Indivisible, under Paul: The fast rise and uncertain future of a progressive political organization and its brash Rocklin founder

Group is leading the resistance against Republican Rep. Tom McClintock, but can it flip a red district?

Paul Smith, founder and president of Indivisible Citizens of California’s 4th District, listens to community members as they share concerns about President Donald Trump during a meeting of the Nevada County Indivisible Democrats for Progress in Grass Valley.

Paul Smith, founder and president of Indivisible Citizens of California’s 4th District, listens to community members as they share concerns about President Donald Trump during a meeting of the Nevada County Indivisible Democrats for Progress in Grass Valley.

Photo by Michael Mott

Roza Calderon woke up at 6:45 a.m. on a Saturday to give Republican Rep. Tom McClintock a piece of her mind.

Standing outside the Roseville Tower Theatre, the long-time activist kept busy by handing out coffee in cups reading “Resist” and “The Future is Female.” She had gone to town halls before, when she was lucky to encounter two dozen other attendees. But as the February 4 morning warmed, dozens of people showed up, then a hundred, then a thousand.

Soon, she realized most people would be left outside of a venue that could accommodate only 200. And when the doors closed, Calderon saw dejected faces wondering if they wasted their Saturday morning hoping to ask tough questions of their Republican congressman. So she grabbed a megaphone and announced the start of a second town hall outside.

For Calderon and her neighbors, many of them jarred by the election of Donald Trump, it was the beginning of a political awakening that is threatening to flip a red county blue.

“A lot of us were closeted Democrats,” Calderon said. “It was something you kept to yourself. You wouldn’t put bumper stickers on your car because you knew your car could get keyed. So for us to come out was saying, ’We’re here and we’re really loud.’”

So loud that McClintock requested a police escort to escape the crowd of mostly middle-aged women. A photo of the fleeing congressman posterized McClintock as a symbol for the public’s widespread disdain for the Trump administration’s plan to strip health care from more than 20 million Americans.

Five months later, that town hall energy snowballed into the creation of the Indivisible Citizens of California’s 4th District, a political advocacy group that claims more than 20,000 subscribers to its email list or Facebook feed, as well as 41 (and counting) associated groups and a brash leader who has already sparked one internal mutiny.

Before that February town hall, Indivisible founder and marketing director Paul Smith said he had never been politically active other than dabbling in digital “slactivism,” an extracurricular to his former job as a global marketing manager for Apple.

A Rocklin resident who currently lives in his ex-wife’s guest bedroom, Smith said he discovered a new purpose after his Twitter stream of the town hall got picked up by a reporter: He wanted to organize the many activist groups in the area and amplify their stories. He created Indivisible that night.

Smith modeled the organization after a bare-bones but ambitious startup, accumulating a small team to handle events, finances and other logistics. Soon, Indivisible had a dozen people voting on every decision—an arrangement that would later prove untenable.

Indivisible’s quick rise came from a combination of Smith-orchestrated national news appearances following the February town hall, and Calderon’s ability to bring on board both traditional Democrats and newer progressives energized by Sen. Bernie Sanders’ unsuccessful presidential run.

So far, Indivisible has staged such events as a May 13 “die-in” at McClintock’s district office to protest his support of the American Health Care Act. Roughly 50 people lay on the ground underneath cardboard tombstones that described the medical conditions that “killed” them. Calderon attended as a “VIP” after leaving the organization to challenge McClintock in next year’s election.

Smith boasts that with his marketing savvy he can spend 17 cents for every McClintock dollar and still get the same amount of eyes on his message, like when he got the Huffington Post to cover protestors from Foothills Rising, an Indivisible-aligned group that also participated in the die-in. Older women have been the most receptive—58 percent of the group’s 10,000-plus Facebook followers are women above the age of 55, according to Smith.

The group has also served as an unofficial incubator for McClintock’s political rivals.

On June 4, Indivisible hosted the 2017 CA-04 Leadership Council Summit, which was attended by 200 leaders from 40 different activist groups from across the district, including all but two Indivisible groups. The event featured a panel attended by three announced challengers to McClintock: Calderon, national security strategist Jessica Morse and MIT professor of political science Regina Bateson.

“This is definitely going to be the campaign to watch, not just in California, but maybe nationwide,” Calderon said. “This is a district that will have to endure through the fatigue of the resistance. This is our one and maybe only chance to do this.”

But to flip the Fourth, Indivisible must find a way to turn its (mostly digital) army of activists, political neophytes and online malcontents into paper votes. Already, insurrectionist Democrats have come up short in special elections against seemingly vulnerable Republican candidates: reporter-slammer Greg Gianforte in Montana and Georgian Karen Handel, who said she didn’t support a “living wage.”

The district hasn’t had a Democratic representative in more than 20 years, and registered Republican voters still outnumber Democrats by a 43-to-29-percent margin. Indivisible hopes to turn the tide by swaying the 20 percent of voters who don’t associate with any party.

The group has already won over one former Republican: Indivisible’s unofficial “historical adviser” Joanne Neft, who has lived in Placer County for nearly 50 years.

“I absolutely never remember this kind of a reaction to anything in terms of a group of people joining hands, literally joining hands, way across party lines—well, other than 9/11,” Neft said. “[It] really gives me cause for hope.”

Still, the 2018 election remains 16 months away, and prior left-leaning activist groups, from Occupy Wall Street to Berniecrats, have either sputtered out or attracted smaller-than-necessary numbers. Flipping a district as entrenched as the Fourth requires discipline, something Smith failed to deploy when he logged onto Facebook on May 26 “at 2 o’clock in the morning after a couple beers,” he said.

After the group Bay Area Alt Right posted, “We will see you all there,” on the event page for the controversial March Against Sharia in Roseville on June 10, Smith commented, “Can we count on you guys to fight if antifa show up?” Despite his quick deletion, others took screenshots of the comment and accused him of advocating violence between nationalist and leftist factions.

The next day, everybody but Smith resigned from Indivisible’s eight-person team in protest—not just for the comment, but for what Smith said was his tendency to act without the group’s unanimous approval.

“It was like having 10 chefs in the kitchen, all arguing how to boil a pot of water, while we have a restaurant full of patrons waiting,” he said. “I would periodically go off and boil the water myself and … this was kind of the final straw for them. And I understand, too. It reflected poorly on the mission.”

Smith said he regrets his “unwise” actions, and protested peacefully at the counter-demonstration on June 10.

On Indivisible’s website, the FAQ page takes special pains to distance Indivisible from “anarchists,” “communists” and especially antifa—a group that takes a by-any-means-necessary approach to confronting perceived fascism.

Now, Smith said he’ll search for “unicorns” to join the group. Noting three white men like himself comprised his former team’s leadership after Calderon left, he hopes to bring in women, people of color and members of the LGBTQ community because “it’s not just [about] how we look, it’s just the best way to have creative ideas.”

And they’ll need them. In 2016, McClintock took nearly 63 percent of the vote. (The congressman didn’t respond to SN&R’s requests for comment.)

For now, the four announced challengers—Calderon, Bateson, Morse and attorney Rochelle Wilcox—all profess admiration for each other and contentment to focus their energy on McClintock. But the Democratic presidential primary started that way, too. And there’s plenty of time for other challengers to enter the race.

After Calderon briefly returned to Indivisible to provide damage control following the mass resignations, Smith said he wants to shift the responsibility for organizing events to the local groups and use his nine social media managers to generate content.

In an email, Smith said he has been working with a Silicon Valley company to develop software specifically for his group, saying only, “it’s going to change everything, and the result will shock the world.”

That’s bold talk for an unpaid organizer who will need to move out of his ex-wife’s house by the end of summer. But then again, his $750 billion former employer started in a garage.