Emily's List: Is It Over Between Us?
Published on Thursday May 15, 2003 by CommonDreams.org
Emily's List: Is It Over Between Us?
by Sandra E. Jewell

It was too good to last. When Emily's List was born in 1985 pro-choice Democratic women for the first time had a national PAC that would help send people just like them to Washington. The euphoria! But last year most of the now-powerful women Emily's List boosted in their scramble to the Senate voted in favor of an unprovoked war against Iraq.

It was clearly past time for a closer look at their voting records.

Elected Democrats almost always receive high ratings from civil rights and public interest groups, but a close look at the particulars of their records can be jarring. In the 107th Congress, for example, Dianne Feinstein (CA) and Hillary Clinton (NY) voted against bankruptcy protection for the poor. Who knew? Emily's List also helped finance the election of Senator Debbie Stabenow (MI) so that she could vote against food safety and for the nuclear industry; for Senators Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell, both from Washington State, who cast numerous votes for Fast Track and nuclear subsidies as did now-former Senator Jean Carnahan (MO) who also voted to open ANWR for oil drilling.

The votes of several women who were first elected with the support of Emily's List should put them in good standing with the Republican right. Once in Congress, Blanche Lincoln (AR) and Mary Landrieu (LA) were 'delisted' for violating their agreement with Emily's List and casting ballots against abortion choice. A glance at their voting records, however, gives ample evidence that their support from a "liberal" and "progressive" PAC, as founder and president Ellen Malcolm describes Emily's List, was always questionable. Mary Landrieu, who bragged during the 2002 election cycle that she voted with President Bush 74% of the time, cast votes against food and workplace safety, against fuel economy standards, and in favor of the John Ashcroft confirmation and federal subsidies for nuclear power. Blanche Lincoln voted against campaign finance reform, against food and workplace safety, against consumer bankruptcy protection, against fuel economy standards, but for nuclear power and Fast Track. By the next election each had a well established name in her state, and voters returned both of these women to Washington without the support of the PAC that had helped place them in Congress to begin with.

I can't speak for all of Emily's List contributors, but the positions taken by these elected officials are not what I expected when I sent my checks. So what happened? Well, it seems that Emily's List does not track any aspect of candidates' agendas beyond reproductive rights because, as I was told, the PAC doesn't want to "lobby" the candidates. Say, what? Political money with almost no strings attached? Ellen Malcolm concedes that women care about issues in addition to reproductive rights,and Emily's List prepares campaign materials that reflect those, but candidates don't have to sign on or use these materials. Oh. That is the apparent reason why the pro choice Democratic women elected with bundles of checks from thousands of contributors feel free to bail on so many crucial issues.

Although the goal of Emily's List to elect pro choice Democratic women has never varied, it's only now that some of its core constituents are rousing to the fact that pro choice does not mean progressive, and that the Lists' objectives do not include any hint of a mandate to support the best person for the job. When Emily's List candidates take positions less egalitarian than those of their male opponents, it's clear that, contrary to what donors may think, the candidate's gender was her one essential attribute and neither her politics nor good sense were allowed to intervene. Why else would Emily's List support Shannon O'Brien for Massachusetts governor in 2002 over more progressive male opponents who included the outstanding Robert Reich.

And one more question: In the complex world of Washington politics, how is it that a sophisticated women's PAC cannot make the trade offs and do the horse trading necessary to further its own ends. Has anyone figured, for example, the political cost-benefit of supporting Nancy Kaszak, who lost to Rahm Emanuel in the Illinois primary? No one argues that Ms Kaszak, like Lynn Rivers who ran against John Dingell and lost in the Michigan primary, was anything other than an excellent candidate, but a national PAC needs a larger vision and the willingness to sacrifice some of its agenda to gain the support needed to increase the odds of accomplishing the rest. For this to happen, Emily's List would minimally have to take heed of a broader range of issues which its own research shows concern women and use them to supplement its bedrock position on reproductive rights, maybe just a tad. If their current uphill struggle to re-up women like me is any indication, it might be a good idea if they started soon.

Sandy Jewell (jolyjuly@earthlink.net) is a public health professional in Atlanta.