Very Good Republicans 

by Adele M. Stan
Thursday, August 03, 2000
Comments: 82 posts

This piece originally ran on IntellectualCapital.com during the 2000 Republican National Convention.

On Sunday, Arlen Specter, the pro-choice Republican senator from Pennsylvania, surveyed the crowd composed largely of Republicans that filled the ballroom of Philadelphia's famed Bellevue Hotel for an event sponsored by Planned Parenthood, the Republican Pro-Choice Coalition, the National Women's Political Caucus and several other women's rights groups.

From the podium, he invoked the ghost of Barry Goldwater, quoting the late Arizona senator: "'We have to keep the government out of our pocketbooks, off our backs and out of our bedrooms.'" The line drew a round of enthusiastic applause. "We are all good Republicans," he told an audience in need of appreciation, "and maybe we are too good Republicans...We don't want to make trouble for the ticket."

After he left the stage, Specter explained to me that it had been his own inclination to simply raise the issue of removing the GOP's harsh anti-abortion plank form its platform but not to press it. When I asked if his remarks reflected a pang of conscience over having gone along with the wishes of the Bush campaign, the senator replied, "Well, you heard me. I can't say it any better than that."

Turning point in pro-choice politics
The event itself marked a turning point in the annals of pro-choice politics. Never before had the family-planning establishment involved itself so visibly with moderate Republicans. As Gloria Feldt, president of the Planned Parenthood Federation, sped to the Philadelphia event on the Metroliner from New York, we talked on the phone. "Planned Parenthood is taking a much more aggressive, pro-active stance," Feldt explained. "I think the movement as a whole had been a little bit defensive. And one of my personal goals is: No more of that stuff."

On Monday, according to National Director Lynn Grefe, the Republican Pro-Choice Coalition (RPCC) came within three signatures of earning the simple majority of delegates within six state delegation that would have allowed them to bring to the floor of the Republican convention a resolution for the repeal of the GOP's anti-abortion plank. In simpler terms, by Grefe's account, they came within three votes of pulling off a floor fight. And were they and their supporters less good Republicans, they just may have made it. Still, the fact that they came so close is not one to be dismissed lightly, considering the leadership's stalwart opposition to the plank's removal, not to mention the right-wing bent of much of the delegate base.

In truth, a floor fight was never the main aim of the NPCC or its co-chairwoman and master strategist Susan Cullman. The threat of a floor fight was something Cullman used for leverage, by her own account, to try to force the GOP leadership to bend on the harsh language of the platform, which calls for the appointment of pro-life judges and would prohibit abortion in all circumstances.

Though ideally Cullman and her allies would like to see the plank removed and have the party take absolutely no position on abortion, they knew better than to try to call for a referendum on something to which so many among the delegates were so clearly opposed. So she and Grefe crafted language for a plank that would simply call for the recognition of the "different=g views on this complex issue."

Not that they thought such language would find its way into the platform proper, but rather in a so-called 'minority report" that would appear as an annex to the platform, like the one Cullman managed to win at the 1996 convention. So the language was put before the platform committee, which was stacked against the moderates from the start. When the platform committee took a vote on a resolution that would have granted the pro-choice side a minority report, it appeared they had won the day. But when it came time to put signatures to the petitions needed to back up the votes, many platform delegates got cold feet. "They got word from somewhere" not to sign the petitions, Cullman says, "but not from us."

In search of "mutual respect"
Once the platform committee closed its proceedings last Saturday, Cullman, Grefe and their allies began faxing a different petition to the delegates to the convention--one that called for a resolution on the "mutual respect" language rejected by the platform committee to be brought to the convention floor. The goal was still the minority report, but suddenly the threatened floor fight seemed a real possibility. It was not just the rejected language that motivated delegates to sign the petitions; in the course of crafting the platform, right-wingers on the platform committee pushed through a resolution that calls for the elimination of funding for family-planning education and services, and that would forbid public health officials in schools and clinics from referring sexually active kids for contraception.

At 2 a.m. Monday, a core group of RPCC volunteers gathered petitions that could work as the key to placing the "mutual respect" language before the whole convention for a vote that surely would end in defeat but that would call the question while the whole world was watching. (Well, maybe not the whole world. Maybe just the political junkies who watched the convention's morning session on C-SPAN.)

By late morning, Cullman says, RPCC had secured signed petitions from majorities in four state delegations and was one vote shy in a fifth delegation and two votes shy in the sixth. Both Grefe and Cullman declined to indentify the delegations. "We're not trying to alienate anybody; we're trying to build for the future."

But once some delegates who had signed calling for a floor fight heard that their signatures might actually be used to bring the matter to the floor, the RPCC received calls from signatories who threatened to rescind their petitions. And when I tried to discern just which states had signed, I sometimes heard conflicting reports from within delegations and found many pro-choicers within the various state delegations reluctant to speak on the record.

I did ascertain that two state delegations had convinced a majority of their delegates to sign petitions: Massachusetts and the District of Columbia, whose city Councilwoman Carol Schwartz proudly proclaimed the delegation's vote. No one in the Rhode Island delegation could say for sure whether they split their 14 votes evenly; it was either a tie or they had a majority, two delegates told me off the record. Maine, home to Sen. Olympia Snowe, one of the nation's best-known pro-choice Republican voices, came two votes short of the eight it would have needed to make a simple majority of its 14 delegates.

Connecticut, whose delegation numbers 25, came two votes short of a majority, according to several female delegates. Among the four-person delegation of the U.S. Virgin Islands, two signed petitions and a third would have had she note been delayed at an airport, said James M. Oliver, chairman of his territory's chapter of the Republican National Committee.

But my favorite response came from a couple in the Delaware delegation. The older man said he did not think they had anywhere near a majority. But he sat next to a woman in a three-cornered hat who exuded a twinkle as he spoke. So I put the question to her. "Well, there may have been a majority who signed them here," she said with a wink. "We just never took a poll. For instance, I may have signed one and then forgotten all about it."

At a press conference Monday afternoon, Cullman and Grefe professed not to be dismayed by the outcome. They will come back in 2004, they said, with more chapters of their organization. And they plan to organize at the local level with the help of Planned Parenthood, a la the Christian Coalition model, in order to build a base of pro-choicers among convention delegates. "So instead of just screaming about it after the fact, we're being much more pro-active and organizing at the grassroots," says Feldt, who adds that Planned Parenthood has "beefed up our own internal staffing" a=for the task and has launched an e-mail network for activists.

So just what did Grefe and Cullman get for their efforts? Platform Committee Chair Tommy Thompson, the pro-life governor of Wisconsin, did place an addendum to the version of the platform handed out to the delegates, which he called a "Plenary Action Committee Report." While it falls short of the depth one would have expected in a minority report, it does state the language that the pro-choice advocates had put before the committee and cites the votes taken on it.

It's just a matter of time, says Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge, before the party platform comes to reflect "the mutual respect that office-holders have for each other on that issue. We're making a lot of progress...and we'll just have to build on that over the next couple of years."

On Monday morning, out of the glare of prime time, Arlen Specter appeared before the delegates as one of the convention's opening speakers. When he drew out his favorite Barry Goldwater quote, he received a light smattering of applause.

Adele M. Stan is a regular contributor to IntellectualCapital.com. She is the Washington correspondent for Working Woman magazine.

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