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Is the Democratic Party Turning to Anti-Choice Candidates to Attract Conservative Voters?

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Pro-choice activists are accusing the Democratic Party of abandoning its commitment to abortion rights and turning to anti-choice candidates in order to woo moderate and conservative voters. We speak with members of the National Organization for Women and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. [includes rush transcript]

Since suffering major electoral defeats in the last election, abortion rights advocates have been questioning the Democrats commitment to upholding abortion rights. Democratic National Committee Chair Howard Dean, New York Senator Hilary Clinton and defeated presidential candidate John Kerry have all signaled that they believe the party needs to rethink the party’s approach to the abortion debate in order to woo moderate and conservative voters.

Senator Clinton went so far as to call abortion, “a sad, even tragic choice to many, many women.” Abortion rights advocates also expressed concern when congressional democrats named professed abortion rights opponent, Senator Harry Reid of Nevada to succeed Tom Daschle as their leader in the senate.

The latest sign that the democrats may be turning to anti-choice candidates, are actions that the leadership has taken in races in Pennsylvania and Rhode Island.

On March 4th, Pennsylvania Democratic State Treasurer and abortion rights opponent, Bob Casey Jr. announced his decision to enter the 2006 U.S Senate race. The seat is currently held by Republican Senator Rick Santorum. Casey’s announcement came after weeks of reports that he was being courted to run by senior members of the democratic party including Senate minority leader Harry Reid and chair of the Democratic Campaign Committee, New York Senator Chuck Schumer. Previously, former State Treasurer and pro-choice candidate Barbara Hafer had made clear her intention to challenge Santorum for the senate seat but dropped out of the race soon after Casey announced his decision. Hafer said that Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell asked her to withdraw to allow Casey to run unopposed. Bob Casey Jr. is the son of former Pennsylvania Governor Bob Casey who was a fierce abortion rights opponent.

Meanwhile, in Rhode Island, Secretary of State Matt Brown–a democrat who supports abortion rights–is planning to challenge the senate seat of Republican, pro-choice Senator Lincoln Chaffee. However, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has approached abortion rights opponent Rep. Jim Langevin to run against Chafee stating that he’d be an excellent candidate. Rep. Langevin will announce his decision to run by April 1st.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Joining us in Washington, D.C. to talk further about this issue are two guests: Kim Gandy, President of the National Organization for Women; and Phil Singer, Communications Director for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. We welcome you both to Democracy Now!

Let’s begin with Phil Singer. Can you talk about this approach of the Democratic Party, what many are calling a really new approach to the issue of abortion in recruiting anti-choice candidates?

PHIL SINGER: Sure. First of all, I think there’s been a myth that’s been going around that the Senate Democrats are recruiting pro-life candidates because they’re pro-life and if there’s some sea change in our strategy or approach. That is absolutely false. There is no strategy to recruit pro-life candidates. The idea behind what we are doing this cycle is to recruit the best candidates who can win; because there’s a fundamental, you know, fact that we’re facing here. Which is that the more Democrats we have in the Senate, even if some of them are pro-life, the better equipped we will be to protect a woman’s right to choose. A Senate with 51 Democrats some of whom are pro-life will be infinitely better than a Senate with 44 Democrats or fewer who are all pro-choice. So this idea that there’s a sea-change in the approach that we’re taking with regard to recruiting pro-life candidates, per se, is just not — is not accurate. You know, our goal is to get the best candidates in the races so that we can win seats in November ’06 so that we are better equipped to protect Roe.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Kim Gandy, your response to Phil Singer?

KIM GANDY: Well, it’s very clear to us that there is an intentional strategy at work here. Barbara Hafer was literally forced out of the race by leading Democrats, including Phil’s boss, Chuck Schumer, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, and Ed Rendell, the Governor of Pennsylvania, whom Barbara Hafer had supported when he ran for governor against Casey, who lost. This is a candidate who just lost to Ed Rendell for governor, and he is now the one who is being promoted, despite the fact that he opposes a core principle, a basic, fundamental value of the Democratic Party. I see women candidates and women’s rights issues being thrown overboard by the Democratic Party. It’s the wrong strategy for the party.

AMY GOODMAN: Kim Gandy, can you explain, also, the significance of Bob Casey, son of the former governor, for — whom abortion case was named in the Supreme Court.

KIM GANDY: Well, certainly, for women across the country, nearly a million of whom marched in 1992 to try to convince the Supreme Court not to reverse Roe v. Wade. In fact, the court didn’t reverse Roe v. Wade; but the case that year in 1992 was called, Planned Parenthood of Pennsylvania v. Casey. And it was the Senior Casey, an — a vocal opponent of women’s reproductive rights, who had supported a law in Pennsylvania called the “Abortion Control Act” that was so extreme that even this conservative U.S. Supreme Court, as it’s currently constituted, found it really too outrageous and reversed it. And the son is in the mold of the father, and I think he was recruited specifically for that reason. I think the Democratic leadership is trying to say, 'We have a big tent,' and it’s my rights that are being used to demonstrate the big tent. I don’t see them out there recruiting anti-organized labor candidates. I don’t see them out there recruiting candidates that are opposed to civil rights or affirmative action. I only see them out there, as with Langevin and Casey in Rhode Island and Pennsylvania respectively, recruiting candidates who are opposed to women’s reproductive rights over good, solid statewide elected officials that support the whole range of democratic values. These aren’t op — these are not seats where there’s nobody in the race.


PHIL SINGER: Bob — Bob Ca — Yeah, I would just say that, first of all, I would not confuse the son with the father. I don’t think that’s fair. But I’d also say that Bob Casey garnered more votes of any other candidate in Pennsylvania history this past cycle and is a very viable candidate statewide in a statewide race in Pennsylvania, number one. Number two, I think it’s also important to keep in mind that, you know, as we go into 2006, there is an — we have a —- are facing extraordinary stakes. The America that we know today will be fundamentally different if we lose seats as we, you know, in this next round of elections. So -—

KIM GANDY: Well, I — I’m sorry. I just want to say, the whole issue of Bob Casey getting more votes than anybody is really bogus. We dramatically increased the democratic vote in the state of Pennsylvania. John Kerry got more votes than any presidential candidate in the history of the state of Pennsylvania, and he’s got a twenty-year solid record in support of women’s reproductive rights. Bob Casey didn’t even have a serious opponent and he only got 61% of the vote. That’s really a bogus argument.

PHIL SINGER: But he also got more votes than John Kerry did. But look, I think —

KIM GANDY: But he had just —- he had just been -—

PHIL SINGER: I think the important —- I think the point that we’re all missing or not discussing here is that the fight over Roe is going to be conducted in the courts, and I think you’d agree that -—

KIM GANDY: No, the fight over Roe is going to be conducted in the U.S. Senate. —

PHIL SINGER: The fight over Roe is going to be conducted in the courts, and whether — if we have —- The more Democrats -—

KIM GANDY: The question is whether we’re going to have a Supreme Court that is an archconservative court or whether we’re going to have a Supreme Court that protects women’s reproductive rights.

PHIL SINGER: That’s right. And that would —- And the record reflects, the record shows -—

KIM GANDY: And if we stack the Senate with opponents —

PHIL SINGER: No, I mean, Harry Reid is a pro-life Democrat who has, you know, helped stay — helped lead the fight to stop judges who are hell-bent on overturning Roe from getting on the court. That’s a fact. The most pro-choice Republicans like Lincoln Chaffee also, I would add, have voted up and down the line for the —- Bush’s pro-life judges who are intent on overturning -—

KIM GANDY: And so have lots of so-called pro-life Democrats.

PHIL SINGER: You know, there are plenty of examples. You know, throw one out, Ben Nelson in 2003 is a pro-life Democrat, voted against Victor Wolski because he was outspoken over the fact that he had a political agenda and would be an activist judge when he got on the court.

KIM GANDY: Right. But he didn’t vote —- he didn’t vote against him because of women’s reproductive rights, and, in fact Ben Nelson voted to confirm 210 -—

PHIL SINGER: The point is —

KIM GANDY: — federal judges to lifetime appointments. Almost every one of them opposes women’s rights.

PHIL SINGER: The point is that most — most of these judges who get on, who have been approved by the Senate, are not necessarily activists in the mold of a Scalia or a Thomas.

KIM GANDY: Actually, a lot of them are. That’s why they were picked.

JUAN GONZALEZ: If I could interrupt the two of you for a second. Phil singer, in terms of what Democrats around the country can expect in the future, clearly, some of the signals being sent out by folks like Hillary Clinton here in New York is definitely a recalibrating, at least, of her position on this, on the issue of a woman’s right to choose, or abortion. Are we going to be seeing more of this by Democrats in other parts of the country, who think that this is the only way that they can get elected?

PHIL SINGER: No, because I think — and I’ll just refer you to the past week in the Senate where, you know, there was a fight over the bankruptcy bill about whether or not pro-life protesters should be able to abuse the bankruptcy code to get out of paying judgments against family planning clinics, and Senate Democrats waged as fierce a battle as they could, given the makeup of the Senate to, you know, to insure that these folks were unable to escape judgment. So, I don’t think that there’s a — you know, I reject this idea that there’s been a watering down or a reduction in our commitment to protecting a woman’s right to choose. I think that there are certain political realities which we have to confront, certain communications issues in terms of how we talk about issues that we have to confront; but in terms of our commitment, it’s as unwavering as it has ever been. We are fully committed to protecting Roe v. Wade and protecting a woman’s right to choose.

AMY GOODMAN: Phil Singer —

KIM GANDY: Well, that’s not what we see and what’s happening.

AMY GOODMAN: Phil Singer is with the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, Kim Gandy with National Organization for Women. Kim Gandy, was there a meeting after John Kerry lost where he raised the issue of abortion and talked about somewhat — well, some are saying recalibrating the position, changing the Democratic Party’s position around how to deal with it?

KIM GANDY: There was a meeting. I wasn’t at the meeting, but I heard lots of reports out of it that Senator Kerry said that what the Democratic Party needed to do was recruit and elect more pro-life candidates. And I — there was a collective gasp in the room. Because, one of the issues, one of the primary issues that energized the Democratic base was the issue of Roe v. Wade, the issue of the Supreme Court. It’s what brought millions and millions of people to the polls. One point one five million of them came to Washington, D.C. last April to march for women’s rights, and women’s lives and reproductive freedom. That energized the Democratic base all over the country; and now the leadership of the party is slapping all of those people in the face and saying, 'You know what? We don't really care about your rights. We’re willing to throw your rights overboard so that — so that for what reason? I don’t even understand. I really can’t understand. Barbara Hafer clearly has a better chance to knock off Rick Santorum than Bob Casey does.

PHIL SINGER: There’s absolutely no strategy to recruit pro-life candidates or waver in our commitment to women. That is just not the case. Our goal going in to this election cycle is to pick up seats so that we can actually protect Roe v. Wade and protect a woman’s right to choose as well as advocate for good health care, a higher minimum wage, protecting social security and the full gamut of issues that are important to Democrats throughout the country. You know, that’s the simple fact. The fact — the other fact is that we did lose seats in this past election, and we have to get the best candidates that we can on the ticket this go-around so that we can do all those things.

AMY GOODMAN: Many people —

KIM GANDY: And Jim Langevin and Bob Casey are not those candidates.

PHIL SINGER: Jim Langevin is beating Lincoln Chaffee in public polling by over — by almost 20 points at this early stage; and he hasn’t even announced his intention to run yet.

AMY GOODMAN: Now what about that —

KIM GANDY: It’s twenty months out.

AMY GOODMAN: What about that issue? You have Senator Chaffee, who is pro-choice, and your —

PHIL SINGER: He was voted up and down the line for judges who are hell-bent on overturning Roe v. Wade.

KIM GANDY: He also voted for the Schumer amendment on the bankruptcy bill. He voted for the —

PHIL SINGER: As did Harry Reid.

KIM GANDY: — minimum wage.

PHIL SINGER: As did Harry Reid.

KIM GANDY: Yeah. No, I’m saying that he’s a Republican who voted on our side —

PHIL SINGER: And Harry Reid is a pro-life Democrat who voted on our side on that issue as well. I don’t think the argument that —

KIM GANDY: Well, Jim Langevin has a record on the issue.

PHIL SINGER: — that Lincoln Chaffee is better. Jim Langevin also happens to be a leading proponent of stem cell research. He’s put together an extraordinary record on behalf of the state of Rhode Island, and if he chooses to run, he —- I mean, I don’t think that, you know -—

KIM GANDY: It’s not an issue of choosing to run an the issue of —

PHIL SINGER: —- anybody looking at it objectively is going to be a -—

KIM GANDY: D.S.C.C. pushing him to run and running a fundraiser for him —

PHIL SINGER: First of all, first of all, that was a —

KIM GANDY: When Matt Brown —

PHIL SINGER: First of all, that was a — I think there was a —-mistake in terms of -— that also has become one of these urban legends about the D.S.C.C. holding a fundraiser. The D.S.C.C. never held a fund-raiser for Jim Langevin. You know, there was a some — some — a typo on a sheet that was faxed out; but there was no D.S.C.C. event for him. And I would also add, the D.S.C.C. has not endorsed any candidate in any primary or anything like that.

AMY GOODMAN: Phil Singer, let me ask —

PHIL SINGER: We should be talking about getting the best qualified — the best candidates who can win to get into these races so that we can pick up seats in November of ’06 and so that we can do the things on the Democratic agenda that we always talk about each election.

AMY GOODMAN: Phil Singer, let me ask you this TimeNew York Times piece talking in Pennsylvania about Casey says that he said he was recruited by Senator Charles Schumer, head of the party’s Senatorial Campaign Committee, that you represent, encouraged to run as an opponent of abortion rights.

PHIL SINGER: Encouraged to run, and to explore a race. I don’t know that Senator Schumer ever said, 'Run as an — ’ He said, ’Run as who you are. Don't, you know, put on a face of somebody that you’re not to ru — to enter the race;’ because that — I mean, that’s not the way you do these things.

AMY GOODMAN: How do you feel about —

PHIL SINGER: But I certainly —

AMY GOODMAN: Phil Singer, how do you feel about the analysis that John Kerry made a fatal miscalculation overall in his presidential run, and that is he pushed to get a piece of the Bush base, and that Bush does that better than certainly Kerry could do, but that Kerry’s calculation was everyone to the left of that would have nowhere else to go. But that people do have somewhere else to go, they simply don’t vote. That they don’t feel mobilized and energized. Are you concerned that this might continue down that slope?

PHIL SINGER: N, because that’s not what we’re doing. We’re trying to get the best candidates on the ticket. And look, with regard to John Kerry, I worked on the John Kerry campaign. I’ve heard around 35 different analyses of why we were unsuccessful, but I think what it came down to was that we were in a time of war, and the public just didn’t want to change horses in midstream. You know, I mean I’ve heard 35 different spins about, 'Well, Kerry wanted to do this,' or 'he should have done that,' and, look, at the end of the day, we lost. And we are trying to pick up seats come this November with the best people on the ticket that can win.

AMY GOODMAN: Phil Singer, we gave you the first word, so we’ll give Kim Gandy the last. Yes, Kim.

KIM GANDY: I think the important thing to add to this is not just that Bob Casey was recruited to run, he was also told that the field would be cleared for him so that he would have a free primary and there would be no Democrat running against him; and in fact, the top of the Democratic party arm-twisted Barbara Hafer out of the race, did in fact almost clear the field for Bob Casey, which is the most undemocratic thing I’ve seen lately.

AMY GOODMAN: On that note, we will continue to follow this development in the Democratic Party, as we read the Republicans are also very interested in watching. Phil Singer of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. Kim Gandy of the National Organization for Women.

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