EMILY's List Raises Hackles of Some Dems

The organization dedicated to electing pro-choice women to office is being criticized for backing losing women candidates and attacking progressive male candidates in open seats or redrawn districts.

Ellen Malcolm

WASHINGTON (WOMENSENEWS)-EMILY's List has seen better days-at least in the all-important races for open House seats. The losses, along with the organization's support of opponents to powerful male Democrats, have given rise to some open criticism of the organization's tactics.

The influential fund-raising committee devoted to electing pro-choice Democratic women to office has seen a number of losses in congressional primaries this election cycle, setbacks some say signal a loss of clout as they head into their ninth election cycle.

“Basically, I think if you look at their scorecard, they're not doing very well,” said Brad Bannon, a Democratic pollster who has worked for and against candidates endorsed by the fund-raising committee. He said the group's efforts have sparked frustration among Democrats who feel that the divisiveness during the primary campaign season may have hampered the party's ability to win back control of the House of Representatives in the November midterm elections.

Peter Goudinoff, a professor of political science at the University of Arizona, agreed.

“The EMILY people need to get themselves together in terms of pragmatism,” he said shortly after the Sept. 10 primaries. “They've got to be doing some soul searching.”

These experts point to the fact that last year, the committee backed two women who lost special elections in Virginia and Massachusetts. And, they add, EMILY's List hasn't fared much better this year in congressional races: only five of the 14 women it endorsed in competitive primaries won.

However, the group also backed another five House candidates as well as three Senate candidates who faced little or no primary opposition. EMILY's List spokeswoman Janet Harris cautioned against taking these apparently easy victories for granted. These women, she said, demonstrated political strength early on, warding off serious challengers and, as a result, cruising to primary victories.

In addition, the group also helped California Democrat Linda Sanchez win a contested primary last March and helped send another woman, Rep. Democrat Diane Watson of California, to Congress in a special election last year.

The group also fared well in gubernatorial primaries this year. They endorsed 12 gubernatorial candidates, and seven of the 10 who faced tough opposition won. In fact, 2002 could be a record year for women gubernatorial candidates; women could win the keys to as many as 10 governors' mansions this year-double the number they currently hold.

Critics Question Primary Battles with Powerful Men

Despite their victories in statewide races, the number of losses at the congressional level has caused some to question the group's strategy of intervening and spending resources in contested primaries against progressive male Democrats. Others have gone further, charging the group with dividing the party and squandering resources during a crucial election year when control of the House and Senate is at stake.

“A lot of Democrats have a broad array of concerns and feel that most of those concerns are being shoved aside,” Bannon said, noting that the group's practice of using abortion as a litmus test has angered many in the party. “Most of those issues are as important to them as abortion is to EMILY's List.”

EMILY's List President Ellen Malcolm defended her group's track record this year and accused her critics of making attacks with sexist overtones. Her group, she said, has a long history of backing women over progressive men in open seat Democratic primary races, a practice that she said is a necessary evil in order to elect women to Congress. Indeed, open seats offer the best opportunities for women to win office because candidates do not have to face incumbents, most of whom are male and notoriously tough to beat.

“It comes down to fact that we're in business of trying to elect Democratic, pro-choice women, not just pro-choice Democrats,” Harris explained when asked why the group at times fights against pro-choice male candidates.

Malcolm also said that her detractors have not attacked other progressive groups, such as environmental and labor special interests, for wading into competitive primaries.

“Some of this criticism clearly shows a double standard,” Malcolm said. “It's much more about trying to make mischief for EMILY's List than about trying to have a discussion about our activities.”

She noted that the onslaught of criticism came only after the group took on two of the most powerful and well-connected Democrats in Washington: 23-term Democratic Rep. John Dingell of Michigan, the longest serving member of the House and the ranking member of the Commerce Committee, and Rahm Emanuel, a fund-raising powerhouse in his Illinois district and former adviser to President Bill Clinton. In other races against male candidates, she said, politicos have been more reluctant to air their grievances.

“This is all about the Beltway Boys being angry that we ran against two of their friends,” Malcolm said, referring to the group's endorsements of Rep. Lynn Rivers, who lost to Dingell in the August primary, and Nancy Kaszak, who lost to Emanuel in March. “They're just trying to stir up trouble for us.”

Democratic insider Jim Krog, a Tallahassee lobbyist and former gubernatorial aide, defended the group's record in a post-redistricting election year that offered surprisingly few open-seat opportunities for women congressional candidates.

“If we were all omniscient, we would win every time,” he said on the day that former Attorney General Janet Reno conceded her party's gubernatorial nod to Florida Democrat Bill McBride. “They should be undaunted by any losses that they've had. The only way to win is to participate. If you don't participate, you're a sure loser.”

Some Attack Manner Rather Than Method

Others, including staunch pro-choice advocate Rep. Maxine Waters, a Democrat from California, have condemned the group's manner rather than its method, saying it has attacked male candidates unfairly or inaccurately in television advertisements and candidate mailings.

Critics pointed to the governor's race in Michigan, where the group roundly attacked Democratic candidate Jennifer Granholm's opponents-former Gov. Jim Blanchard and former House Minority Whip David Bonior-even though they have strong records on women's rights.

“EMILY's List has lost sight of its true purpose,” said political analyst Bill Ballenger, editor of the newsletter Inside Michigan Politics. He added that the organization turned from “buttressing the credentials of good women,” to unfairly criticizing “good men.” Ballenger added, “As the old saying goes, if they're going to strike at a king, they better kill him. If they don't win, and they're nasty and ugly and making enemies at same time, they've got the worst of both possible worlds.”

Malcolm responded that EMILY's List is not an advocacy group but rather a campaign organization and, as a result, will take the necessary steps to elect women to office, including making comparative attacks on their male opponents on any issue that engages women voters.

“Our job is to add newcomers to office, and it's one of the most difficult jobs in politics,” she said. “If we see an open Democratic seat, and we have a good woman to run, of course we're going to get involved in that primary. And we're certainly not going to play by some special girls' rules that the Beltway guys are trying to set for us.”

Criticism Not New to EMILY's List

Criticism is not new to EMILY's List, a donor network of 68,000 members that has successfully taken on both Democratic and Republican men since its founding in 1985. But the club has inspired awe more often than condemnation throughout its history, in which it has raised and spent $45 million to help elect 11 Democratic women senators, 53 members of congress and four governors.

The name EMILY's List is an acronym for “Early Money Is Like Yeast” (it helps the dough to rise). It was founded when no Democratic woman had been elected to the Senate without having first been appointed to a seat, no woman had been elected governor of a large state and there were only 12 Democratic women in the U.S. House.

And despite this year's grumbling, the group's long-term record has made Democrats, both male and female, grateful for its efforts over the past 17 years.

“I see EMILY's List as a part of the history of the progress of women in our country,” House Minority Whip Nancy Pelosi of California is quoted as saying on the group's Web site. “I know that I would not have been elevated to the Democratic Whip of the House without the work that was done by EMILY's List.”

Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota adds in another online quote, “EMILY's List is one of the single most influential political efforts on the landscape today . . . In large measure because of what [they've] done, there are more women as senators, as representatives and as governors than at any time in history, and we're just getting started.”

Allison Stevens covers politics in Washington.

For more information:

EMILY's List:

The Center for American Women and Politics:

The Women's Campaign Fund: