NOW Grassroots Organizing Key to '96 Elections

by Diane Minor
NOW/PAC-endorsed candidates in fall elections include popular three-time state legislator E. Shirley Baca of New Mexico, who is making her first run for Congress, and Harvey Gantt, who is trying--for a second time--to unseat arch-conservative Sen. Jesse Helms in North Carolina. (Endorsed candidates list)

After getting feminist candidates for crucial U.S. Senate and House seats through tough spring and summer primaries, NOW and NOW/PAC are battle-ready for a few final September primaries and election day itself. Aggressive field organizing is just one of the field-tested strategies we are replicating across the country in this critical election year when women voters -- in a repeat of 1992 -- can make a difference.

"No matter how much money candidates have to spend on advertising or high-dollar political consultants, they can't afford to omit a field organizing strategy," said NOW President Patricia Ireland, who also chairs NOW/PAC. "And for our candidates with limited campaign funds, grassroots organizing is an absolute survival tool."

In Newt Gingrich's backyard, U.S. Rep. Cynthia McKinney, D-Ga., won a July 9 primary by 10 points. She praised NOW's role in her wider-than-expected margin of victory. "From the darkest moments of the redistricting battle to our decisive primary victory, NOW activists stood with me when I needed them most," McKinney said.

Last spring Ireland and former NOW president Molly Yard made a joint appearance at a McKinney fundraiser. NOW/PAC Director Linda Berg joined Georgia NOW State Coordinator Vicki McClennan in field organizing and get-out-the-vote efforts before the primary.

McKinney still faces the challenge of being re-elected from a district with newly drawn boundary lines and voters who may not be familiar with and appreciative of her record.

NOW/PAC and NOW activists will continue a grassroots campaign for McKinney this fall.

NOW's strategies and NOW/PAC's take-charge actions also paid off for Harvey Gantt, who emerged the victor in a hotly contested Democratic primary in North Carolina. Gantt will now attempt to unseat arch-conservative Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C.

The Gantt campaign praised get-out-the-vote efforts by NOW/PAC Field Organizer Mira Weinstein and North Carolina NOW State President Robin Davis. "You just came in and did what needed to be done, making the phone calls and getting people engaged," Don Baker of the Gantt campaign told Weinstein. "We're looking forward to your expertise and direction in trying to put together this big tent where we can bring all segments of North Carolina together."

Across the country in Oregon, our expertise provided the final push Darlene Hooley needed to beat all contenders for the right to challenge right-wing U.S. Rep. Jim Bunn, R-Ore. Hooley had been relying on a strategy of TV ads and direct mail -- until NOW/PAC field organizer Kim Ward arrived.

Ward set up phone banks, recruited volunteers, mailed postcards to all NOW members and lobbied other groups to turn out their members for Hooley. "It is hard for most people to imagine that one person can do much for a campaign in one short week before the vote, but NOW people know better," said Oregon NOW State Coordinator Peggy Norman, in a letter expressing gratitude for Ward's work.

Top Reasons to Oust Newt

"We're finding that primary voters across the country realize the Newt Congress is dominated by extremists who have tried to go too far," Ireland said. "And we plan to make sure progressive voters return to the polls in strong numbers this November to put an end to the right's political irresponsibility."

In recent months, extremists in Congress have:

Firm Focus for Fall

With a sense of urgency about blocking Congress from doing further damage and with an eye on eight September primaries (Connecticut, Florida, Hawaii, Louisiana, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York and Washington), NOW/PAC wrapped several of its successful spring strategies together into an innovative plan for the fall.
  1. NOW will make electoral politics a major focus for all levels of the organization through November, as activists did for the Fight the Right march organizing earlier this year. Delegates backed this commitment in a resolution passed at the 1996 National NOW Conference June 28-30 in Las Vegas.
  2. NOW will emphasize creative grassroots strategies, as with the Gantt and Hooley campaigns. National NOW cannot provide organizers in every district, but will assist chapters and states to become more politically involved themselves, providing materials and training. For example, chapter activists and the Long Island NOW Alliance PAC are working hard to support longtime NOW member Nora Bredes for the U.S. House and NOW activists in Louisiana are backing Mary Landrieu -- a former state treasurer who made a recent gubernatorial bid -- in her race for the U.S. Senate.
  3. NOW/PAC will give strong support to feminist incumbents the right wing is trying to unseat through re-districting, as is the case for not only McKinney, but also Reps. Corinne Brown, D-Fla., and Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas. "We want to make sure voters understand that Newt and his cronies want to get rid of these women because they stand up to them," said Ireland. "They couldn't get rid of all our feminist friends legitimately through the last election in 1994, so now they're trying to pull the rug out from under them through re-districted, re-election gimmicks."
  4. NOW/PAC is creating a Feminist Voters Guide on the Internet that presents candidates' records on our issues. The guide was developed by student interns -- Justina Grubor and Marieke Kearns -- who spent the summer combing over voting records and campaign literature.

A "Can Do" Challenge

At the 1996 National NOW Conference, Ireland invoked the year 1994 as both a warning and a challenge. "Women's issues were not visible, women stayed home in droves, we lost some of our best feminist friends in Congress and our issues have been under severe attack ever since," she said. "This year, it's our challenge to make sure the women's vote and gender gap get more than just lip service. We have to get women's issues and candidates' voting records on those issues front and center."

Although 1994 was the year that narrow wins created the disastrous Gingrich-led Congress of religious and political extremists, it was also the year various NOW PACs helped elect 511 people to all levels of government, according to NOW/PAC's Berg. "We can do that again, and we can do better," she said.

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