Gehrke: After Trump’s shocking victory a year ago, two Utah women have charted a path for change

(Photo courtesy Gabe Moreno) After feeling disappointed by Donald Trump's victory in the 2016 election, Andrea Himoff (left) and Katie Lieberman created Action Utah, focused on helping more people get involved in making policy. Today the group has an estimated 3,000 members focused mainly on being community lobbyists on state and local issues.

Andrea Himoff remembers the despair of election night last year.

She had braced for the possibility that Donald Trump could win the White House and was “petrified” at the idea. It wasn’t that she was a fan of Hillary Clinton but volunteered for the campaign because she considered Clinton the best of the bad options.

When returns came in that night, she was sick.

“It was traumatic for me, for sure,” she said.

The next morning, when she dropped her daughter off at school, she ran into Katie Lieberman — until then just a passing acquaintance — and the two started commiserating, then they hugged and then they broke down in tears.

And then they did something remarkable.

Neither Himoff nor Lieberman had been especially active in politics, but both decided to put together a gathering of people like them, shellshocked by the Trump victory, to discuss what to do next. Some 300 people showed up at Publik Coffee in Salt Lake City, full of energy and fear and anger but without any obvious outlet.

“We heard loud and clear at that meeting that people wanted to know what they could do, how they could get engaged, and they had no idea how to do it,” Himoff said.

It wasn’t until a few weeks later, on a Thanksgiving flight to New York, that the idea started to sprout and Himoff, up until then a screenwriter, drafted a plan to organize these hundreds of like-minded Utahns and channel that energy into change.

It was a daunting prospect. Both women worked full time and were mothers — Lieberman has three children, Himoff two — and they didn’t know what they were doing. Himoff sheepishly acknowledges she didn’t even know who her state legislators were, but she also knew she didn’t have any other option.

“I felt like I was pushed into it, and I felt like there was nothing else I possibly could or should be doing at that time,” she said.

The goal wasn’t to create another anti-Trump resistance group — movements fueled by anger tend to burn out fast, and opposition doesn’t bring about change.

“We wanted to be positive and solutions-oriented. We didn’t want to polarize, we wanted to bring people together,” she said.

They also wanted to focus on being engaged at the local level, where they felt like they could make the most difference.

Katie Lieberman addresses a gathering of members of Action Utah earlier this year. Lieberman co-founded the group along with Andrea Himoff after the 2016 election. They said hundreds of Utahns felt like they didn't have a voice in government, and today the group helps train and organize its 3,000 members to be community lobbyists, mainly on state and local issues. (Photo courtesy Gabe Moreno)

They launched Action Utah a few weeks before the 2017 legislative session, positioning themselves as a sort of “moderate Eagle Forum,” aiming to represent the “moderate majority” in Utah that felt like it had lost its voice in policymaking.

Issue captains were recruited to track priorities — education, public health, families and communities, and environmental stewardship — and to use social media and the email list they had compiled at that first coffee shop get-together to send out “calls to action.”

Working with other advocacy groups and lobbyists, legislators and academics, they began holding trainings on how to be an effective community lobbyist.

During the 45-day session, they tracked 40 pieces of legislation, most of them bipartisan bills, and issued 200 action alerts. They helped Rep. Becky Edwards, R-North Salt Lake, secure about $2 million for low-income housing; they advocated for rape-kit testing, for opioid-abuse prevention programs and clean-air bills; and they opposed an increase in the sales tax on food.

During the summer and fall, they have held events on how elections work; collaborated with Real Women Run, which is aimed at getting more women to seek office; held monthly meetings at the Capitol to help members get to know their legislator and feel less intimidated by the process; and staged trainings — as they did last Wednesday — on how to write effective letters to the editor.

As they prepare for the upcoming legislative session, Action Utah has grown to roughly 3,000 activists — overwhelmingly women — many of whom are engaged in government for the first time in their lives.

And it all began with two moms who decided to build something better — a movement that is not just about opposition but about lifting people up, empowering those who felt powerless and transcending the trauma of that election night.

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