In early August, a months-long whispering campaign against Emily's List hit the pages of Roll Call. In an article headlined "Making Enemies," four anonymous Democratic consultants and operatives took turns criticizing the 17-year-old political action committee (PAC) -- the largest source of Democratic hard money around -- for wasting Democrats' time, money and effort by forcing competitive primary races that the group was bound, from the outset, to lose.
That same day, CNN Crossfire co-host and former Clinton adviser Paul Begala took the campaign onto the air. "[T]he feminist fund-raising group Emily's List is in a lot of trouble right now for taking on my pal from the Clinton administration, Rahm Emanuel, and Michigan Democrat John Dingell," Begala said, according to a show transcript. "Now, I wonder if Emily's List contributors wouldn't rather see their money spent helping, say, Mary Landrieu, one of the few women in the Senate, keep her seat. Well, no dice, says Emily's List. Senator Landrieu, you see, supported the ban on partial-birth abortion. Doesn't matter that her Republican opponents support a total ban on all abortions. Wasn't it Santayana who said: 'Fanaticism consists of redoubling your efforts after you've lost sight of your aim'?"
Robert Novak brightened as Begala twisted the knife. "Paul," said the conservative Crossfire commentator, "when I see a Clintonite like yourself attacking the Emily's List, I love it. Trouble in the leper colony."
Trouble indeed. Republicans have vowed to pour money into Louisiana to unseat Landrieu, who was narrowly elected in 1996 with the backing of Emily's List, in order to retake the Senate. Emily's List, which supports only pro-choice Democratic women, announced in 1997 that it would no longer fund Landrieu thanks to her vote for an amended ban on the so-called partial-birth procedure. So Landrieu, the first woman senator from the South elected in her own right, will need all the Democratic Party dollars she can get. She's forged new alliances within the party, endorsed Dingell (who also supported the ban on partial-birth abortion) in the Michigan contest and joined a group of prominent Democratic women who held a Washington fundraiser for him last April.
But some Democratic operatives who have followed the controversy around Emily's List believe that most of it can be traced back to the Emanuel campaign and Emanuel's Clinton-administration allies. Instead of ceding the working-class Chicago District to the well-financed, well-connected former Clinton adviser, Emily's List backed his challenger, Nancy Kaszak, and ran tough ads against him. All told, the primary cost upward of $2 million, making it one of the most expensive in the city's history.
"I think the big problem and the reason we are seeing these criticisms is because we ran in two primary races against Democratic men, Rahm Emanuel and John Dingell, who have a tremendous number of friends in the press and inside Washington," says Ellen R. Malcolm, founder and president of Emily's List. "Paul can take care of his pals and Emily's List will take care of the gals."
Founded in 1985 to elect pro-choice Democratic women to public office, Emily's List identifies promising candidates and raises early money for them. But in an environment where massive PACs back slates of candidates, primary elections have been transformed into something more like European-style multiparty elections, with Emily's List playing the role of Women's Party. Emily's List generates criticism when its goal of electing pro-choice Democratic women runs counter to the broader Democratic party's goal of minimizing pricey, politically bruising primaries in order to retake the House and keep the Senate.
Do the toughest primaries drain funds and leave winners more vulnerable, for example, to anti-choice Republicans? In several of the highest profile contests this year, the answer has been no. The Emanuel and Dingell races took place in such safe Democratic districts that they functioned effectively as both primary and general-election contests. But with the stakes as high as they are, should Democrats be fighting this hard over safe districts?
The dilemma is familiar from other internecine Democratic party fights, such as the dust-ups between labor-backed Democrats and the Democratic Leadership Council's New Democrats. And in some respects, these are the necessary consequences of interest group politics in today's relatively open primary system. That Emily's List refuses to engage in horse trading -- garnering support for a woman candidate here in exchange for staying out of a race there -- has ruffled feathers among Democratic Party operatives and competing interest groups alike.
The Emanuel campaign maintains a studious public neutrality on the topic of Emily's List. "[Emanuel] is completely focused on the district and the voters of the district and is not going to get involved in Washington, D.C., games," says Becky Carroll, communications director for the campaign.
But, as is so common in Washington, once someone opens the door to criticism, others walk through it more easily. The Republican-affiliated National Rifle Association now brags -- somewhat creepily -- that it will shoot down Emily's List's entirely female slate of candidates in race after primary race. And several Democratic aides interviewed -- none of whom have strong ties to the Emanuel or Dingell campaigns -- have also expressed concern that the group isn't helping the Democrats save their firepower for the general elections. Now progressive Democratic political consultants have begun to privately grouse about Emily's List's backing of pro-choice, centrist women, thereby complicating the ambitions of their pro-labor, pro-choice (and sometimes pro-life) men.
Certainly, some of the concern that Emily's List forces expensive, highly competitive primaries would have died down had the group's favored candidates not also lost six of the nine congressional primary races in which they have run this election cycle.
"It's been unfortunate," says AFL-CIO Political Director Steve Rosenthal. "When they have good women candidates, it's tended to be in areas where men have strong labor histories."
Emily's List has teamed up with pro-labor candidates, such as Rep. Lynn Rivers (D-Mich.) and Gayle Ray, who ran with AFL-CIO and Emily's List support and lost her primary in Tennessee's 5th District. But in many more races this election cycle, Emily's List has found itself squaring off, in a high-profile way, with candidates backed by the big unions.
In Emanuel versus Kaszak, the Illinois AFL-CIO backed Emanuel, even though he was one of the architects of the North American Free Trade Agreement and Kaszak had a strong pro-labor history. Bill Looby, a spokesman for the Illinois AFL-CIO, explained the group's rationale in The Nation last winter: "[Kaszak] had the good labor record, but [Emanuel] had the record of knowing his way around Washington. The feeling was, [Emanuel] could be more effective in Washington."
In the Dingell-Rivers contest, Dingell found powerful support among the United Auto Workers, which mobilized a get-out-the-vote effort for him in Michigan's newly formed 15th District. In the state's gubernatorial contest, Emily's List-backed state Attorney General Jennifer Granholm ran tough in a competitive three-way primary contest against liberal former Gov. James J. Blanchard and progressive, pro-life former Rep. David Bonior, a onetime House Democratic whip who was backed by both the uaw and the AFL-CIO. Granholm's solid victory in that high-profile race -- she is favored to win the general election as well -- was Emily's List's first big win since Linda Sanchez took California's newly created 39th District in March.
"I think all of the criticism is coming from establishment people and establishment institutions who either are concerned that Emily's List has or will run against its candidates," says Diane T. Feldman, president of the Feldman Group Inc., a Democratic polling firm that worked for Rivers in the Michigan contest. "Both labor and Emily's List obviously have a right to make their own decisions about whom they support."
Sometimes, however, those decisions pit the two groups and their candidates against each other in costly primary races. In Arizona's newly created 7th District, Emily's List is backing state Sen. Elaine Richardson against former Pima County Supervisor Raul Grijalva, who has won the support of the national offices of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the Teamsters and the AFL-CIO. (Six others are also running in the open primary.) In Massachusetts, Emily's List backs state Treasurer Shannon O'Brien for governor against Massachusetts AFL-CIO-supported state Senate President Thomas F. Birmingham, former Clinton labor secretary (and American Prospect co-founder) Robert Reich and two others. Both Birmingham and Reich are running to O'Brien's left.
"Part of what's driving the unions crazy is, because Emily's List only funds women, they get into these races and they provide enormous financial resources only to the women candidates even when the male candidates are more progressive," says one Democratic campaign consultant. "This gossip that's going around is not accidental."
While Emily's List-backed candidates suffered a string of losses in the spring, they are poised to become the Democratic candidates in a number of gubernatorial races. That's led some to suggest that 2002 may be "the year of the woman governor." If O'Brien wins her primary, she will join Granholm and state Insurance Commissioner Kathleen Sebelius in Kansas, who have already won theirs with support from Emily's List. Former U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno in Florida, Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend in Maryland, attorney Kathleen Falk in Wisconsin, former state Sen. Myrth York in Rhode Island and state Attorney General Janet Napolitano in Arizona are also highly competitive candidates in their own gubernatorial primary battles. Several of the candidates, such as Granholm, Sebelius and Napolitano, also are well-positioned to win general elections.
Malcolm predicts an end to the carping with the end of the primary season. "We'll all unite, and then Emily's List will be attacked by the Republicans and the NRA and all of those groups," she says. But if Emily's List can't break it's losing streak come November, that unity may prove short-lived.