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I Am a Pro-Choice Woman, But the 2017 VA Democratic Primary Has Profoundly Shaken My Faith in NARAL Virginia

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by CPruett

I am a pro-choice Virginian, a woman in my forties, who has voted for Democrats in every election and primary for the last 20 years. Since the 2009 election of Republican Governor McDonnell and Attorney General Cuccinelli, in particular, I have relied on NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia to keep me informed and to advocate for reproductive choice and access in our commonwealth. I have received NARAL VA emails and participated in conference calls and other educational events related to NARAL VA initiatives. I have found great value in NARAL VA’s work and have always trusted this organization to have my back and to educate voters in the best pro-choice approaches.

In the 2017 Democratic primary election, however, my faith in NARAL VA as an organization has been profoundly shaken. Like many many pro-choice women in Virginia, I am supporting Tom Perriello for governor, including volunteering for his campaign. I do this with full knowledge of his record, including his ‘yes’ vote on the Stupak-Pitts amendment to the Affordable Care Act as well as his consistent support for legal abortion, Planned Parenthood, and Roe v. Wade. I have read every word I can find on the topic and listened to Tom speak on numerous occasions.

I have heard Tom address the issues of choice and access extensively. I have seen him, while acknowledging past mistakes, advocate for choice in a profoundly progressive way. He not only expresses deep regret for his vote on Stupak and his past support for the Hyde amendment status quo, but speaks eloquently to his understanding of why these positions were wrong. I have heard Tom say that Hyde and Stupak represented “a compromise, and it was the wrong compromise,” that a woman’s right to choose is fundamental and access to a fundamental right is not negotiable, and that reproductive justice cannot be separated from economic justice.

The inseparable link between abortion access and economic justice, in particular, is a position that I’ve been reading about for years in the feminist blogosphere, but never expected to hear uttered by a man running for governor of Virginia. At the same time, Tom’s way of talking about this connection resonates not just with me but with women I know who have previously considered themselves one-issue ‘pro-life’ voters. These women are reconsidering their political affiliation in light of the Trump era, and Tom is there to speak to them. I also know of choice activists, including professionals in the field, who feel the same way I do about Tom.

NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia thinks differently about this primary, having endorsed Ralph Northam. I believe Dr. Northam would make an excellent governor, and I understood NARAL VA’s thought process when they first made the endorsement. I have disagreed with the public comments of some Northam supporters who affiliate themselves with NARAL VA, but that’s politics. Sometimes even people who agree on important issues disagree about specific candidates, decisions, and strategies. Despite supporting both NARAL VA and Tom Perriello, I have been respectful of NARAL VA’s decision to advocate for their preferred candidate as they see fit.

However, seeing this article on Blue Virginia finally prompted me to email an early draft of this letter to NARAL VA. In the email, I stated:

If NARAL, an organization I previously relied on for a good deal of my education on this issue, is devoting its resources to sending out volunteers who are this poorly educated on the issue they are supposed to be addressing, then absolutely no one is being served.  Not the public and certainly not the truth.

In response to my email, NARAL VA’s executive director, Tarina Keene, contacted me directly. She told me that she had seen the Blue Virginia article, and she acknowledged that NARAL VA canvassers are going door-to-door on Dr. Northam’s behalf. Ms. Keene did not believe that the description in the article matched any of the canvassers who had been in the area. She maintained that her canvassers are well-informed and would not have answered questions in the manner described in the article. Without having more knowledge of the matter, I am willing to give the benefit of the doubt, that the individual may not have been working directly on behalf of NARAL VA.

However, this exchange did not entirely reassure me. In part, this is because the conversation reported in the blog is similar to conversations I have had, personally and online, with Northam supporters who proudly cite NARAL VA as the source of their information. When I say that I am pro-choice and support Tom Perriello, I have reliably been told that I must not be familiar with his record, and in some cases that I have been deceived. When I explain that I have read about Tom’s record, heard him speak, and read his platform on women’s issues, I frequently discover that the person I am talking to has not done any of these things. Instead, the conversation reverts to the argument that a 7+ year old vote on an amendment that never became law is a black mark that cannot be overcome.

In one case, a friend who had received a phone call (perhaps from NARAL VA, perhaps from the Northam campaign; I’m not sure there’s a meaningful distinction at this point) contacted me because the caller made forceful arguments that Tom is weak on choice. My friend, knowing that I am a strong supporter of Tom’s, and that I simply would not be supporting an anti-choice candidate, then reached out to me so that I could provide her with full context. She’s supporting Tom now. Voters are perfectly capable of recognizing when they are being bombarded with negativity and half-truths.

As I stated in my email:

I am frankly baffled by NARAL’s strategy in this election. Your organization is bending over backwards to portray Tom as a threat to women’s health, while declaring on a national level that candidates who are weak on choice are unacceptable. (I agree with this position by the way; what I disagree with is the claim that Tom Perriello is weak on choice.) Should Tom win the primary, which is at least as likely as not, will NARAL VA then acknowledge that he is in fact a strong pro-choice candidate, or will you sit back while Ed Gillespie is elected?

Interestingly, Ms. Keene informed me in her response that NARAL VA has no plans past the primary. Ed Gillespie, the likely Republican nominee, has stated that he would like to see abortion banned. It gobsmacks me that a pro-choice organization would place a higher priority on making sure Ralph Northam wins and Tom Perriello loses than on making sure Virginia has a pro-choice governor.  This is especially hard for me to swallow, because it is almost impossible to express support for Tom Perriello in establishment Democratic circles without being criticized for divisiveness and  interrogated about whether I am planning to support Ralph Northam should he win the primary. (My response, like Tom’s, is, “Yes, of course.”)

In addition, as far as I have been able to determine, NARAL VA has not made an effort to reach out to the new wave of Democratic candidates who are working to flip the House of Delegates from Republican control. Their focus is on the governor’s race, and it is on making sure that one strongly pro-choice candidate beats another.

I understand and sympathize with NARAL’s mission to elevate candidates who are strong on choice. I also have profound respect for Dr. Northam’s work as a state senator and lieutenant governor. The issue to me is that NARAL VA does not seem to be focused on persuading candidates to advocate a specific set of pro-choice positions. (Perriello’s platform on women’s health is in some aspects more progressive than Northam’s — i.e., Tom’s advocacy for a state constitutional amendment protecting Roe v. Wade, and a recent proposal that would allow pharmacists to dispense birth control prescriptions).

Instead, NARAL VA is insisting that candidates must have a particular pro-choice history, without defining exactly what history will be deemed acceptable. It seems to me that the purpose of setting strict standards for choice advocacy should be to encourage candidates to make exactly the kind of thoughtful evolution that Tom Perriello has made. This is particularly true when we know that Dr. Northam himself evolved from a self-described “underinformed” George W. Bush voter in 2004 (whether this statement means he did not know Bush was a particularly horrible anti-choice president, or that he didn’t think it was important at the time is still unclear to me) to a heroic and admirable champion for choice during his time in state office, Why the goalposts are moved so that Northam’s evolution is applauded but Perriello can’t meet the standard without access to a time machine continues to puzzle me.

As a pro-choice voter and advocate, I have many excellent organizations to choose from when allocating my time and support. I can (and do) volunteer with Planned Parenthood of Virginia, an organization that on the same day as my exchange with Ms. Keene, emailed me about their plans to make sure that a pro-choice candidate wins in the fall. I can (and do) donate to local and international abortion funds. I can (and do) recommend places for my pro-choice friends to contribute their resources.

In the past, NARAL VA would have been one of my top recommendations. From what I have seen in this election cycle, I will need to rethink that choice in a serious way. This is particularly true among my younger friends, women in their twenties, many of whom supported Bernie Sanders in the 2016 primary. (I voted for Hillary Clinton, for the record, as did many Perriello supporters). The majority of these women now support Tom Perriello; they are also fierce and determined pro-choice feminists.

When NARAL VA says “trust women” but refuses to place trust in pro-choice women who have looked at the record, weighed the issues, and decided to support Tom Perriello, it appears to be uninterested in providing a place in the movement for these young feminist voices. It suggests there is only one right way to be pro-choice, dividing activists needlessly rather than strengthening our coalition.

Whoever wins the primary on June 13th, all Virginians who support the right to choose will need to come together to elect a candidate who will protect women in Virginia. I have already made that commitment. I certainly hope that NARAL VA will do the same.

  • Mike H

    Outstanding piece that needed to be said. The false narrative on Perriello re: choice has evolved from uninformed to disingenuous to downright inexcusable. Thank you for taking the time to share such a thoughtful recitation of the facts. NARAL VA’s complicity in undermining them has been surprising and deeply disappointing.

    • All voters really need to know is that as governor, EITHER Tom Perriello OR Ralph Northam would continue to be a “brick wall” against Republican attacks on women’s right to choose what to do with their bodies. End of story.

  • Eileen Davis

    No matter the outcome, we all need to come together on June14th, to win the general in November

    • Esther Ferington

      Yup.

    • C Pruett

      That’s certainly what I believe; it was not the answer I got from my initial contact with NARAL VA, though Catherine Read’s comments in this thread address some of my concerns.

  • Anonymous Is A Woman

    Thank you for a very brave article, saying what needs to be said. I have been pro choice for most of my 63 years. Indeed, I can actually remember when abortion was illegal and dangerous. I fought for safe, legal abortions before some of the NARAL members were even alive. And I continue to fight for the right of women to have safe, affordable reproductive healthcare.

    But I too have grown very disappointed with NARAL, not because they support Northam, but because of their dishonest and misleading tactics.

    Their own history is not as pure as they claim either. According to Think Progress, in 2014, they added their support to Senators Warner and Kaine, who recommended that Ward Armstrong be appointed to a lifelong seat on U.S. District Court for the Western District of Virginia, despite his having a consistent NARAL rating of 0%, and having voted for TRAP laws, etc. Armstrong also had an A rating from the NRA. But that did not stop NARAL or other groups from endorsing this recommendation.

    Here is the statement Sens Kaine and Warner released at the time:

    Senator Warner and Senator Kaine recommended two distinguished attorneys, Elizabeth Dillon and Ward Armstrong, who both received the highest ratings from the Virginia Bar Association. Ward Armstrong has the support of Virginia NARAL and Planned Parenthood, the Virginia AFL-CIO, and Democrats and Republicans all over the state. They look forward to supporting both of these nominees as the process moves forward.

  • notjohnsmosby

    To be fair, I’ve heard plenty of Tom supports say that Ralph is horrible because he voted for George W. Bush for President and while a new senator threatened to caucus with Republicans if Saslaw and squad refused to hear him out on one of his issues.

    If the past is fair game for Tom’s supporters than the same goes for Ralph’s supporters. Ralph has 7+ years of votes in the Virginia senate (some as LG) to go on. What he says is important, but what he’s done legislatively is equally important.

    Tom is saying a lot these days, but his record in Congress was very mixed. He moved left quite a bit towards the middle of 2010 as an attempt to keep his seat, but his first year in office, he was in no way shape or form the liberal he claims to be. That’s the problem that anyone who has been out of electoral politics for a while – and 7 years is a while – faces when running against someone currently holding office. Politicians running for office are always running on their record. Tom is running as a very different political philosophy than the philosophy he had when last in office.

    • Jason Rylander

      All fair points. No one is saying to ignore past history (although I’d quibble with your retelling of it, as I think Tom’s votes on the ACA and Cap and Trade, to name just two, do suggest some important consistency). Both Ralph and Tom are strong candidates. Both have prior positions with which I disagree. But I am much more interested in where they are now and where they want to go. What is their vision for the future? In evaluating that, I think we owe it to both candidates to take them each at their word.

      We can debate the past, but I don’t think there is really a factual dispute on their current positions. In this race, Tom’s positions on issues like choice and gun control are at least as progressive as Ralph’s. As are his proposals on education. Tom’s positions on climate and renewable energy are far more detailed and central to his agenda. For me, the issue in this election is not where have we been but where are we going? And that’s why I’m with Tom. His unifying message and policy commitments simply resonate more with me in these times. In 13 days, we’ll find out if others agree.

      • notjohnsmosby

        Take a look at Tom’s votes in 2009 and the early part of 2010 compared to after the early part of 2010. He made the political calculation that it was better to try and stay afloat with Obama than to continue his centrist philosophy. That’s fine, but it does show that he will shift his position with the political winds. That’s what he’s done this year. He saw where things were after Trump was elected, and decided to make a run based on the raw feelings a lot of liberals had/have. Does he truly have those feelings and beliefs himself? Who knows.

        My point is that we know where Ralph stands on issues since he’s been casting votes for nearly a decade. Tom is saying the right things to some people, but no one really knows how he would vote on anything. Being opportunistic is a part of politics, but I feel that with Tom, he’s probably just mouthing the words he thinks will get him elected. Seeing as Bernie lost 2-1 last year, I don’t think those words will get him past the finish line. The people supporter Tom have a fairly long history of losing. it’s a discernible pattern with a lot of his supporters.

        • Jason Rylander

          Well let’s be clear. Ralph used to be a Republican voter and described himself in his last campaign as a conservative Democrat. So there’s been an evolution on both sides. As for your take on Bernie and the people supporting Tom – you are quite mistaken about his coalition. As for histories of losing, ask all the folks who supported Harris Miller how that turned out!

  • Al

    I really can’t wrap my head around the level of righteous indignation that was apparently triggered by reading an account of a 3rd person’s negative encounter with a volunteer canvasser. I have been a volunteer canvasser (not for NARAL but for many, many pro-choice Democratic candidates). I have also organized canvassers. Most canvassers volunteer their time for just a few hours per week and out of a genuine desire to make a difference in a positive way. However, they’re not experts (far from it) and it’s really unreasonable to expect that a volunteer is going to be able to articulate a nuanced reply in response to hostile questioning. Their goal is to knock the door, have a brief and friendly interaction where they get across a couple of main points, hand over the lit, and move on to the next door. This is why most canvas training explicitly instructs canvassers that if they encounter someone who is a “4 or 5” (i.e., opposed or strongly opposed to their candidate) they should smile, say thank you for your time, and leave as quickly as possible. The goal is to identify the 1’s and 2’s (who support the candidate) for future GOTV and potentially to persuade 3’s (undecideds or have not heard enough about either candidate). It’s not their job to have a debate with the person who answers the door.

    So, just because someone met a canvasser who wasn’t very articulate (and couldn’t think of a polite way to make an exit) shouldn’t paint an entire organization or candidate with a broad brush. They are as you stated in your e-mail, volunteers. They chose to give up their afternoon for something they believed in. You might think they are misguided on the merits of the issue (and perhaps their organization or candidate is even completely wrong), but the canvasser is not the right person to attack. If you feel that passionately, you should go out and canvass for your preferred candidate instead of complaining about the other guy’s canvassers!

    • C Pruett

      This is a really great point — I say this as somebody who has done a fair amount of canvassing myself and is gearing up to do a lot more — and I tried to emphasize that I did not hold the organization responsible for whatever communication might have been had with the canvasser, if that person even represented NARAL VA.

      However, there’s a balance involved, and I think it’s unreasonable to expect that I would conclude that what a canvasser had to say bore no relation to what they were supposed to be communicating. As I tried to convey, I have encountered NARAL/Northam talking points often enough to have an idea what they sound like.

  • As the Chair of the NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia PAC Board, I’m more than happy to stand behind the endorsement of Ralph Northam that was made and the reasons for it. The vitriol coming from the Perriollo supporters seems to be based on the belief that saying you are Pro-Choice is the same as a legislative track record of fighting the policies, regulations and legislation that threaten the Constitutional rights of women to have access to abortion services.

    No one at NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia has questioned or countered Perriello’s stated commitment to a Pro-Choice agenda in the future should he be elected Governor.

    Ralph Northam has been in the fight as the “brick wall” since he was elected to the Senate in 2007. He has been there WITH US, shoulder to shoulder, in committee meetings, on the floor making speeches, at rallies, at fundraisers, at board of health hearings – year after year after year after year.

    If there are Democrats out there who believe that doesn’t merit endorsement for someone who had the courage to RUN A STATEWIDE ELECTION ON OUR ISSUE IN 2103 and then DELIVER ON THOSE PROMISES . . . there’s nothing I’m going to say that will change your mind. Go ahead and keep talking amongst yourselves.

    We stand with the candidate who has stood with us doing the work NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia was founded to do – Ralph Northam.

    • C Pruett

      Catherine, I appreciate the reply. My concern is that it doesn’t really address the concerns that I raised in the post. At no point did I question NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia’s right to endorse Dr. Northam or their reasons for doing so. My concerns were, in order of importance:

      1. The lack of commitment expressed to electing a pro-choice governor in the fall regardless of who wins the primary. If I misunderstood my communications with Ms. Keene and your organization has made such a commitment, I am overjoyed to hear it and the rest of my concerns are relatively minor in nature.

      2. NARAL VA’s seeming invisibility in the House of Delegate races — again if I am wrong, I will be happy to learn otherwise.

      3. NARAL VA’s seeming willingness to rely on incomplete and potentially misleading information about Tom Perriello’s record as a means of persuasion. In the example cited from my personal experience, a friend was given information only about the negative parts of Tom’s record (mostly Stupak) and sought out my feedback because she rightly felt that something was being left out. It’s not the job of one candidate’s campaign to advocate for the other, but such a one-sided narrative is counterproductive to thoughtful dialogue.

      4. NARAL VA’s seeming unwillingness to have such a thoughtful dialogue about where the goalposts should be in determining whether a candidate is “pro-choice enough” to warrant an endorsement”.

      In addition there seems to be concern about whether Blue Virginia is singling NARAL VA out for criticism. I emphasize that Blue Virginia did not approach me to solicit this article. I queried and submitted it to them because I felt that I could offer a perspective — as a pro-choice woman who had a (hitherto extremely positive) connection to NARAL VA’s organization — which had not been addressed by earlier BV posts on the issue.

      I will freely admit that as a woman, I put far more credibility on the views of other people with uteruses when it comes to women’s health and choice issues than I do on the views of cisgender men (including, respectfully, Congressman Perriello, Dr. Northam, and the male editor I communicated with regarding this post). I thought it would be valuable to other pro-choice women to know that this election is one on which pro-choice women can (and do) reasonably disagree.

      Again, as I stated in the post, my admiration for NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia’s work in the Commonwealth is longstanding, and I want nothing more than for us all to be able to work together to elect a pro-choice governor and legislature in this crucial year.

      • NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia has done a first round of endorsements in the House of Delegates races. We also do a lot of on the ground canvassing in districts across the Commonwealth that include both Delegate candidates and statewide candidates.

        NARAL supporters are quick to step up for door-knocking and phone banking. We collaborate with other social justice/civic engagement/progressive organizations in Virginia to work on behalf of Pro-Choice candidates. Steve Heretick’s primary in 2015 is an example of an effective initiative to support a Pro-Choice Democratic candidate over an Democratic incumbent who was not. Heretick is another Pro-Choice advocate in the House. We continue to chip away at those numbers.

        Should Perriello win the nomination, he will have our support. Just as an aside, I sit on the PAC Board of Equality Virginia and we have also endorsed Ralph Northam. We are not calling into question Tom Perriello’s commitment to reproductive freedom or LGBTQ equality. But future promises don’t compare to a long term working relationship – with promises made and promises kept when the chips were down.

        Politics is hard ball. As much as Democrats want to stay positive, commit to staying positive, and aspire to hew to our core values of being the nice guys in this game – there is only one winner. And it becomes about winning. There is no prize for second place here.

        We will unite behind the nominee. THAT is what Democrats do.

        • C Pruett

          Thank you for this response. It is clear we agree on a lot of things and fundamentally disagree on some others. I appreciate the respectful engagement.

          • I would hope that respect is always a part of civil discourse. We don’t have to agree on everything. One of my favorite Daniel Patrick Moynihan quotes is: “You can’t afford to have enemies in politics. Today’s enemy is tomorrow’s ally.” I subscribe to that perspective. Every election cycle reconfigures our relationships with friends, family and fellow Democrats. I don’t hold grudges. That’s counterproductive to the end game of making this world a better place to live in while we are in a position to influence outcomes. A lifetime is but a blink of an eye in the history of this planet.

        • C Pruett

          And I see the source of confusion re: the House of Delegates. I was thinking of the first-time candidates and particularly those who are running for the 17 Clinton seats. I see that NARAL VA has already endorsed a number of incumbents but am not aware of activity (including questionnaires etc) in the current primaries or first-time delegate races, and a few folks in the know have told me that they’ve had no contact. This is the endorsement list I see : http://www.naralva.org/elections/2017endorsements.shtml

          I hope there are plans afoot to work with new candidates in flippable districts as well.

          • Candidate Questionnaires have been sent out and if any candidate has NOT received one they need to contact us. We did have someone contact us today to say our email went to an email they hadn’t been checking. We’ve also made phone calls, but we don’t have enough staff to call every candidate running. We will continue to make endorsements in “rounds.” I call the PAC Board meetings and we look at the CQ’s, the district voting history, and a number of other factors that impact races.

            At RootsCamp in November of last year in DC, I sat on a panel for Reproductive Justice. (That is a related but separate universe involving so much more than choice and access.) Anyway, I was able to share the story of Levar Stoney who *ASKED* NARAL Pro-Choice VA for our endorsement for his Mayoral race in Richmond. We normally don’t endorse in local races like that, but we contacted all the other candidates and offered CQ’s to them and no one wanted our endorsement. But Levar did. And by asking for it, he made a statement about his commitment to this issue for the people of Richmond. Despite polling 3rd up to election day, he won. And he took us and our agenda with him. We stand with the people who stand with us because that is the way change happens.

          • C Pruett

            Thanks, that is great to hear.

          • C Pruett

            Also, what would be the best way for a candidate to go about contacting you?

          • Ana Owens is the Campaigns Director for NARAL Pro-Choice VA and her email is ana@naralva.org She sends out and collects the CQs, compiles the district data, etc. My email is catherine@creativeread.com While I am the Chair of the PAC Board, the information we use for endorsements is all collected and compiled by Ana. Spread the word!

          • C Pruett

            Thank you, I will pass it on.

          • splashapace

            fascinating. He asked for PP endorsement as well. PP sent questionnaires out and every candidate except Morrissey returned it and got 100%. Hence PP just announced that result of the questionnaires. Interesting to hear how things happened elsewhere.

          • I think it is fascinating as well. I think there is a difference in public perception between PP and NARAL. We are unapologetic advocates for access to abortion services and the clinics that provide them. Planned Parenthood is a direct service provider that covers other health related services that people perceive as important to women’s health, and abortion is among those services. Perception is reality and few of us can understand fully how we are perceived by others.