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California's Democrats are trying to harness a new wave of progressive energy

California's Democrats are trying to harness a new wave of progressive energy
Protesters hold signs outside the Los Angeles office of California's U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein on Feb. 14 to demand she hold a town hall meeting. (Justin Sullivan / Getty Images)

San Diego Rep. Scott Peters has held town halls for years. The reality? It was common for the Democrat's staff to outnumber the constituents who showed up.

Since Donald Trump won the White House and took office a month ago, Peters says thousands of people have asked to meet with him, many of them asking, "What can I do?"

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The 700 seats available at a "how to get involved" workshop he's hosting this week with fellow San Diego Democrat Rep. Susan Davis were claimed in two days and they say people are pushing them to hold another.

"They just want direction. People are hungry for places to go and ways to be helpful," Davis said. "There's this element where people think someday their grandchild will say to them, 'where were you when all this was happening in the country?'"

For the Democrats in California's congressional delegation, this weeklong Presidents Day recess reflects both a new opportunity and a dilemma: Can the surge of anger and activism in Democratic California be harnessed to win more elections?

In a state where 6 in 10 voters picked Hillary Clinton, many of them are looking for a way to resist the new Republican administration and Democratic leaders are looking for a way to turn the blue state even deeper blue. Nationally, they're targeting 61 Republican districts, including seven California districts where voters elected a Republican to the House but picked Hillary Clinton for president.

Some of the districts targeted by Democrats have seen the biggest outpouring of activists. Protesters have appeared repeatedly outside the offices of Reps. Mimi Walters, Dana Rohrabacher, Darrell Issa, Duncan Hunter and others, asking for in-person town halls.

If they can harness the protest energy, there could be some parallels between the left's "resistance" movement and the tea party wave that swept Republicans into power after Barack Obama took office. Democrats need to pick up 24 seats nationwide to take back the House in 2018.

Peters said getting there will require being disciplined enough to turn the current protests and meetings into longer-term momentum.

"We have to point it in the right direction, not at each other," Peters said. "Elections have consequences and there's elections all over the country in two years."

California Democrats have planned more than 25 town halls or meetings in the next few weeks, according to a list curated by the progressive Town Hall Project 2018. Despite activists' repeated protests and petitions, only one Republican — Rep. Tom McClintock — has scheduled any in the near future. (McClintock, who was escorted out of Roseville town hall by police earlier this month, is planning two more town halls this week.)

Across the country, progressive activist groups are forming under a variety of names, including Resistance, Indivisible and Huddles, to try to direct the progressive energy embodied in town hall efforts, and a few members of the California delegation are jumping in to help.

Ethics rules bar members of Congress and their staffs from using federal funds to encourage constituents to "grass-roots lobby," so some events are organized and paid for by their reelection campaigns.

Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Hillsborough) said 950 people RSVPed for her town hall in San Francisco last Saturday, an event that would normally draw 200 people at most.

"They feel that democracy is about to implode in front of their eyes and they desperately want something done," Speier said. "The argument that we don't have a majority doesn't cut it for them. They weren't satisfied [hearing] 'I don't have any control over that.'"

She's planning to have her campaign rent space and direct her dissatisfied constituents toward activist groups they can work with.

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"In a town hall meeting I can't direct them to do anything politically," Speier said.

Rep. Karen Bass (D-Los Angeles) planned two organizing meetings this weekend with activists in her district. She expected at least 100 people to show up. Then she’ll hold a town hall funded by her congressional office on Wednesday.

“There is the awareness that 2018 is where people need to be focusing,” Bass said. “Protesting without a goal of changing something, I think, makes you feel good, but we need to channel it into taking back the House.”

Follow @sarahdwire on Twitter

Read more about the 55 members of California's delegation at latimes.com/politics

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