Grassroots Effort Got Out the Vote For Gershon in Sag Harbor Area

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Get-out-the-vote volunteers huddle in one of several rooms at Gigi Morris's house in Sag Harbor on Election Day.

“After the election, I was horrified,” Gigi Morris of Sag Harbor remembered of the morning after Donald J. Trump’s victory in the presidential race in 2016. “I think a lot of people were talking about what they could do. I wanted to do something, something to make things better.”

Ms. Morris, a journalist and author, joined with three other local women shocked by Mr. Trump’s election to form a group they called Main Street Conversations. They invited interested friends to come to Ms. Morris’s Main Street house once a month to listen to people who knew key issues like immigration and gun control, the mechanics of elections, and the workings of New York Congressional District 1, the domain of Trump ally, Republican Congressman Lee Zeldin.

By the midterm elections earlier this month, Ms. Morris’s house had become ground zero for a get-out-the-vote operation that drew dozens of volunteers from across the South Fork. Main Street Conversations and its friends had become a well-oiled political-action machine, one of several local political groups and single volunteers energized to resist the Trump presidency from its beginning by supporting his opposition on Election Day.

Working together to register Democrats and get out the vote on November 6, the woman of these groups say they turned the area from Noyac and Bridgehampton to Northwest Woods and Sagaponack even bluer than the rest of the South Fork — which, unlike the rest of Suffolk County, gave Democrat Perry Gershon a solid majority on Election Day.

Mr. Gershon won a landslide 74 percent of the vote in the nine election districts in and bordering Sag Harbor, according to unofficial results posted by the Board of Elections. East Hampton Town gave him 65 percent and Southampton Town 52 percent, with the parts of town west of the Shinnecock Canal favoring Mr. Zeldin, like most voters in central and western Suffolk.

The congressman from Mastic won his third term with 53 percent of the vote districtwide, his lowest percentage of victory since he beat incumbent Democrat Tim Bishop of Southampton in 2014 with 54 percent of the vote.

“If the story is why Sag Harbor was deep blue,” commented Kathleen Mulcahy, one of the founders of Main Street Conversations, “it was all of us, not just” Main Street Conversations. “We’re very proud of the work we did but it’s not just us.”

“There was a lot of cross-pollination between groups, said Helen Atkinson-Barnes, another founder on Main Street Conversations. She listed among the other players Solidarity Sundays, a national group with a Sag Harbor chapter led by Sarah Cohen and Bryony Friej; Resist and Replace, led by David Posnett of Springs; and PEER (Progressive East End Reformers), which meets in Bridgehampton and is co-chaired by Kathryn Szoka, the co-owner of Canio’s Books in Sag Harbor.

Also, “There are a lot of individual leaders who’ve been tireless,” Ms. Atkinson-Barnes added, such as Amy Turner of Wainscott, a member of PEER who led registration drives in Sag Harbor and ran a PEER program called Zeldin Watch.

Among other names that inevitably come up in any discussion of the grassroots resistance movement that evolved here after Mr. Trump’s election are Laura Leever of PEER, who ran a community outreach group and compiled CD1 election data; fundraiser Bob Weinstein who joined with Ms. Morris to host an event for Mr. Gershon; and Susan Moyer, who volunteered every weekend before the deadlines to register voters, no matter what party they wanted to list as their own. After the registration drive, she switched to canvassing from her house in Noyac.

“Absolutely. There’s no question” that the overall effort of the various local groups and volunteers increased Mr. Gershon’s victory margin here, said Ms. Moyer. “There was so much constant outreach since July,” she said; and heartened by the outcome on Election Day, despite Mr. Zeldin’s victory, Ms. Moyer was hopeful about 2020, when Mr. Trump faces reelection. “If everyone votes, we’ll be fine,” she said.

For all the grassroots political action of the past several months, Main Street Conversations got its start as “a sort of salon,” said Ms. Atkinson-Barnes. She, Katharine Battle, Ms. Mulcahy and Ms. Morris started it soon after they all had separately attended the Women’s March in Washington to protest Mr. Trump’s ascendancy the day after his inauguration in January of 2017.

All four women are professionals with careers who knew each other from having raised children in Sag Harbor. “We all went to the Women’s March, came back, and thought we’d like to keep the conversation going,” said Ms. Battle in a joint interview with Ms. Mulcahy and Ms. Atkinson-Barnes. “There were a lot of other fairly active groups here so we didn’t want to necessarily be an activist group. We just wanted to have a conversation.”

“What really motivated me,” she added, “was the spirit of unity and respect at the Women’s March. There was a coming together that was very important to me” as a counterpoint to the stream of disturbing news about the country’s new head of state.

Monthly meetings were invitation-only but, within a few months, as friends invited friends, there were more than 50 people coming to Ms. Morris’s house to hear speakers including former Congressman Bishop; Minerva Perez of the Organización Latino-Americana of Eastern Long Island; Jackie Hilly, former executive director of New Yorkers Against Gun Violence; Ms. Szoka and Ms.  Turner of PEER; Ms. Leever and Mr. Gershon.

“We made a decision to stay fairly private because we weren’t PEER, we weren’t one of the groups saying ‘be a volunteer, be an activist’” said Ms. Mulcahy. “We were just talking it through.”

“Tim Bishop was great on CD1. He knows how the politics worked,” said Ms. Battle.

“Another speaker was Bryan Irwin,” said Ms. Atkinson-Barnes, “who formed the group TASC (Taking Action Suffolk County). He really spoke to us because we really shared that idea of connecting individually with friends and family members, figuring out what are the issues people care about and having those conversations one-on-one rather than just relying on sound bites or an ad … It’s that sort of real connection with other people.”

“It was just a place to come listen and learn and talk,” Ms. Battle said, “and let off a little steam, and just be able to know there were other people out there who were doing the same thing and all was not really lost.”

“And there was hope for changing the future,” added Ms. Atkinson-Barnes.

That hope converted into a more action-oriented approach as the midterm elections neared. By Election Day, Main Street Conversations had drawn more than 100 people to Ms. Morris’s house, which was a base of operations for a poll watching effort and a call center to bring Democrats who hadn’t voted out to the polls.

All three women agreed there is no doubt the effort boosted the margin for Mr. Gershon. They had volunteers at each polling place, with official poll watcher status, from 7 a.m. to 5 and 6 p.m. personally inspecting the rolls to see which registered Democrats had not voted. Often these were friends and acquaintances who welcomed the subsequent call reminding them to get out and vote.

“It helps when you’re local and you call the people you know,” said Ms. Atkinson-Barnes.

“A lot of people are just busy,” Ms. Battle said. “You have to make a plan” to vote; without one, distractions or long lines or an inability to get a parking spot might keep or send a potential voter home.

The follow-up calls were effective. “We could watch” at the polls, said Ms. Mulcahy. “We could see as the calls happened …”

“They were changing over from non-voter to voter” on the rolls, Ms. Battle said.

In a prepared statement submitted by the women of Main Street Conversations for this story, they wrote that “all these Sag Harbor groups” that led the midterm effort “were led by highly professional women in a spirit of teamwork, organization and cooperation. Our common belief was that all of the TV and print advertising in the world does little to replace a handshake, a conversation, eye-to-eye contact and phone calls and texts from friends on election Day. Our thanks to all of those in the community who helped. On to 2020!”

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