Paula Martinos-Mantay is a co-founder, along with Michelle Pallas, of SWIM – StateWide Indivisible Michigan. The women are nothing short of Democracy Warriors, with a single, laser-focused goal: Flipping Michigan’s GOP-dominated House of Representatives blue. To understand the importance of their work, one needs only to watch the video of armed protesters storming the Michigan State House last May, after Governor Gretchen Whitmer extended the stay-at-home order amidst a COVID surge. SWIM’s goals are within reach, with just 5 seats to flip. It’s not too late to roll up our sleeves and help these fearless Democracy Warriors.
Q: What’s SWIM’s origin story? How’d it happen?
A: A number of Indivisible groups started in Michigan in 2017, after the election. Last year, Michelle (my co-founder) and I had the idea we could pull together a coalition. It took our team two months to nail down the fact that there were 70 Indivisible groups alive in Michigan. We put together a list of their leaders, and decided to do a convening, to meet each other in person. On May 2, 2019, sixty of us met in Mt. Pleasant, which is in the middle of the Michigan “mitten.” We had a Happy Hour the night before, we met and strategized all day, and had dinner together that night. People were so interested in connecting; we were all in the trenches fighting in our own bubbles, and it was so good to meet people fighting the same battles elsewhere.
Q: What came out of that meeting?
A: We decided to work together, to coordinate, and to share resources, because doing this together we could boost our power and lift our voice in Michigan. We felt strongly that in the 2020 election there would be plenty of money and resources flowing into Michigan from outside, people flying in from national campaigns to make sure our pivotal state got help. But what would be forgotten would be our state legislators, who are very important to us. It seemed logical that if we didn’t flip our state legislature, we’d still have a fabulous Governor (Democrat Gretchen Whitmer), who’d be hamstrung by a GOP state-level House and Senate. Our Senate is not up for re-election until 2022, so our focus is on the House.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: We need to flip at least 5 House seats. We earmarked races we have to focus on. At this point we have 16 flippable seats within our grasp, plus 10 that we won in 2018 that need to be protected, for a total of 26 seats. Very few of our groups are knocking on doors, most are phone-banking, doing literature drops, fundraisers, texting, and some are distributing signs. We’re helping candidates make it over the finish line.
Q: There’s a lot of interest in Michigan from all over the country, in particular, from Blue States. Are you getting outside help?
A: Yes! In 2018, Indivisible Chicago, which is an amazing alliance of 11 Indivisible groups with 9,500 members, asked if we wanted help. We are very light on Indivisible groups in southwest Michigan, which is about a two-hour drive from Chicago. They’ve been doing day-trips to Benton Harbor canvassing for an amazing 21-year old candidate, activist Chokwe Pitchford. He’s from New Orleans, and his family was displaced by Katrina, and settled in Benton Harbor.
Last year we formed an alliance with Swing Left, which has been really helpful. They’re sending volunteers our way – this week I got 64 new people to make phone calls for us. Activists with Sister District in California, Swing Left Boston, they’re all helping us because they realize the importance of our swing state. Some volunteer, some give money. We owe it forward to a lot of people after we get through this.
Q: Tell me a success story of all these partnerships you’ve formed.
A: They’ve helped us take on projects we could not have taken on alone. We are all volunteer, with no money. A few weeks ago, one of our partners from the ACLU People Power group in SE Michigan said he knew a guy in Oregon who used to live in Michigan, who wanted to fund a project. Because of that alliance, we were able to send 8,000 postcards to voters whose ballots were rejected in our August Primary and tell them they were rejected, and point out the most common errors causing ballot rejections, that sort of thing. That happened because of our network. 8,000 votes can turn an election.
Q: People are getting more and more anxious about this election. Is this translating into a stronger volunteer base for you?
A: Most Indivisible groups we work with have a solid core of 20-100 volunteers; some have struggled, but now, volunteers who had left are now coming back, and new people are joining and getting to work. My group has 500 members, we have thrived. We meet twice a month via Zoom, and we tried to go to once a month, but people said no, we want to meet twice. We really are a family.
Q: How can people who live outside of Michigan help you?
A: Donate to Abigail Wheeler, a 21-year old firefighter who is very close. We met her last January when Michelle and I did a road trip. People say, but she’s only 20! And we say, but she’s in charge of running into burning buildings and saving people! She’s also on her town council, so she has experience. Chicago Indivisible made 10,000 calls for her last week. If she gets a bit more attention the Michigan House Democratic Caucus will put more money into her campaign. With $10-12,000 she could do more commercials, which she needs to do. This race might be settled by 200 votes. A check for $20 would help.
Q: If Trump invited you to the White House, would you go?
A: I would not go. I’m Canadian, and I always have my passport with me. Today is my mother’s 86th birthday, and it’s his fault I cannot see her. The day after the election I want to run across the border and see my mother.