Before 2016, the closest Katie Kalvoda got to political activism was paying $18 for a Barack Obama T-shirt.
Kalvoda, then a working mother living in tony Laguna Hills, believed she was doing her civic duty just by voting. She was an independent and in the 2016 election, she split her ballot: Democrat Hillary Clinton for president and Republican Mimi Walters for Congress.
But when President Trump was elected, the stakes started to feel different. A mother from her daughter’s school e-mailed a couple of dozen women, including Kalvoda, proposing they get together to vent, drink wine and write letters to Congress.
That email planted the seeds of a movement. After dropping off their kids at school, about 12 moms met up at a San Juan Capistrano Mexican restaurant — a favorite of Richard Nixon’s — where they talked about turning their anger and frustration into action. Most had never been politically active before, but with Trump, that had changed.
In a heated midterm election widely viewed as a referendum on Trump, some wealthy, educated suburban women in Orange County — like peers across the country — are going above and beyond showing up at marches and protests and voting to show disapproval for the president. They are cutting their own political ads, organizing candidate forums and hosting fundraisers bringing in tens of thousands of dollars in a single night.
Like Kalvoda, 43, who retired in 2016 from running an investment management firm, many of the disaffected mothers were current or former working professional women with unparalleled organizational and multitasking skills. They were lawyers, professors, business owners and P.R. reps ready to roll up their sleeves and dive head-first into politics. The mothers formed a super PAC and went from one immaculately decorated Orange County living room to the next, recruiting a handful of women at a time to their cause.
Two years later, the political action committee — Women for American Values and Ethics — has grown to more than 700 members. Four of the women are running for office, including a candidate for state assembly. WAVE raised more than $200,000 for the midterm elections; members collected tens of thousands more by hosting individual fundraisers.
“I thought, is this what the women’s suffrage movement was like?” Kalvoda said. “We have this underground network, either drinking coffee and eating Danishes during the day, or drinking wine and eating hummus in the evening.”
This election cycle, WAVE is running get-out-the-vote efforts at high schools and on local radio stations, creating and sending out campaign mailers and social media ads. They have maxed out donations to Democratic congressional candidates in three of the tightly contested Orange County races, and hundreds are volunteering on the ground for campaigns.
These Orange County women reflect a nationwide phenomenon of grassroots organizations that sprang up after Trump’s election. Theda Skocpol, a sociology professor at Harvard, studied political resistance groups that emerged in conservative communities in North Carolina, Ohio, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania after 2016 and found that women were the dominant driving force in most of them.
Skocpol said pollsters and political strategists often mistakenly think of suburban women as a voting bloc to be targeted rather than as individuals who can get things done.
“The myth on the left is it’s all young people and minorities. That’s coming from analysts who think in terms of demographic categories of voters,” she said. “What counts is who organizes and contacts others through social networks.”
She said the post-Trump movement was similar to the rise of the tea party after Obama’s election, which included groups largely led by men but were nonetheless organized on the ground by women, she found.
“We harnessed the energy of women with these incredibly successful careers who are now stay-at-home moms, tapping into their time, experience and professionalism,” said Joanna Weiss, 46, who sent the initial email that led to formation of WAVE. Weiss, an attorney who stopped practicing full time because of her three young children, said its members range in age from a high school junior to 92, and the vast majority are mothers.
WAVE has directed many of its resources to the 45th Congressional District, a wealthy suburban area including Irvine and Mission Viejo, where the race is between two working mothers whose life stories mirror those of many of these women. First-time candidate Democrat Katie Porter is a single mother of three and a law professor, and Rep. Walters is a former investment banker who began serving in California’s state legislature when her four children were all school-aged.
Walters has highlighted legislation she worked on relating to sex-trafficking and domestic violence victims. Porter has attacked Walters as “voting against women” for her vote to repeal the sweeping healthcare law enacted under President Obama and support for an investigation into Planned Parenthood. She often introduces herself as Cubmaster of her son’s Cub Scout pack.
Political operatives hoping to get Democrats like Porter elected into Republican-held seats in Congress have targeted suburban women, banking on Trump’s track record of alienating women with his divisive rhetoric and policies. Porter’s campaign has harped on how closely Walters’ voting record hews to Trump’s positions, while his name and image have been all but excised from Walters’ campaign materials.
WAVE has endorsed Porter and spent thousands to place digital ads against Walters, saying she “votes with Trump 99% of the time.”
Polls have consistently shown women, particularly those with college degrees, turning away from the GOP by growing margins since Trump’s election. A CNN poll released this month found likely women voters favored Democratic candidates by a 63-33 margin.
One WAVE member, Cathy Han, 48, a retired ob-gyn with three children, went door to door canvassing for the first time in her life this month. She said she is seeing similar political energy in Facebook groups for physicians who are working mothers. Han said she was particularly motivated by the Brett Kavanaugh hearings because she has treated many sexual assault victims.
“Working mothers are good at multitasking. Before they were in the PTA, now they’re in politics,” she said. “Mothers are fired up.”
Katherine Amoukhteh, 53, a lifelong registered Republican who joined WAVE, was outraged by the Trump administration’s immigration policies, which affected many of her in-laws because her husband is Iranian American. Amoukhteh, an engineer and vice president at an e-sports company, now finds herself approaching strangers in malls and grocery stores to talk politics.
“I used to throw birthday parties; now I throw political parties,” she said. When the delivery man arrived with the dozens of chairs for her fundraiser, she talked to him at length about voting.
Kaldova had leaned liberal in college — almost inevitable, when you’re an undergraduate at UC Berkeley — but had remained an independent voter for most of her adult life, believing checks and balances in government were important.
She retired two years ago to spend more time with her two daughters and oversee a family foundation that invests in and donates to causes in Orange County. She turned her focus to organizing events for her daughters’ school and throwing 300-person Christmas parties in her expansive Laguna Hills backyard.
Then came WAVE. Kalvoda said for her, it was about wanting to return decency and humanity to the way the country is run. She also cares deeply about the environment, and is concerned about Trump administration policies rolling back regulations and protections.
She used her professional skills from years of investor meetings and put together a “pitch book” about WAVE for prospective members, and cold-called politicians to ask them to headline her fundraisers the way she once cold-called owners of buildings she wanted to buy. She began hosting political events — it helped that she already owned table linens and 200 champagne glasses. She raised more than $30,000 in one afternoon for Porter and Katie Hill, the Democratic candidate in the 25th District north of Los Angeles, by throwing a wine-and-cheese event co-hosted with other WAVE members.
Her husband, a Republican, has taken to jokingly asking if this is her new career.
“Our husbands are really afraid of us. They have definitely seen a side of us they haven’t seen before,” Kalvoda said. “Some of them are reconciling that, going ‘Whoa, who are you?’”
On a Thursday afternoon not long before the election, Kalvoda drove from her home in Laguna Hills to Gil Cisneros’ campaign headquarters in a Brea strip mall to meet with deputy political director Allen Chen about organizing phone banks and fundraisers. Her 8-year-old daughter, familiar with the routine, beelined for the kitchen where there are always snacks. She pulled out her homework from her pink sequin-lined backpack, grabbed a pencil and half-heartedly scribbled away.
They next headed to a Fountain Valley cafe where Kalvoda delivered $2,000 in sponsorship checks from WAVE and from herself for a “rock the vote” concert the Vietnamese American Democratic Club was organizing that weekend. As the night wore on, the girl folded over onto her mother’s lap. Kalvoda stroked her back and kept talking.
Asked how many of these meetings her mom has dragged her to, the girl replied:
“I don’t know, a million?”