Women's Equality at Stake in 1998 Elections

Turnout of Women's Vote Key



by Linda Berg, PAC Director

Geraldine Ferraro, a speaker at the 1998 Women's Rights Convention, is running for U.S. Senate in New York against abortion foe Sen. Alphonse D'Amato.  Photo by Susan Mackenzie.
While this year's elections present many opportunities for women, competition is fierce and tactics of both parties highly cynical. After President Clinton's speech Aug. 17, feminists are also fighting possible depression of the women's vote resulting from disillusionment and cynicism about the ability to make progressive change through the political process.
 
As the dust settles from bruising primaries across the nation, the 1998 election themes are becoming clear. With 11 seats controlling who sits in the speaker's chair in the U.S. House, a ferocious battle is being waged for the hearts and minds of those constituencies whose presence in the voting booths can make the difference. Voter turnout for the primary season has been abysmally low, and each party is making unprecedented efforts to turn out its faithful.
 
Most political pundits see women as the most crucial voting block. In 1992, when the country elected many strong feminists, women constituted 54 percent of the vote; in 1994, women equaled only 51 percent of the vote and were rewarded with Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., as Speaker of the House. By not turning out to vote, women put their hard-won rights in jeopardy. Feminists have been battling since then to clean up the mess and elect a Congress that women can trust to protect our rights and advance equality.
 
We know from experience that women vote on issues, and unless our issues are at stake many women will not make time to show up at the polls. Political consultants are counseling clients to speak to women's issues; however, their definition of women's issues is not necessarily our own.

Right Wing Exploits Hot-Button Issues; Dems Waffle On Abortion

The Republican right believes that with inflammatory and graphic language they can outrage women about specific abortion procedures. They believe that parents want more control over their children's lives and education and will thus support strict parental notification laws for both abortion and reproductive services as well as vouchers for private schools. The right also has a clear strategy to exploit homophobia as a campaign wedge issue.
 
New York Lieutenant Governor Betsy McCaughey Ross is running for governor.  She spoke at NOW's conference in Rochester and the rally in Seneca Falls.  Photo by Susan Mackenzie.

The Democrats have recruited about a dozen opponents of abortion rights to run for open seats in Congress. Additionally, a number of incumbents, previously steadfast in their support of full reproductive rights, have signed on to a bill to ban all late- term abortions, regardless of the procedure, with exceptions only in cases of life endangerment or serious adverse health consequences to the woman. While politicians may deplore "bureaucrats" making health care decisions when they attack HMOs, many are waffling about a woman making her own decision about her health care when abortion is concerned.
 
"We must question all candidates who think that the ticket to winning is to moderate their support for women's rights and civil rights for everyone," said NOW/PAC member Hannah Olanoff. "As much as we would like to see Newt out of the speaker's chair, we must make it clear that no party has an automatic claim on the feminist vote."

The Good News

The good news is that not only do we have many strong feminists to re-elect, but many more are also challenging right wing incumbents and vying for open seats. Because NOW's Political Action Committee is the only women's rights PAC that screens candidates on a wide range of feminist issues - full reproductive rights; economic equality; civil rights for all with a strong emphasis on the rights of people of color, lesbians and gay men; affirmative action; and violence against women - none of our endorsed candidates are the kind of people who will waver on women's rights.
 
NOW/PAC endorses long-time friends like Barbara Boxer, who rose through the House to the U.S. Senate while building an unsurpassed record of supporting equality. We rally around challengers like Geraldine Ferraro, taking on Senator Alphonse D'Amato, R-N.Y., who has long been a serious obstacle to feminist progress in the Senate. And we are thrilled when state level allies such as California Assembly member Grace Napolitano decide to move "up the pipeline" and run for Congress when a seat becomes open. NOW/PAC also seeks out new candidates, many of them NOW members, to run at all levels.
 
With NOW's Victory 2000 campaign in high gear working to elect 2,000 feminists by the turn of the century, there are hundreds of feminist candidates to support throughout the country.
 
"We must make sure that women's issues come to the forefront to turn out the vote for our feminist candidates," said NOW President Patricia Ireland. "No NOW member can sit out this election - our equality is literally at stake."

Also On the Ballot in 1998

Opportunity and peril await feminists with the myriad ballot measures which voters will confront this election season. Many of these referendum battles will be fought in states that also have hotly contested gubernatorial or senate races. It is no accident that ballot measures that will galvanize conservative constituencies and stimulate right-wing voter turnout occur simultaneously with those statewide races.
 
Initiatives attacking affirmative action and reproductive rights are on the ballot in Washington state where the U.S. Senate race pits feminist incumbent Patty Murray against radical right-winger Linda Smith. The anti-affirmative action initiative (I 200) is a clone of the ballot measure passed in California in 1996. It does not mention affirmative action, but rather prohibits state and local governments from discriminating against or "granting preferential treatment" to any individual or group based on race, sex, color, ethnicity or national origin in public employment, education or contracting.
 
The Washington abortion procedures ban is especially oppressive. This measure (I 694) makes it a felony to abort a fetus in the "process of birth," which is defined in such a way that it could apply to abortion procedures performed in all three trimesters.
 
Anti-abortion forces have placed two restrictive measures on the ballot in Colorado. The first is a vague abortion procedures ban modeled on the recently-passed Wisconsin ban which is so broad that it could be interpreted as banning all abortions.
 
The second is a draconian measure that defines life as beginning at fertilization and requires not only consent from both parents, but also a 48-hour mandatory delay for all women under 18 seeking abortions. There is no judicial bypass option, and the waiting period cannot be waived even if both parents accompany their daughter to the abortion clinic.
 
Colorado is the scene of a hotly contested U.S. Senate race which pits long- time abortion rights supporter Dottie Lamm against incumbent Ben Nighthorse Campbell. This is Nighthorse Campbell's first campaign since his affiliation with the Republican party in both his registration and voting record.  Also, Democrat Gail Schoettler is running against Bill Owens to replace retiring Democratic Governor Roy Romer.
 
In Alaska, two divisive initiatives have qualified for the ballot. The first amends the state constitution to define marriage strictly as between a man and a woman thus preventing lesbian or gay marriage (for more on this see page 16). A second initiative would repeal a law written many years ago by NOW's Government Relations Director, Jan Erickson, which requires a bilingual teacher or assistant for non-English speaking students in the Alaskan public schools. NOW understands that many right-wing groups have targeted Alaska as a state where they could successfully adopt measures which appeal so blatantly to homophobia and racism. In addition, an effort is underway to unseat the popular progressives running for re-election in Alaska, Tony Knowles for governor and feminist Fran Ulmer for lieutenant governor.
 
The battle to legalize gay marriage is continuing in Hawaii. A proposed initiative would green-light a constitutional convention, giving the legislature the ability to amend the state constitution to prohibit same-sex marriage. With Hawaii's economy in bad shape, the right wing sees an opportunity to make inroads into a traditionally liberal state. Currently, the most effective tactic for religious right fundraising is raising the specter of gay marriage - NOW expects plenty of money to be spent in this effort.
 
Other states with ballot measures affecting women include Oregon, where initiatives are likely to qualify that would amend the state constitution to define marriage as between a man and a woman and to ban all abortions (with an exception only to save the life of the mother) by defining a person as beginning at conception. A Campaign Finance Reform initiative which could negatively impact the effectiveness of the NOW/PAC just qualified in South Dakota and other similar measures are circulating in Arizona, Massachusetts and Missouri. And as a preview of coming attractions for the year 2000, anti-gay marriage forces are gearing up for a referenda fight in California on that issue.
 
Check out our web site at http://www.now.org/pac/ for the most up-to-date list of feminist candidates for Congress. Just as exciting is the list of candidates that state and local NOW PACs are supporting - please contact your state or local NOW chapter to find out who they have endorsed. If you are in a state with discriminatory measures on the ballot, work with local activists to get out the vote. Contact your local chapter to see how you can help. And don't forget to vote for feminist candidates and against regressive initiatives.
 


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