After months, weekly Issa protests show no signs of abating - San Diego Union Tribune
Every Tuesday, hundreds of people descend on a Vista side street, waving handmade signs, chanting, cheering, jeering and singing for an hour — as they have since last winter.
They recite the Pledge of Allegiance, give speeches and sometimes hold moments of silence following tragedies around the country. Occasionally, the gathering is street theater, as in March with a “die-in” that saw more than 300 lie on the grass, healthcare protest signs serving as grave markers.
The demonstrations are a weekly event outside the field offices of Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Vista, that started as pushback against President Donald Trump and his agenda and actions. One rally in May saw roughly 800 people — some in tears — show up to protest the House vote — including Issa’s — to repeal and replace Obamacare.
Seven months after Trump’s inauguration, the rallies still draw roughly 300 people a week to Thibodo Road. They have also started to draw more counterprotesters, some criticism and even a touch of controversy during a battle over where they could stand and how loud they could get during their hour on a shady sidewalk.
Don’t look for the rallies or counterprotests 50 feet across the street to taper off anytime soon. People on both sides of the road say they see the weekly sign-waving as ground zero in the battle for the House of Representatives next year, particularly because Issa won re-election by a razor-thin margin, just 1,621 votes, in what was the closest congressional race in the country last fall.
Issa’s Democratic opponent in that election, Doug Applegate, and his supporters often attend the rallies. So, too, does Democratic candidate Mike Levin and his supporters. Paul Kerr, another Democrat who has also announced his candidacy, has also been there.
Ellen Montanari, left, and Reverend Dr. Beth A. Johnson, at right, lead hundreds of anti-Issa and Trump protesters singing "This Land Is Your Land" in front of the building housing Rep, Darrell Issa's office on May 9. (Charlie Neuman)
Rally organizer Ellen Montanari said she doesn’t offer them the mic. Everyone is welcome, she said, but this is not a campaign event for them.
The rallies started out as a grassroots movement last winter by people who said they wanted Issa to hold town halls and take questions; healthcare was the big topic at that time. The congressman has done so, not just with some organized events but also with pop-up town halls outside his office during the rallies.
About two weeks ago, Issa came out and talked to some of his supporters. As he was leaving, he stopped to answer a reporter’s questions about the continuing demonstrations, which he said he did not think had ever been a grassroots effort but rather set up and organized by political operatives.
He also said that “although it’s interesting to see a couple hundred people turn out every week, I think you have to look at that as a relatively small amount, all facts considered,” Issa said.
The state apparatus of both major parties has seized on the rallies, with Democrats promoting them, and Republicans seeking a rally permit of their own. But people on both sides of Thibodo laugh at the notion they are paid to be there.
Pro-Darrell Issa and Trump supporters pause for the National Anthem during the weekly rally by anti-Issa and Trump supporters. Sean Colgan, center holding the red cap, has attended every rally since winter. (Howard Lipin/San Diego Union-Tribune)
Months back, when only Issa critics lined the sidewalk, a solitary man carrying a Trump sign stood across the street every Tuesday. Sean Colgan, 61, always showed up — occasionally on a bicycle, most often on his motorcycle. Protesters welcomed him, chatted with him, even started asking him to lead them in the Pledge of Allegiance.
But relatively warm relations have cooled in recent months. Colgan says the change came when he added an anti-abortion sign. People on the other side of the road said its because Colgan has company now.
Colgan has emerged as the de facto leader of the counterprotest, and when emotions spike, he has stepped in. And the Issa protesters give Colgen a heads up when the Pledge of Allegiance is about to start, so he can let his cohorts on his side of the street know to join in.
“Come here and see how we do it in North County,” Colgan told a reporter at the rally a few weeks ago. “We know how to disagree without being violent.”
The rallies happen against a backdrop of increasingly strained national tensions. But here, the hour starts with people on both sides of the street removing hats, placing hands over hearts and giving the same pledge to the country.
People on both sides of Thibodo wave American flags. A few weeks ago, as it happened, each side played or sang Woody Guthrie’s folk anthem “This Land Is Your Land.”
At another gathering, when one side chanted “This is what democracy looks like,” the other chanted back, changing “democracy” to “a republic.”
There are, however, scowls and occasional confrontations. Last Tuesday, tensions rose following a verbal exchange between rivals on opposite sides of the road. It peaked when one man yelled “Call me an (expletive) again and I am coming across the street” — his voice so loud it cut through all protest chants and left the crowd stunned. On the other side of the road, his rival taunted him with feigned fear.
But bystanders on both sides quickly quashed potential escalation, with entreaties to the two men to disengage. The strain eased as quickly as it began.
The location itself along Thibodo Road does sort of keep the protests hidden, with no more than a few hundred passersby over the course of the hour — though they’ve received national media coverage over the months. When folks do drive by, some of them honk and wave at whichever side they support.
Initially, the plan was to keep the protests up during the first 100 days of the Trump administration. Then it stretched to run through September. But now, Montanari said last week, the protests will continue “as long as people want to be out there.”
“As soon as interest wanes, I will go away,” said Montanari, who owns a business and said she loses money when spending time at the rallies. “I started doing this for me. Now, I am doing it for them.”