August 10, 2016
The Guardian: Emily’s List aims to shift US Congress to the left – state by state
by Megan Carpentier and Jennifer Gerson Uffalussy
In the midst of a political season in which all eyes are on the US presidential election, one of America’s largest political advocacy groups devoted to women’s rights is turning its attention to a new mission: state legislative races.
Emily’s List, a group that traditionally focuses on electing individual pro-choice women to office, announced a new plan to target seven vulnerable states where organizers believe they can flip the some of legislatures from red to blue – and then, perhaps more permanently, do the same for the US Congress.
The idea is that if the group can help elect enough Democratic women in state legislatures by the 2021 congressional redistricting cycle, it will be able to swing both many state houses and the House of Representatives in favor of Democrats, and make them more likely to pass legislation in favor of reproductive rights and women’s equality.
“Currently, Republicans control 68 of 98 legislative chambers in the United States,” said Emily’s List president Stephanie Schriock. “That’s a result of the 2010 elections, when the Democrats lost so many state legislatures.”
Once there, she said, “Republicans gerrymandered a huge number of Congressional seats,” a reference to the constitutionally protected redistricting process, leading to the Republican takeover in the US House. They also pushed what she termed “an extreme anti-choice legislative movement” on the state and federal level, while blocking any progress on equal pay legislation, childcare assistance, paid sick time and family leave.
The women of Emily’s List want that to stop. To that end, on Tuesday the organization launched Focus 2020, vowing to help elect enough pro-choice Democratic women in 2016, 2018, 2020 and beyond that they will be able to build Democratic legislative majorities in 14 states in time to affect the partisan makeup of the US Congress.
“We’ve got to end this process of gerrymandering by Republicans,” Schriock added. “We have to make sure that we have fair districts in this country, so that we can fight over ideas, not process.”
First up in 2016, Emily’s List is pushing candidates in Michigan, Maine, New Hampshire, Nevada, Minnesota, New Mexico and Colorado – all states that have passed or nearly passed anti-abortion legislation over the last few years.
In Colorado, widely seen at the original home of the so-called “personhood” movement – which attempts to define fetuses as people under the law and thereby classify abortion and even some methods of birth control as murder – the senate went from blue to red in 2014, after a razor-slim Democratic majority created by the recall of two pro-gun-control senators in 2013 failed to hold.
To change that, Emily’s List has endorsed three pro-choice women in state senate races there, though Democrats only need to pick up two seats. Rachel Zenzinger, who is challenging a Republican incumbent, Laura Woods, to retake the seat she she lost to Woods by 663 votes in 2014 is one of them.
Zenzinger described her race as taking place in “a swing district in a swing country in a swing state” where “you would think [Woods] would be trying to defend and protect women and women’s issues, but she’s done the exact opposite”.
Woods supported a variety of anti-abortion bills in the last session, including ones that Zenzinger said “ranged from mandatory, invasive ultrasounds to defunding a local university because it used fetal tissue for research”, in addition to one that would have defunded Planned Parenthood.
Given the anti-abortion movement’s history of unsuccessfully putting “personhood” legislation on the ballot, Zenzinger believes that many Republicans “will try to seek action legislatively, where they have the opportunity to control the agenda if they are able to maintain the Republican majority” in the state senate.
But beyond the immediate concerns for reproductive rights in the state, Zenzinger said that if her party fails to regain a majority presence in the state senate by 2020, her constituents will see a “significant rolling back of the clock, just trying to go back and undo some of the good, progressive work that has been done over the past few years that really benefited everybody in Colorado” – let alone anything that might be on a Democratic president’s agenda.
Last April, the Michigan state House of Representatives passed a budget defunding Planned Parenthood. It’s another state where Emily’s List is backing candidates under the Focus 2020 initiative in an attempt to bring that state’s house of representatives back under a Democratic majority. One of these candidates is Collene Lamonte. Like Zenzinger in Colorado, Lamonte also lost a seat she held during the 2014 midterm elections. She’s running to regain the seat she lost to a Republican opponent.
“A lot of issues in Michigan, things are not able to move forward because of a lack of women in our political system right now. Pay equity in our state is a huge issue – Michigan is lower than the national average when it comes to pay equity for women. And we haven’t been able to get that addressed with our current legislature,” Lamonte said. “And we continue to see bills that restrict women’s access to proper healthcare in the state. We need to ensure that women receive proper access to healthcare when they need it, without facing barriers.”
In 2018, Emily’s List plans to expand its focus to Ohio, Pennsylvania, Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, Virginia and Wisconsin – many of which have legislatures that are notoriously hostile to women’s reproductive rights, and some of which have voted for national Democrats even while their Congressional delegations skew Republican.
“We know that we have three full election cycles ahead of us,” said Schriock. But if Republicans are able to gerrymander as many districts in 2021 as they did in 2011, “women for generations are going to be left behind in this country.”