Pro-Choice Candidates Fight for Senate Seats

Dana Goldstein

Just thirty-five Senators in office are strongly pro-choice. But this November, when a third of the Senate seats will be up for grabs, voters have a chance to increase that score.

Exhausted and stultified by the endless Democratic primary? Gagging a little bit every time you hear that John McCain is a "maverick?" With all the attention paid to the presidential slugfest, it’s easy to forget that this November, over a third of the United States Senate will also be up for grabs. While supporters of reproductive rights fervently hope to see the White House back in pro-choice hands, the Senate would act as the crucial check on presidential power should that effort be thwarted. That’s because with veto power over federal judicial appointments, only Senators have the ability to stymie a conservative president’s attempts to place another anti-Roe justice on the Supreme Court.

Today’s Senate Democrats enjoy only a razor-thin 51-49 majority, meaning they can’t prevent conservative filibusters or override a presidential veto. And according to NARAL Pro-Choice America classifications, there are currently just 35 strongly "pro-choice" senators and 17 "mixed choice" senators (including majority leader Harry Reid), but a full 48 "anti-choice" senators. That means when it comes to protecting reproductive health and rights, every open seat can make a difference, whether Republican or Democratic. Here are some of the key races to look out for:

Maine
One might think that two-term Republican Senator Susan Collins would be facing a tougher than usual reelection battle this year because of her constituents’ frustrations with the conservative excesses of the Bush years. Still, polls show Collins leading her Democratic competitor, Rep. Tom Allen, by over 20 points. "Independent Democrat" Sen. Joe Lieberman has said he will campaign for her.

Collins has always enjoyed support from some pro-choice advocates, and has an 83 percent rating from NARAL. She was one of just three Republican senators to oppose the so-called "Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act" of 2003. Collins has also opposed parental notification laws and the ban on abortions on military bases, which Harry Reid supported. Yet she also voted for a dog-whistle anti-choice bill that would have increased penalties for committing a crime against a pregnant woman, under the rationale that the fetus is a second victim. Collins’ opponent Allen, on the other hand, enjoys a 100 percent pro-choice voting record.

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New Hampshire
At age 43, Republican John Sununu is the youngest member of the Senate. This fall he faces his first reelection battle, but against the same woman he just narrowly defeated in 2002: former Governor Jeanne Shaheen. Sununu has been an ally of President Bush when it comes to restricting abortion access and stem cell research lines, while Shaheen is a pro-choice, Emily’s List candidate. Their race is considered one of the tightest in the nation, and Sen. Chuck Schumer, chair of the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee, has sworn to flood resources into New Hampshire to support Shaheen.

Louisiana
Two-term Democrat Mary Landrieu has a decidedly mixed record on abortion. She supports stem cell research and wouldn’t pull Health and Human Services funding from medical service providers who perform abortion. She also wants to lift the ban on performing abortions on military bases. But Landrieu has voted to ban certain late-term abortion procedures. In her first Senate campaign, she was recommended by Emily’s List, but the group cut her off in 2002.

Landrieu’s opponent is the anti-choice John N. Kennedy, who joined the GOP only last year, after losing a 2004 Senate run as a Democrat. He is currently the state’s treasurer. Landrieu is leading Kennedy by comfortable margins in recent polls, but Louisiana has become more Republican in recent years, so the seat is considered up for grabs.

New Mexico
Thirty-six year Senate veteran Pete Dominici, a Republican, is retiring, and every single one of New Mexico’s Congressional representatives has announced their decision to resign office in order to run for his seat. That’s only three candidates in a small state like New Mexico, but it will still open up a sizable power vacuum. Representing the Democrats is Rep. Tom Udall, who currently represents the northern and eastern parts of the state, including Santa Fe. He has a 100 percent pro-choice voting record.

Republicans Heather Wilson and Steve Pearce will face-off in a June 3 Senate primary. Wilson won reelection to the House in 2006 by just 875 votes, so her central-New Mexico district could be a Democratic pick-up. While she has supported stem cell research and funding for the United Nations Population Fund, she has consistently voted to roll-back girls’ and women’s access to abortion. Pearce is further to her right, with a 0 percent voting record on all reproductive health issues. Due to his anti-choice record, he has won the endorsement of the Susan B. Anthony List Candidate Fund, which usually endorses anti-abortion rights female Republicans. Wilson, though, is not radical enough for the group’s tastes.

Virginia
After serving since 1979, Republican Senator John Warner is retiring this year. Two former governors are competing for the seat; Republican Jim Gilmore and Democrat Mark Warner, the cell phone mogul who transitioned to a career in politics and flirted with a 2008 presidential run. Warner describes himself as a "radical centrist" who respects "responsible choice." As governor, he opposed a 24-hour waiting period for women requesting abortions and said he would fight efforts to chip away at Roe. Polls show him leading Gilmore by a 15 to 20 point margin.

Minnesota
Democratic comedian and professional conservative-basher Al Franken was leading sitting Republican Sen. Norm Coleman in this race — but that was before it was revealed that Franken failed to pay over $50,000 in work-related taxes to 17 states. Franken’s defense is that he overpaid his taxes in Minnesota and New York, his states of residence, during the years in question, but polls show voters aren’t buying it. Coleman is a by-the-book anti-choicer, while Franken is pro-choice and situates his support for abortion rights within his platform for universal health care.

Colorado
Remember Tom Udall, the Democrat running for Senate from New Mexico? His first cousin, Colorado Congressman Mark Udall, is competing to fill the seat of retiring Republican Senator Wayne Allard. Udall’s likely opponent is Republican Congressman Bob Schaffler, who has been implicated in the Jack Abramoff ethics scandal. Scaffler is a committed anti-choicer, while Udall has a 100 percent pro-choice voting record. Polling from April showed Udall and Schaffler locked in a dead heat, so this is one to keep to an eye on.

Alaska
Although currently under investigation for corruption and 85 years old, Republican Sen. Ted Stevens will be seeking another term in November. Stevens calls himself "pro-choice," although he has voted to ban certain abortion procedures and supports parental notification. Stevens opposes comprehensive sex education in favor of abstinence-only. He does, however, support stem cell research and the right of abortion providers to receive grants from the Department of Health and Human Services.

Stevens’ opponent is Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich, the son of a former U.S. Congressman. They are running neck-in-neck.

So there you have it, eight Senate races to watch in ’08, some of them with fascinating implications for pro-choice politics.

Analysis Economic Justice

New Pennsylvania Bill Is Just One Step Toward Helping Survivors of Economic Abuse

Annamarya Scaccia

The legislation would allow victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, and stalking to terminate their lease early or request locks be changed if they have "a reasonable fear" that they will continue to be harmed while living in their unit.

Domestic violence survivors often face a number of barriers that prevent them from leaving abusive situations. But a new bill awaiting action in the Pennsylvania legislature would let survivors in the state break their rental lease without financial repercussions—potentially allowing them to avoid penalties to their credit and rental history that could make getting back on their feet more challenging. Still, the bill is just one of several policy improvements necessary to help survivors escape abusive situations.

Right now in Pennsylvania, landlords can take action against survivors who break their lease as a means of escape. That could mean a lien against the survivor or an eviction on their credit report. The legislation, HB 1051, introduced by Rep. Madeleine Dean (D-Montgomery County), would allow victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, and stalking to terminate their lease early or request locks be changed if they have “a reasonable fear” that they will continue to be harmed while living in their unit. The bipartisan bill, which would amend the state’s Landlord and Tenant Act, requires survivors to give at least 30 days’ notice of their intent to be released from the lease.

Research shows survivors often return to or delay leaving abusive relationships because they either can’t afford to live independently or have little to no access to financial resources. In fact, a significant portion of homeless women have cited domestic violence as the leading cause of homelessness.

“As a society, we get mad at survivors when they don’t leave,” Kim Pentico, economic justice program director of the National Network to End Domestic Violence (NNEDV), told Rewire. “You know what, her name’s on this lease … That’s going to impact her ability to get and stay safe elsewhere.”

“This is one less thing that’s going to follow her in a negative way,” she added.

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Pennsylvania landlords have raised concerns about the law over liability and rights of other tenants, said Ellen Kramer, deputy director of program services at the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence, which submitted a letter in support of the bill to the state House of Representatives. Lawmakers have considered amendments to the bill—like requiring “proof of abuse” from the courts or a victim’s advocate—that would heed landlord demands while still attempting to protect survivors.

But when you ask a survivor to go to the police or hospital to obtain proof of abuse, “it may put her in a more dangerous position,” Kramer told Rewire, noting that concessions that benefit landlords shift the bill from being victim-centered.

“It’s a delicate balancing act,” she said.

The Urban Affairs Committee voted HB 1051 out of committee on May 17. The legislation was laid on the table on June 23, but has yet to come up for a floor vote. Whether the bill will move forward is uncertain, but proponents say that they have support at the highest levels of government in Pennsylvania.

“We have a strong advocate in Governor Wolf,” Kramer told Rewire.

Financial Abuse in Its Many Forms

Economic violence is a significant characteristic of domestic violence, advocates say. An abuser will often control finances in the home, forcing their victim to hand over their paycheck and not allow them access to bank accounts, credit cards, and other pecuniary resources. Many abusers will also forbid their partner from going to school or having a job. If the victim does work or is a student, the abuser may then harass them on campus or at their place of employment until they withdraw or quit—if they’re not fired.

Abusers may also rack up debt, ruin their partner’s credit score, and cancel lines of credit and insurance policies in order to exact power and control over their victim. Most offenders will also take money or property away from their partner without permission.

“Financial abuse is so multifaceted,” Pentico told Rewire.

Pentico relayed the story of one survivor whose abuser smashed her cell phone because it would put her in financial dire straits. As Pentico told it, the abuser stole her mobile phone, which was under a two-year contract, and broke it knowing that the victim could not afford a new handset. The survivor was then left with a choice of paying for a bill on a phone she could no longer use or not paying the bill at all and being turned into collections, which would jeopardize her ability to rent her own apartment or switch to a new carrier. “Things she can’t do because he smashed her smartphone,” Pentico said.

“Now the general public [could] see that as, ‘It’s a phone, get over it,'” she told Rewire. “Smashing that phone in a two-year contract has such ripple effects on her financial world and on her ability to get and stay safe.”

In fact, members of the public who have not experienced domestic abuse may overlook financial abuse or minimize it. A 2009 national poll from the Allstate Foundation—the philanthropic arm of the Illinois-based insurance company—revealed that nearly 70 percent of Americans do not associate financial abuse with domestic violence, even though it’s an all-too-common tactic among abusers: Economic violence happens in 98 percent of abusive relationships, according to the NNEDV.

Why people fail to make this connection can be attributed, in part, to the lack of legal remedy for financial abuse, said Carol Tracy, executive director of the Women’s Law Project, a public interest law center in Pennsylvania. A survivor can press criminal charges or seek a civil protection order when there’s physical abuse, but the country’s legal justice system has no equivalent for economic or emotional violence, whether the victim is married to their abuser or not, she said.

Some advocates, in lieu of recourse through the courts, have teamed up with foundations to give survivors individual tools to use in economically abusive situations. In 2005, the NNEDV partnered with the Allstate Foundation to develop a curriculum that would teach survivors about financial abuse and financial safety. Through the program, survivors are taught about financial safety planning including individual development accounts, IRA, microlending credit repair, and credit building services.

State coalitions can receive grant funding to develop or improve economic justice programs for survivors, as well as conduct economic empowerment and curriculum trainings with local domestic violence groups. In 2013—the most recent year for which data is available—the foundation awarded $1 million to state domestic violence coalitions in grants that ranged from $50,000 to $100,000 to help support their economic justice work.

So far, according to Pentico, the curriculum has performed “really great” among domestic violence coalitions and its clients. Survivors say they are better informed about economic justice and feel more empowered about their own skills and abilities, which has allowed them to make sounder financial decisions.

This, in turn, has allowed them to escape abuse and stay safe, she said.

“We for a long time chose to see money and finances as sort of this frivolous piece of the safety puzzle,” Pentico told Rewire. “It really is, for many, the piece of the puzzle.”

Public Policy as a Means of Economic Justice

Still, advocates say that public policy, particularly disparate workplace conditions, plays an enormous role in furthering financial abuse. The populations who are more likely to be victims of domestic violence—women, especially trans women and those of color—are also the groups more likely to be underemployed or unemployed. A 2015 LGBT Health & Human Services Network survey, for example, found that 28 percent of working-age transgender women were unemployed and out of school.

“That’s where [economic abuse] gets complicated,” Tracy told Rewire. “Some of it is the fault of the abuser, and some of it is the public policy failures that just don’t value women’s participation in the workforce.”

Victims working low-wage jobs often cannot save enough to leave an abusive situation, advocates say. What they do make goes toward paying bills, basic living needs, and their share of housing expenses—plus child-care costs if they have kids. In the end, they’re not left with much to live on—that is, if their abuser hasn’t taken away access to their own earnings.

“The ability to plan your future, the ability to get away from [abuse], that takes financial resources,” Tracy told Rewire. “It’s just so much harder when you don’t have them and when you’re frightened, and you’re frightened for yourself and your kids.”

Public labor policy can also inhibit a survivor’s ability to escape. This year, five states, Washington, D.C., and 24 jurisdictions will have passed or enacted paid sick leave legislation, according to A Better Balance, a family and work legal center in New York City. As of April, only one of those states—California—also passed a state paid family leave insurance law, which guarantees employees receive pay while on leave due to pregnancy, disability, or serious health issues. (New Jersey, Rhode Island, Washington, and New York have passed similar laws.) Without access to paid leave, Tracy said, survivors often cannot “exercise one’s rights” to file a civil protection order, attend court hearings, or access housing services or any other resource needed to escape violence.

Furthermore, only a handful of state laws protect workers from discrimination based on sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, and pregnancy or familial status (North Carolina, on the other hand, recently passed a draconian state law that permits wide-sweeping bias in public and the workplace). There is no specific federal law that protects LGBTQ workers, but the U.S. Employment Opportunity Commission has clarified that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 does prohibit discrimination based on gender identity and sexual orientation.

Still, that doesn’t necessarily translate into practice. For example, the National Center for Transgender Equality found that 26 percent of transgender people were let go or fired because of anti-trans bias, while 50 percent of transgender workers reported on-the-job harassment. Research shows transgender people are at a higher risk of being fired because of their trans identity, which would make it harder for them to leave an abusive relationship.

“When issues like that intersect with domestic violence, it’s devastating,” Tracy told Rewire. “Frequently it makes it harder, if not impossible, for [victims] to leave battering situations.”

For many survivors, their freedom from abuse also depends on access to public benefits. Programs like Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the child and dependent care credit, and earned income tax credit give low-income survivors access to the money and resources needed to be on stable economic ground. One example: According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, where a family of three has one full-time nonsalary worker earning $10 an hour, SNAP can increase their take-home income by up to 20 percent.

These programs are “hugely important” in helping lift survivors and their families out of poverty and offset the financial inequality they face, Pentico said.

“When we can put cash in their pocket, then they may have the ability to then put a deposit someplace or to buy a bus ticket to get to family,” she told Rewire.

But these programs are under constant attack by conservative lawmakers. In March, the House Republicans approved a 2017 budget plan that would all but gut SNAP by more than $150 million over the next ten years. (Steep cuts already imposed on the food assistance program have led to as many as one million unemployed adults losing their benefits over the course of this year.) The House GOP budget would also strip nearly $500 billion from other social safety net programs including TANF, child-care assistance, and the earned income tax credit.

By slashing spending and imposing severe restrictions on public benefits, politicians are guaranteeing domestic violence survivors will remain stuck in a cycle of poverty, advocates say. They will stay tethered to their abuser because they will be unable to have enough money to live independently.

“When women leave in the middle of the night with the clothes on their back, kids tucked under their arms, come into shelter, and have no access to finances or resources, I can almost guarantee you she’s going to return,” Pentico told Rewire. “She has to return because she can’t afford not to.”

By contrast, advocates say that improving a survivor’s economic security largely depends on a state’s willingness to remedy what they see as public policy failures. Raising the minimum wage, mandating equal pay, enacting paid leave laws, and prohibiting employment discrimination—laws that benefit the entire working class—will make it much less likely that a survivor will have to choose between homelessness and abuse.

States can also pass proactive policies like the bill proposed in Pennsylvania, to make it easier for survivors to leave abusive situations in the first place. Last year, California enacted a law that similarly allows abuse survivors to terminate their lease without getting a restraining order or filing a police report permanent. Virginia also put in place an early lease-termination law for domestic violence survivors in 2013.

A “more equitable distribution of wealth is what we need, what we’re talking about,” Tracy told Rewire.

As Pentico put it, “When we can give [a survivor] access to finances that help her get and stay safe for longer, her ability to protect herself and her children significantly increases.”

News Politics

Tim Kaine Changes Position on Federal Funding for Abortion Care

Ally Boguhn

The Obama administration, however, has not signaled support for rolling back the Hyde Amendment's ban on federal funding for abortion care.

Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA), the Democratic Party’s vice presidential candidate, has promised to stand with nominee Hillary Clinton in opposing the Hyde Amendment, a ban on federal funding for abortion care.

Clinton’s campaign manager, Robby Mook, told CNN’s State of the Union Sunday that Kaine “has said that he will stand with Secretary Clinton to defend a woman’s right to choose, to repeal the Hyde amendment,” according to the network’s transcript.

“Voters can be 100 percent confident that Tim Kaine is going to fight to protect a woman’s right to choose,” Mook said.

The commitment to opposing Hyde was “made privately,” Clinton spokesperson Jesse Ferguson later clarified to CNN’s Edward Mejia Davis.

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Kaine’s stated support for ending the federal ban on abortion funding is a reversal on the issue for the Virginia senator. Kaine this month told the Weekly Standard  that he had not “been informed” that this year’s Democratic Party platform included a call for repealing the Hyde Amendment. He said he has “traditionally been a supporter of the Hyde amendment.”

Repealing the Hyde Amendment has been an issue for Democrats on the campaign trail this election cycle. Speaking at a campaign rally in New Hampshire in January, Clinton denounced Hyde, noting that it made it “harder for low-income women to exercise their full rights.”

Clinton called the federal ban on abortion funding “hard to justify” when asked about it later that month at the Brown and Black Presidential Forum, adding that “the full range of reproductive health rights that women should have includes access to safe and legal abortion.”

Clinton’s campaign told Rewire during her 2008 run for president that she “does not support the Hyde amendment.”

The Democratic Party on Monday codified its commitment to opposing Hyde, as well as the Helms Amendment’s ban on foreign assistance funds being used for abortion care. 

The Obama administration, however, has not signaled support for rolling back Hyde’s ban on federal funding for abortion care.

When asked about whether the president supported the repeal of Hyde during the White House press briefing Tuesday, Deputy Press Secretary Eric Schultz said he did not “believe we have changed our position on the Hyde Amendment.”

When pushed by a reporter to address if the administration is “not necessarily on board” with the Democratic platform’s call to repeal Hyde, Schultz said that the administration has “a longstanding view on this and I don’t have any changes in our position to announce today.”