Sister District, and how she might find a chapter of her own.

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