100 days into Trump’s presidency, a grassroots group branches out

  • Louise Spencer (right) talks to the group, Ann Cauble, Kimberly Kirkland, Dick LeClair and John Cunningham at his home of Kent Street in Concord last Monday night. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • John Cunningham talks to the group at his home on Kent Street last Monday night. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Jim Howard talks to the group at John Cunningham’s Kent Street home last Monday night. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

Monitor columnist
Published: 4/28/2017 10:54:09 PM

Nearly six months ago, Donald Trump planted a seed in an upscale Concord neighborhood.

Since then, it’s grown like a weed.

The core of the Kent Street Coalition features big homes, manicured lawns, lots of education and a common thread, turning our president into a uniter amongst liberals, Democrats and progressives like never before.

More so, even, than Bernie Sanders once did.

As Kent Street co-founder John Cunningham, a local attorney, said at a recent meeting in his living room, “We all have a deep moral political loathing for Trump. That’s a negative. What’s the positive vision? We are uniformly united by the negative.”

There are 160 members on the mailing list of this grassroots group, 410 on its Facebook group and 70 in its seven working groups, which narrow the focus and allow coalition members to address specific issues.

The leaders here create a narrative that stresses inclusion and compromise, but it’s obvious from the start that Bill O’Reilly won’t be invited as a guest speaker anytime soon.

The coalition has instead turned to state Democratic leaders like Sen. Dan Feltes, Rep. Mary Jane Wallner and former Rep. Sue Ford to help lay out their platform.

A progressive study group met earlier this week at Cunningham’s, where wine mixed with thought in a book-club environment. There are larger working group meetings, plus a baseplan to organize strategy, ideas and visions.

There are lots of emails, lots of phone calls and lots of paperwork. There are protests at the State House, and voices during legislative sessions at the State House. And there is lingering shock and pain over what happened last November in the presidential election.

Saturday marks Trump’s 100th day in office, and for these people, time has dragged like an unplugged clock. The seed, planted, nurtured, watered and sunned by American voters, caught most members of the Kent Street Coalition off guard, as the media, citing polling, all but awarded the White House to Hillary Clinton last fall.

“I went to bed early and my wife woke me up at 3 in the morning and said it looks like Trump is going to win,” Cunningham told me by phone. “I told her not to bother me about this stuff. Awful news. I wish she hadn’t told me. There goes my sleep, and then it was like being hit with a sledgehammer.”

Louise Spencer, who lives across the street from Cunningham, was equally dismayed, but more subtle when commenting on Trump. Methodical, deliberate and soft spoken, she’s labeled as the founder of the group, the wife of a doctor whose job here is a full-time, non-paying commitment.

“She’s the back story to your story,” said Kimberly Kirkland, a medical malpractice attorney who lives on nearby Wildemere Terrace. “She’s a combination of political vision, organizing, warmth, savvy, positivity and a sense of community that makes us feel like we’re an ‘us.’ ”

Trump is the driving force behind this alliance. Once he beat Clinton in the biggest upset since the Giants topped the Patriots in the Super Bowl nine years ago, Spencer and Cunningham set in a motion a chain reaction that has been mirrored across the country.

This Concord area already had a close bond. Snowplowing someone else’s driveway was common. Spencer had an annual get-to-know-your-neighbor party at her house.

“John and I talked together about needing to respond to the results of the election,” Spencer told me by phone. “Not just (Trump) getting elected, but also the fact that we were getting a Republican governor. It was a natural step to turn to the neighborhood to talk about our concerns and how we might respond.”

Form here, a think tank of intellectualism and profoundness might have been the sole result, and I saw plenty of that at this week’s book club event.

But Spencer and Cunningham took it further. “From the beginning, we wanted to keep the focus and build a sense of community to encourage all of us for the longterm,” Spencer said. “We were mindful that everyone has busy lives, and that’s okay. We split into groups so it was not too overwhelming, and we found we have a lot of shared values, so we moved the focus from anti-Trump to what kind of world are we envisioning and what kind of community do we want to live in. What happens at the State House is critical.”

With that as a foundation, the working groups have fanned out in different issue-oriented directions. Members study upcoming bills, familiarize themselves with the Senate and House calendars, read the latest news about health care and mental health and education and transgender rights.

Remember earlier this month at the State House, where protesters wore hospital gowns to highlight the lack of attention given to mental health patients?

Yep. That was the brainstorm of the coalition’s health care study group.

Coalition member Gary Woods, a retired hand surgeon, says keeping abreast of Trump’s attempt to repeal the Affordable Care Act, among other topics, has essentially moved him back into the workforce.

He wants a better version of the ACA. He’s concerned about stagnant wages for home health care workers. He’s concerned about tax cuts and the impact that would have on Medicaid.

“We’ll interact with specific legislators and go to hearings,” Woods told me by phone. “We don’t want to be obnoxious when we support something. No form letters and phone calls that say the same thing. Make sure it’s timed properly and relevant at the time. To keep up with what is happening nationally and statewide with health care is a full-time job.”

For people like Woods, Spencer and Cunningham, the November election has, indeed, led to more political involvement, giving them a purpose that has spread to dozens, even hundreds of other concerned citizens.

Coalition members testified at the recent rape shield hearing at the State House, seeking protection for victims’ rights. They’re pushing for future transgender legislation. They’re resisting the voucher bill.

They’re reacting to the President of the United States, energized by his policies, his attitude, his personality, while also searching for common ground, compromise, an olive branch to extend to those on the other side of the aisle.

At the progressive study group meeting earlier this week at Cunningham’s house, eight Kent Street Coalition members tried to figure out how pro-choice and pro-life supporters could reach an agreement. They discussed atheists and people of faith coming together. They discussed canvassing techniques, focusing on how to address Trump supporters with respect.

But the bottom line, the fuel for this movement in this tidy, well-to-do neighborhood, began on a particular Tuesday back in November.

“He’s interested in power and self-aggrandizement,” Kirkland said. “He has no vision, no principles. He is incredibly dangerous to democracy.”

Ray Duckler bio photo

Ray Duckler, our intrepid columnist, focuses on the Suncook Valley. He floats from topic to topic, searching for the humor or sadness or humanity in each subject. A native New Yorker, he loves the Yankees and Giants. The Red Sox and Patriots? Not so much.

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