Courtney Marden’s political involvement was limited to voting.
Prior to the presidential election of Donald Trump, at least. Now, she leads the largest Trump resistance group in Utah, still regularly operating weeks after Trump’s first 100 days.
“I can’t tell you how green I was,” Marden said. “I didn’t choose activism; it was the event that chose me; it was the threat to my country.
“I, even now, feel like I am flying by the seat of my pants,” Marden said five months after creating Utah Indivisible. “I just read the newspaper.”
Jason Chaffetz and the ‘paid protesters’
UI had 7,896 members as of June 1. Four days before the infamous Jason Chaffetz town hall it was behind on Feb. 9, the group had 2,050 members. The day after the national headline-grabbing function, it was 3,300. Just 10 days after that, it was at 5,121.
“We were rock stars after (the Chaffetz town hall),” Marden said. “CNN followed us; The New York Times said ‘you do that again, let us know; keep us in the loop.’ It was kind of wild.”
Only three months earlier, Marden had heard Domenico Montanaro say (on her birthday) “NPR is officially calling the election for Donald Trump,” said Marden, who sincerely believed that UI would be a “rag-tag team” of perhaps 300 folks. Instead, it’s the largest Trump resistance group in Utah who perhaps sparked the end of Chaffetz in Congress.
“It has succeeded,” Marden said, “beyond my wildest expectations.”
Not that it has done so with the help of out-of-state paid protesters, as Chaffetz and others claimed. The out-of-state involvement has been limited to folks living outside of Utah participating in the UI Facebook group.
“It’s like a brain trust with rally ideas; they are not writing phony postcards or appearing at events,” Marden said. “They are saying ‘would you like ideas?’”
Marden said that no one was paid and UI raise funds for Kathie Allen, a Democrat running to replace Chaffetz whose campaign coffers saw a major donation bump following the town hall.
“We weren’t a part of that,” Marden said.
To go from average citizen to high-profile grassroots advocate, Marden learned that a man who bragged about sexually assaulting women was going to be president. Among other things that alarmed her, she read a Mother Jones report, published before the election, on Russia’s operation to “cultivate Donald Trump.”
She also read a document that has inspired Indivisible groups across the country and Mormon ideology moved her to action.
The Indivisible Guide was prepared by staffers for congressional Democrats but who sought to achieve the Tea Party’s success by mirroring its tactics. It includes directives on how to get the attention of one’s federal representatives. Marden was so on top of it that she read it when it was still in Google Doc form.
“I thought it was amazing,” she said. “I thought ‘OK, I’ve got to do this Indivisible thing and have a resistance plan because Donald Trump is clearly a threat to the country.”
As for the religious influence: “I grew up Mormon, and you have all that trauma from leaving the (LDS) church, but certain things, I think, are ingrained in you,” Marden explained. “The Mormon conspiracy theories — the White Horse prophecy, that one day, the constitution will hang by a thread, and the elders of the church will save it. I thought, ‘well, I am a woman but can stand up for the Constitution.’”
“I have it ingrained in me that when the moment comes,” Marden added, “you have to stand up; you have to act.”
Marden was especially intent on carrying out the approaches outlined in the Indivisible Guide after her hope in the Hamilton Electors wasn’t realized. The Hamilton Electors are the actual voters in the electoral college who could use their vote to ensure that “the office of President will never fall to the lot of any man who is not in an eminent degree endowed with the requisite qualifications,” according to Alexander Hamilton’s Federalist Paper №68. While 2016 was the first year since 1960 when electors actively worked to change the election, seeing the most electors cast “faithless ballots” since 1808, only two electors changed their vote from Trump when 37 were needed to change the outcome. (Hillary Clinton lost five.)
In the beginning
After Marden started the Facebook group on Dec. 19, Utahn Donald Aguirre joined in early January, resulting in an increase from six to 200 members of the group. Marden’s sister, Utahn Kellie Henderson is a 911 dispatcher who also was not involved in politics besides voting. She came on board on Jan. 17, when UI did its first action. That’s when it delivered personal letters to Sen. Mike Lee’s office about preserving expanded health care. Congress was including budgetary resolutions at the time to defund the Affordable Care Act and Lee had sent an email about the “laudable pursuit” of getting rid of the ACA.
“People were delivering letters about how the ACA saved their life and they would be financially destroyed without it,” Marden said. “We talked with one of his staff members.”
Henderson spoke to being an introvert but a media darling, as a leader with Aguirre as a spokesperson and Marden overall.
“I will go to work and they will say, ‘I saw you in the news again,’” Henderson said. “I don’t like talking to media… if anyone else wants to talk with media at an event, I’ll say, ‘you go do that.’ It’s kind of weird because it was not my life five months ago.
UI was a leader in organizing two dozen functions as of May 16, Henderson said. That includes the Town Hall for All, which a month after the Trump inauguration brought together nearly three dozen groups who consider themselves Trump resisters and called out Utah’s federal delegation for not meeting with constituents in-person save the one Chaffetz event; the Chris Stewart town hall March 31 at West High School; protests of Trump cabinet picks; and rallying outside the Grand America, Utah’s most luxurious auberge, where they say teachers couldn’t afford going an event where the educators themselves were being talked about. UI also assisted Salt Lake Indivisible in weekly Resist Trump Tuesdays and worked with what is now Utah’s CD4 Coalition for a Town Hall for All-style event focused on Rep. Mia Love, Henderson said.
Attendees at the Stewart town hall were criticized for being too raucous. UI did a debriefing in its public Facebook group, Henderson said.
“We have always encouraged a civil discourse,” Marden said. “I love using logic.“
While saying that it’s a person’s “prerogative” to boo, Marden pointed out that UI gave attendees “disagree” and “agree” signs.
After Stewart re-scheduled the town hall impromptu due to a sudden change in House voting plans on the GOP health care bill, Henderson was on the corner of the Wallace Bennett Federal Building, a UI protest location for Trump cabinet picks and otherwise, in advance of the meeting, passing out fliers with information about it. She also was key in replying to individual comments from folks upset about the behavior of the Trump administration, tagging them in asking for their attendance at the town hall.
At Grand America, the person of the hour, U.S. education secretary Betsy DeVos, keynoted a summit where each ticket cost $3,000. Many of the estimated 80 attendees held signs and teachers and other education professionals were invited to speak outside an event that had a price tag that Henderson wrote was far beyond the price range of Utah’s educators. Trump chose DeVos, though she did not have any experience in public education. And her confirmation saw her struggle to define student evaluation methods, her offering that teachers should be armed to guard classrooms against bear attacks and remarks that states be provided flexibility on federal special-education requirements.
Henderson and Marden had completed an action the week they spoke with me. They “planted” paper flowers outside offices of Reps. Mia Love, Chris Stewart, Jason Chaffetz and Rob Bishop. Each flower had a name of constituents on the front and stories on the back of how each would be negatively affected by the American Health Care Act, for which each congressperson voted. UI drew attention to deductibles increasing by an average of $1,500, GOP promises broken in the cutting of essential health benefits and pre-existing conditions and, according to the Congressional Budget Office, Medicaid getting cut by $880 billion and 24 million folks losing insurance.
“This isn’t abstract: if this bill becomes a law, Utahns will lose coverage, get sicker, and many will die,” read a press release statement. “If this bill were enacted into law today, these fears would become a reality. Utahns across the state are participating in this display for Mother’s Day because they want affordable health care for their families.”
Marden said she thinks many UI members are involved “for the community” and that the election of Trump was “a major shock of the system and contributing to a lot of mental health issues.” She is a nurse at a “psych ward of psych wards,” at Utah Neuropsychiatric Institute.
She is also proud to see the emergence of groups like Utah’s CD4 Coalition, which have been formed by folks who got involved in advocacy through UI.
“We’re happy to be a springboard for their success,” Marden said, “and have increased and targeted activism.”
And what does Marden think of herself?
“I’m a nurse — I’m not a professional person in activism,” she said. “I’m bringing my expertise as a lay person to this battle, but I’m going to… do the very best I can.
“Somebody had to do something and if it’s going to be me, I will hopefully step up… and get experienced people smarter than me on my team to hopefully lead this charge as well,” she said. “We’ll do this together… and our best will hopefully be good enough.”