Kanye West’s bad-mood-producing abortion tweet; NYC’s racist, anti-choice billboard; the Tea Party’s “we’re not interested in the culture wars” culture-war agenda setting thus far; and midwifery saves money!
Kanye West delved into the world of abortion on Twitter yesterday with this tweet: “an abortion can cost a ballin’ nigga up to 50gs maybe a 100. Gold diggin’ bitches be getting pregnant on purpose. #STRAPUP my niggas!” Yeah, it’s tough to be Kanye West having sex with women, with simply no control over what they do to him. I mean, why can’t we women just be inflatable dolls, there for his “ballin'” pleasure alone. We have to go and have those damn human bodies which, often, have the ability to get pregnant…At least he’s encouraging condom use. Lily Allen was clearly annoyed, tweeting back to West: @kanyewest never has a tweet put me in such a bad mood. This is wrong on so many levels.” Thanks, Lily!
In the heart of Soho, in downtown NYC, a billboard appears this week. It features a young, African-American girl and says, “The most dangerous place for an African American is in the womb.” Yes, you read correctly. Apparently, African American women who are able to become pregnant are inherently hazardous. It was an ad placed by a typical anti-choice, (and, in my opinion, racist group) Life Always, in order to target women of color in a campaign aimed at shutting down Planned Parenthood, of course. LaMar Outdoor Advertising, owner of the billboard space, agreed today, however, to take the billboard down, as many are calling it out and out racist. According to the Women of Color Policy Network, “Following a letter to Peter Costanza, Vice President and General Manager of LaMar Billboards, written by the Women of Color Policy Network, NYU’s Wagner Graduate School of Public Service, Mr. Costanza responded affirmatively that they would remove the billboard.”
Will the Tea Parties rise up against gay rights?, asks Alex Pareene in this excellent article on Salon today. But what he’s really saying is, of course they will. Because, he says, Tea Partyers, are conservative Republicans. They aren’t some sort of “indie backlash,”
And once they get into power, as they have shown in the last month, they attempt to smash unions, ban abortion, redefine rape in order to make it more difficult to safely get an abortion, take a hatchet to women’s reproductive health access in general, pass increasingly onerous and insane laws punishing undocumented migrants and those suspected of being undocumented migrants, propose unconstitutional legislation designed to combat birthright citizenship (the practical result of which would be to vastly increase the number of “illegal immmigrants” in the country), name a national gun of Arizona shortly after a deadly mass shooting, and otherwise do and say things that horrify and alarm reasonable Americans.
Idaho legislators have introduced a bill to allow women who use Medicaid to have the option of using a midwife. Lawmakers say it will save the state a considerable amount of money since approximately 40 percent of births in the state are covered by Medicaid now. A hospital birth costs Medicaid $6,000 while a midwife-assisted birth is estimated to cost Medicaid $1500. There are nine other states which already allow midwife-assisted births to be covered under Medicaid. Washington State is one of those states and it’s seen a significant cost savings. According to Miriam Perez, writing on Rewire, “Washington Department of Health cost benefit analysis showed that licensed midwifery care saves the state $3.1 million per biennium in cost-offsets to Medicaid when low-risk women give birth with licensed midwives instead of in the hospital.”
What began as a fun way to pass the time and form connections with people online has become an exercise in personal fortitude. Why is Twitter ignoring its users cries for help? And why has Twitter left the problem to its users to solve?
I’ve been a Twitter user for more than five years. In that period, I’ve amassed nearly 25,000 followers, and fired off more than 200,000 tweets. I’ve made friends, I started a new career, I got a new job, I became co-host of an award-winning podcast, and I moved to a new city—all through or because of connections that I made on Twitter.
Increasingly, however, I’ve begun to loathe Twitter. What began as a fun way to pass the time and form connections with people online became an exercise in personal fortitude. I open my Twitter client, preemptively wincing at the litany of racist and sexist slurs that usually await me from anonymous keyboard warriors whose only purpose on Twitter is to disrupt, harass, and abuse.
Not that Twitter —or indeed the Internet as a whole—hasn’t always been fraught with assholes. Look at the comments on most news articles posted on Yahoo! or videos posted on YouTube—they’re an apocalyptic wasteland for the misspelled racist and misogynist ramblings of people so wretched that they should be loaded into a cannon and shot directly into the sun.
But on Twitter, the hate-filled invective spewed by the dregs of society awaits you in your notifications. It’s personal and there’s no avoiding it.
In my five years on Twitter, I’ve been called “nigger” so many times that it barely registers as an insult anymore. And when combined with the standard sexist slurs that routinely get lobbed at women on Twitter, let’s just say that my “nigger cunt” cup runneth over.
If you winced when you read that list of slurs, imagine having them lobbed at you nearly every day for two years.
Checking my Twitter mentions has been like playing a perverse game of Press Your Luck —“No Assholster, no Assholster, no Assholster. STOP!”
Some days I’d get lucky. Most days, however, there he’d be—with his stupid Grumpy cat avatar—taking his anger at the world out on me.
I’ve done all the things you’re supposed to do when dealing with assholes on the Internet—all the victim-blaming advice that Twitter has to offer.
I didn’t respond to Assholster. I’ve blocked at least a thousand of his accounts over the past two years. I’ve reported him using Twitter’s “Report Abuse” form. I briefly considered calling the police, but, really, what would be the point? I’ve seen how police treat stalking victims and victims of online harassment far more severe than mine. What did I expect them to do? “That anonymous Internet troll is saying shitty things about me on the Internet. Seize him!”
Nothing worked and the harassment got worse.
His messages to me have grown increasingly personal. He uses my full name in his tweets—creepy. He mocks my medical condition, claiming that I have a fake brain tumor—idiotic. He says that I’m pretending to be Black—what does that even mean?
It got to the point where I began to feel responsible for subjecting my friends to his invective.
But why should I feel responsible? It’s not my responsibility; it’s Twitter’s.
Twitter, Can You Hear Me?
After two years of blocking and reporting Assholster, I decided on a more direct approach. I began taking screenshots of the harassment and tweeting them to both Dick Costolo, the CEO of Twitter, and to Twitter Support. I also started hash-tagging my tweets “#Assholster.”
I knew that by doing this, the harassment would likely escalate—and it did—but I thought if I could make Mr. Costolo or anyone who works at Twitter Support or Safety hear me—if I could make them see exactly what it is that I endure on a daily basis—then maybe Twitter would do something.
So, every time Assholster tweeted me, I would tweet some variation of the following.
After several days of this, Costolo finally responded: “we are on this in a couple different ways. I’d prefer to leave it at that here. Thanks very much.”
Well that’s nice, Mr. Costolo, but I’d prefer to not have this asshole calling me “nigger” day in and day out. And I’d also prefer a little transparency when it comes to whatever it is you folks at Twitter are doing about serial harassers.
Reporting Abuse: Why Bother?
Last summer, it seemed as if Twitter might finally be shamed into action. In the wake of a barrage of rape and death threats received by Caroline Criado Perez—a British feminist who campaigned to have Jane Austen appear on a Bank of England note—Twitter introduced a “report abuse” button that allows users to flag abusive tweets directly from Twitter.
It changed everything! And by “everything,” I mean “nothing.”
The only thing the “report abuse” button does is to remove one step from Twitter’s standard process for reporting abuse. Before the “report abuse” button, you’d have to do an Internet search for Twitter’s “Report Abusive User” form in order to report an abusive tweet. The “report abuse” button immediately directs you to the form so you don’t have to Google it.
Yes, it’s as pointless as it sounds because as anyone who has bothered to report an abusive tweet knows, the “Report Abusive User” form is about as effective as your average YouTube commenter at a spelling bee.
First, Twitter often takes days, weeks, or even months to respond to a report of abuse. Second, reporting an individual user for harassment is useless in cases where the abusive user’s account has already been suspended—and a new account created—by the time you complete the reporting process. In such cases, Twitter just shrugs its shoulders: Sorry. That account has been suspended. Nothing we can do.
Twitter doesn’t even bother to make sure that its users are following its own rules.
“Fucking Die Feminist Moron”
I’m not the only woman who is fed up with Twitter’s lax approach to abuse. One Twitter user, Kristin Puhl, reported a threat she received to Twitter: “fucking die feminist moron i’m coming after u and raping u.” According to Puhl, it took Twitter two days to respond to her report, and when they did, they informed Puhl that the tweet did not violate Twitter’s rules.
Got that? It is not a violation of Twitter’s rules to threaten to rape another Twitter user.
As Puhl aptly put it, “I am so angry @Twitter. If you don’t take violent threats seriously, why even have a section for reporting them?”
I asked Shanley Kane, founder and CEO of Model View Culture and critic of the tech industry’s unbearable whiteness of being, about the harassment she endures on Twitter. “There’s the constant background, opportunistic, low-grade harassment—responses to my tweets that are deliberately using hate speech, sexist slurs and words, or juvenile trolling,” she wrote in an email.
Many women on Twitter are familiar with this type of harassment. It is so commonplace that many of us have grown accustomed to it. It has become the price that we pay for simply daring to have an opinion and express it on Twitter.
“Another type is I have somewhere between two and four (It’s hard to determine because they often utilize multiple accounts) people who have been consistently stalking and harassing me for more than 9 months, often with daily harassing contact,” Kane added.
This is the sort of serial harassment and stalking that seems to be reserved for prominent women on Twitter, feminists, or women who have a large following. (I recently asked my followers whether any had experienced this sort of serial harassment. “I’m not that big-time,” one Twitter user replied to me.)
Kane has been very vocal about Twitter’s failure to address harassment. On July 29, she spearheaded an effort to encourage Twitter users to use a tweet chat sponsored by CNBC—#AskCostolo—as a way to air their grievances about Twitter’s ineffective abuse policy.
Thirty-two percent of the comments and questions tweeted on the #AskCostolo hashtag were related to safety, privacy and abuse, according to a social analytics firm. And many of the tweets were variations on the same theme:
Why aren’t rape threats a violation of Twitter’s terms of service?
Why can’t Twitter prevent people from creating serial accounts to harass Twitter users?
Why does Twitter use the diversity of its user base as a selling point for advertisers while ignoring the harassment that its diverse users suffer?
Why is it that Black people comprise more than a quarter of Twitter’s user base, but Twitter won’t do anything about the rampant racism those users face? (Notably, Twitter just hired a “multicultural strategist” to head up plans to target Black, Hispanic, and Asian users for advertising—you know—the same users that it ignores when it comes to dealing with racism on Twitter.)
The questions went on and on for hours.
But did Costolo address any of those concerns during his interview with CNBC? Nope. Has anyone at Twitter responded to the thousands of tweets from its users asking what Twitter is doing to fix the harassment and abuse problem? Of course not.
The question remains, why not?
“There is no inherent technical reason why Twitter can’t better address abuse and harassment on its platform,” said Shanley Kane. “Twitter employs literally thousands of engineers at the top of the field, and has access to the best talent, research, and resources the world has to offer, in addition to the capital to obtain it,” she added.
Third-Party Developers Step Up
While Twitter with its thousands of engineers has been unable or unwilling to develop solutions to the rampant racist, sexist, homophobic, anti-semitic, and transphobic harassment that its users suffer on a daily basis—solutions like those suggested by iOS developer Danilo Campos in a recent blog post entitled “The Least Twitter Could Do”—Jacob Hoffman-Andrews, a senior staff technologist at Electronic Frontier Foundation, recently stepped up.
Last Monday, Hoffman-Andrews unveiled Block Together, a new app “intended to help cope with harassers and abusers on Twitter.” To say that the app has changed my Twitter life is to understate its significance to me.
I am now able to control my Twitter experience in ways that before I could not. Block Together permits me to share my list of blocked users (over 5,000 users) with other Twitter users (and vice versa) so that I can avoid those users that people whom I trust have already deemed unworthy of my time.
More importantly, however, the app permits me to automatically block accounts less than seven days old that tweet at me.
I signed up for the app immediately, and for the past six days, I have had a reprieve from the constant barrage of racist and misogynist insults and slurs that had become a part of my daily Twitter experience.
Block Together is currently the only app that permits users to control their own content. But another app is in the works: San Francisco-based developer Cori Johnson is working on Flaminga, an app that promises even more robust solutions to Twitter abuse than those currently offered by Block Together.
So there you have it: Two developers are attacking Twitter’s abuse problem while Twitter twiddles its thumbs.
Still, why is Twitter ignoring its users cries for help? Why has Twitter left the problem to its users to solve?
According to the numbers released last month, 90 percent of employees who work in tech roles are male; 92 percent of tech employees are white or Asian; and 96 percent of leadership roles are held by white or Asian people. In addition, 90 percent of employees in tech are men, and 79 percent of the leadership roles are held by men. Blacks and Hispanics comprise a measly 1 and 3 percent of Twitter’s United States tech workforce, respectively.
To put it bluntly, Twitter is run primarily by white guys who are presumably straight. And because, for the most part, straight white guys don’t endure the same level of online harassment that women do, they simply cannot understand what it’s like to be on the receiving end of relentless abuse. After all, to paraphrase Louis C.K., you can’t even hurt a white man’s feelings.
For women, the harassment on Twitter is often unbearable, and the facile response of those who are not subjected to regular harassment—and, indeed, the response of Twitter itself—is infuriating: “Don’t feed the trolls.” “Just block them.”
But “just block them” is not a solution for those of us who are relentlessly assailed by Twitter users who have nothing better to do than to slap us in the face with their hate-filled filth, and who, upon account suspension, create new accounts in order to continue their campaign of harassment.
Often, the best solution is to reduce Twitter activity or to quit the platform entirely. I know many women who have already done that. But that solution benefits neither the victims of harassment nor Twitter. If, as Twitter claims, its goal is to reach every person on the planet, then Twitter higher-ups are going to need to acknowledge that most of the people on the planet aren’t straight white dudes, and they’re going to need to come up with a way curb the abuse.
Until that time, developers of apps like Block Together are stepping up to fill the void—a void that, thus far, Twitter refuses to fill itself.
The assault had been years, even decades, in the making. But three years ago, a Supreme Court case, the U.S. Census, and anti-Obama backlash set the course for the arsonists who trained their flame-throwers on women's fundamental freedoms.
In the dog days of summer, the “war on women” erupted into a full-fledged conflagration, as heated battles to roll back reproductive rights in the U.S. Congress and in state legislatures across the nation were met with protests from women’s rights groups and grassroots uprisings. While the religious right had, over the years, used its influence to restrict access to abortion and contraception and push for feticide and personhood laws, nothing quite like the anti-choice legislative frenzy seen this past summer had taken place before the Koch brothers entered the war, bringing reinforcements from their legion of wealthy associates.
In North Carolina, thousands of activists gathered weekly, throughout the legislative session, at the state capitol in Raleigh for Moral Monday protests of a host of right-wing measures ranging from voter ID laws to rollbacks of reproductive rights. Many were arrested for trying to enter the capitol building.
And in Texas, the state capitol building in Austin was crammed with protesters as state Sen. Wendy Davis (D-Fort Worth) earned her place in Lone Star history with her 11-hour filibuster of a draconian anti-choice bill, SB 5, which, after being stopped by Davis and her pro-choice allies with a dramatic run-down of the clock, ultimately passed into law as HB 2 in a subsequent special session called by Republican Gov. Rick Perry.
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Back in Washington, D.C., the Republican-controlled House of Representatives passed HR 1797, a bill that would ban abortion after 20 weeks post-conception.
To the untrained eye, it seemed that a sudden wildfire of anti-choice bills had engulfed the legislative agenda, but in truth the assault had been years, even decades, in the making. It wasn’t until three years ago, however, that conditions became so hospitable for the arsonists who trained their flame-throwers on these fundamental freedoms.
In 2010, three key events created the incendiary political landscape that fueled this summer’s inferno: the Supreme Court’s decision to strike down campaign finance restrictions in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, elections at the state and federal levels that rode the winds of backlash against the 2008 election of Barack Obama, and the subsequent census-year victories of right-wing Republicans whose gains in state legislatures and governors’ mansions gave them control of the process for drawing legislative and congressional districts.
There is little doubt that the rash of anti-choice measures that flooded the legislative dockets in state capitols in 2013 was a coordinated effort by anti-choice groups and major right-wing donors lurking anonymously behind the facades of the non-profit “social welfare” organizations unleashed to tear up the political landscape, thanks to the high court’s decision in Citizens United.
While similarly classified groups exist in progressive circles, they have nowhere near the funding provided to right-wing groups by wealthy, business-focused donors. Of the top-ten outside spending “social welfare” groups engaged in the 2012 elections, all but one were either right-wing or conservative.
Helping to drive the right-wing offensive in the states and in Congress is a network of deep-pocketed business titans convened by the billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch, principals in Koch Industries, the second-largest privately held corporation in the United States. Like the Kochs themselves, many of the donors in the brothers’ networks signaldisinterest in fighting against women’s rights or LGBTQ rights, yet anti-choice groups have seen their coffers swell with millions of the network’s dollars.
“If you want to promote a pro-corporate agenda, you’re only going to get so far,” Sue Sturgis, the Durham, North Carolina-based editorial director of the progressive website Facing South, told Rewire. “But when you start weaving in these social issues like abortion and other reproductive rights issues, then you’re gonna appeal to a broader range of people, and a very motivated voting bloc. They will turn out. So it serves your larger cause.”
The Koch Connection
Rewire’s review of tax records filed by the Center to Protect Patient Rights (CPPR), taken together with a Politico report on the tax records of Freedom Partners, show these so-called free-market organizations, both linked to the Koch brothers, dispensing tens of millions of dollars to groups whose mission it is to end reproductive rights. CPPR was founded in 2009, and is described by the Los Angeles Times as “a primary conduit for anonymous political money in the 2010 midterm [congressional] election.” Freedom Partners was founded two years later, just in time to help shape the landscape of the 2012 presidential, congressional, and legislative races.
Koch Brothers Funding of Anti-Choice Groups, by Organization
more than $8 million to Concerned Women for America Legislative Action Committee
$32 million to Americans for Prosperity
$15.7 million to 60 Plus
Freedom Partners via CPPR
Since November 2011, the Center to Protect Patient Rights (CPPR) has recieved about $115 million from Freedom Partners. CPPR also took in some $11 million from Americans for Job Security, another pass-through group with connections to prominent businessmen Bob Fisher (director of The Gap, Inc.), Charles Schwab (founder and chairman of Charles Schwab Corporation), and Eli Broad (founder, KB Home and Sun America).
CPPR, in turn, has long had deep funding ties to anti-choice organizations. Here is a list of CPPR disbursements to anti-choice organizations by year.
$2.6 million to 60 Plus
$2.25 million to Americans for Prosperity
$250,000 to Independent Women’s Voice
$25,000 to Nebraska Right to Life
$9 million to 60 Plus
$1.9 million to Americans for Prosperity
$1 million to the Susan B. Anthony List
$559,000 to Americans United for Life Action
$45,000 to Americans United for Life
$2.4 million to 60 Plus
$1.5 million to Concerned Women for America Legislative Action Committee
Through the creation of non-profit organizations under sections 501(c)(4) and 501(c)(6) of the tax code, the Kochs and other political money-wranglers concocted several layers of obfuscation for their well-heeled friends to hide behind. The tax code protects groups in those categories from having to reveal their donors.
By its name, you might take the Koch-linked CPPR—now apparently defunct, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics—as yet another astroturf group launched to oppose Obamacare. Run by longtime Koch political operative Sean Noble, CPPR was indeed that, but it was much, much more. Known in political parlance as a pass-through group, CPPR was used by big, unnamed donors to pass money to other organizations, apparently as a means of further obscuring the original source of the funding.
Rewire, examining CPPR’s tax filings, confirmed reporting by NARAL Pro-Choice America and American Bridge that in 2010, it granted more than $1 million to the Susan B. Anthony (SBA) List, about half of the $2 million the group spent that year on advertising for anti-choice candidates and against pro-choice candidates in state and federal races across the country. The CPPR grant accounted for nearly 15 percent of the group’s overall revenues that year.
In Ohio, the SBA List mounted billboards in 2010 making the false claim that Obamacare included taxpayer-funded abortion. (When the Ohio Election Commission ruled that the billboards had to be taken down because the state’s election law prohibits false claims, the SBA List launched a legal challenge, which it has since lost in Ohio courts. The group has asked the U.S. Supreme Court to review Ohio’s decision.)
In the 2012 elections, the SBA List upped its game, spending more than $11 million on races across the country, according to a memo reported by The Hill. Because 2012 tax filings were not yet available for public view at the time of publication, we cannot report whether CPPR provided any of those ad dollars.
CPPR’s generosity to groups that push for laws restricting access to reproductive health care and limit women’s rights in pregnancy doesn’t end with the SBA List. In 2010, it provided Americans United for Life Action (AULA) with 39 percent of the group’s operating budget that year. It’s likely that the $559,000 AULA received from CPPR accounted for the $425,374 that it spent, according to AULA’s tax filing, on elections that year. CPPR also gave an additional $45,000 in 2010 to AULA’s sibling organization, Americans United for Life.
In 2011, CPPR gave $1.5 million to the Concerned Women for America Legislative Action Committee (CWALAC); that more than filled the $500,000 hole Mother Jones’ Stephanie Mencimer reported the organization dug for itself after spending $2 million in the 2010 elections—with a cool $1 million left over for the committee’s anti-choice lobbying in state legislatures, and millions more to come from Freedom Partners, another Koch-linked group. CWALAC was deeply involved in pushing the passage of the Texas anti-choice law.
CPPR also dispensed smaller sums to other anti-choice groups, including $250,000 in 2009 to Independent Women’s Voice, which opposes the birth control benefit in the Affordable Care Act, and $25,000 to Nebraska Right to Life, which the following year helped pass the first state-level 20-week abortion ban, based on a model bill crafted by the National Right to Life Committee.
So where does CPPR get its money? Like other 501(c)(4) non-profits, it doesn’t have to disclose its donors. But tax filings from Freedom Partners, a 501(c)(6) organization, show, according to an investigation by Politico’s Mike Allen and Jim VandeHei, that since November 2011 CPPR took in some $115 million from Freedom Partners, which Politico editors dubbed “the Koch brothers’ secret bank.”
And lest you think CPPR’s $1.5 million grant to the CWALAC was extraordinarily generous, Freedom Partners also gifted CWALAC with more than $8 million since Freedom Partners’ founding in late 2011, according to the Politico report.
That would make Freedom Partners a sort of granddaddy pass-through group, providing pass-through money to another pass-through organization—CPPR—which, in turn, gave $1.5 million of granddaddy’s money to an anti-choice group, CWALAC, to which granddaddy had already given millions.
Until Politicobroke the story of Freedom Partners’ free-spending involvement in the 2012 elections, few in Washington knew of the group’s existence, despite the presence of longtime Koch confidante Richard Fink, a former president of two Koch family foundations, on Freedom Partner’s board. “[Freedom Partners] made grants of $236 million — meaning a totally unknown group was the largest sugar daddy for conservative groups in the last election,” write Allen and VandeHei.
Donors to the group, they report, are drawn from the network that attends the Koch brothers’ super-secret annual retreats, and pay around $100,000 annually in dues.
Americans for Job Security, another pass-through group with a “free enterprise” kind of name, donated some $11 million to CPPR. Donors to Americans for Job Security, according to the Los Angeles Times, include business giants Bob Fisher, chairman of The Gap chain of retail stores; Charles Schwab, chairman of the eponymous brokerage firm; and Eli Broad, the entrepreneur and philanthropist. All are billionaires.
Dark Money and Not-So-Strange Bedfellows
The court’s decision in Citizens United was handed down just as campaigns for the 2010 midterm congressional and legislative elections got under way, allowing the right to capitalize on resentment against the election of the nation’s first African-American president, who, during his presidential campaign, had been vilified with false narratives about his birthplace, religious faith, and ideology.
Now armed with the ability to spend unrestricted sums, yielded from the contributions of unnamed donors, to influence political campaigns, a group such as the Koch-funded Americans for Prosperity—one of two major organizations responsible for organizing Tea Party groups in 2009 by ginning up opposition to the Affordable Care Act—was free to spend some $40 million, by its own accounting, on an estimated 100 races across the country in 2010. (The other was FreedomWorks, which was also founded with Koch money, but no longer receives funding from the brothers, according to FreedomWorks leaders.)
The result was a transfer of power in the U.S. House of Representatives from the Democrats to the Republicans, as the GOP picked up 63 seats. At the state level, the Republican gains were even more stark, with Republicans gaining control of an additional 11 state legislatures to the 14 they already held, and winning a net gain of six governors’ mansions, bringing the total number of GOP governors that year to 29.
According to the Guttmacher Institute, since 2011—the year those elected in 2010 took power—state legislatures have passed more than 200 restrictions on abortion. “That’s about the same number that had passed in the prior 10 years combined,” writes Esmé E. Deprez of Bloomberg.
Ohio state Sen. Nina Turner marks the attack on public workers in her state in 2010—spearheaded by the Koch-linked American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), the national “free-enterprise” group that also led the charge against public-sector workers and unions in Wisconsin and Indiana that year—as the opening gambit in the right-wing, state-based legislative offensive that culminated this legislative session with the anti-choice measures shoved, last minute, into the state’s budget bill. “It’s not happenstance,” she told Rewire. “It is well-organized.”
It follows that attacks on reproductive rights came on the heels of the assault against labor unions, public-sector workers, and poor people that began, most famously, in Wisconsin, as soon as the Republican right racked up impressive state-level wins in 2010, or that renewed attacks on voting rights ensued at the same time.
Unlike the more homogenous Republican Party, the Democratic coalition includes voters from a range of populations, including members of organized labor as well as members of ethnic and racial minority groups whose participation in elections has historically depended on voting rights protections. If you make it harder to organize those voters, or more difficult for them to pass muster at the polls, as voter ID laws do, you diminish the coalition’s impact.
“So whether we’re going backwards with the ‘war on women,’ whether we’re going backwards with workers’ rights, or backwards with voting rights,” Turner said, “if you look at what is happening across this nation, we are not progressing; we’re regressing.”
Members of the Koch network are primarily motivated by a quest to eliminate worker, consumer, and environmental protections in the interest of reaping even greater profits for their businesses. In order to accrue power in the electoral arena, however, they’re apparently all too eager to feed the fears of white social conservatives—including the fear of government intrusion—who can be counted on to vote against liberals.
While most of the groups behind the attacks on unions claim no official position on abortion or reproductive health, they share an interest with anti-choice groups in depleting the power of Democrats, who are more inclined to support reproductive rights. In most states, in fact, the very same legislators who champion the right’s pro-business, anti-regulatory agenda were the ones who advanced legislation to heap new and destructive regulations on abortion clinics, and to restrict women’s rights.
In the Texas House, for example, Rep. Jodie Laubenberg (R-Murphy), who sponsored the anti-choice legislation that led to Davis’ Senate filibuster, also heads the state chapter of ALEC. (While ALEC’s designation under the Internal Revenue Service code as a 501(c)(3) organization prohibits it from directly participating in elections, the corporations comprising its membership [including Koch Industries] have political action committees that do.)
Even if their business-boosting patrons in the Koch network wanted to stop the Tea Partiers from ramming through draconian abortion restrictions by any means necessary—which the money men clearly don’t, even if party elders might—they probably couldn’t, said Democratic pollster Celinda Lake, president of Lake Research Partners. “This is their ideological agenda,” Lake said of the Tea Party legislators. “They really believe in this. … This is what they always wanted to do.”
And they know that the measures they’re pushing are controversial, she said. Why else would they need to sneak them through the legislative process, as was done in the Ohio budget bill or the North Carolina motorcycle safety bill?
“Thieves in the night,” Nina Turner called it.
In Texas, the abortion bill required two special sessions to pass, and, according to state Sen. Kirk Watson (D-Austin), a defiance of Senate traditions in the manner in which the bill was brought up.
“Free Market” = Anti-Choice
To focus explicitly on the Koch network’s generosity to groups attacking reproductive rights alone only tells a part of the story of the anti-woman furor that rocked state legislatures and the U.S. House in 2013.
For instance, the $32 million given by Freedom Partners to Americans for Prosperity (AFP)—which describes its mission as “educating citizens about economic policy and mobilizing those citizens as advocates in the public policy process”—was nearly all deployed in support of candidates who are anti-choice, as was the $15.7 million bestowed on 60 Plus, “free-market,” anti-Obamacare group that claims to represent senior citizens.
Both of those groups also received windfalls from the Center to Protect Patient Right; Americans for Prosperity pocketed $2.25 million from CPPR in 2009 and $1.9 million in 2010, while 60 Plus won $2.6 million in CPPR money in 2009, a whopping $9 million in 2010, and another $2.4 million in 2011.
During the 2012 elections, AFP spent some $33 million on ads designed to defeat the reelection of President Obama, but that only scratches the surface of what the group was up to. It’s difficult to track how much was spent in state races, although the Washington Post reported that in Arkansas alone, AFP laid out $1 million for activities and ads in legislative races—and succeeded in turning the state house red.
Overall, AFP engaged in local and state-level issues and races in some 35 states, according to the Washington Post.
During the epic battle in July of the Texas abortion bill, Peggy Venable, director of AFP’s Texas chapter, tweeted, “#SB1 #HB2 will be determined by whether legislators believe a 20-wk-old fetus is a baby or a choice #TXlege #NoMiddleGround.”
So much for that singular economic policy mission.
In North Carolina’s 2012 legislative races, some $14.5 million was spent by the outside groups empowered by the Supreme Court decision in Citizens United, a marked uptick from 2010, when 11 outside spending groups accounted for a total of $2.6 million. According to Facing South’s Sue Sturgis, 75 percent of that 2010 money came from groups supported by or affiliated with one man, Art Pope, a wealthy businessman who has also served as chairman of the board of David Koch’s Americans for Prosperity.
The 2010 Republican victories propelled by Pope’s groups yielded a majority in the legislature; the gerrymandered districts rendered by that majority gave the Republicans a veto-proof supermajority. Not that they needed the veto-proof part: Pope helped elect Republican Pat McCrory to the governor’s mansion and took the helm of the new governor’s transition team. The transition team named Pope to the position of state budget director, where he sits today.
Pope also leads and supports a number of North Carolina groups and think tanks, including the Civitas Institute, whose creation of an online database containing personal information about the protesters arrested in civil disobedience actions during the Moral Monday gatherings during the legislative session raised eyebrows, especially for including information about the protesters’ home addresses and the names of their employers.
A regular attendee of the Koch brothers’ retreats, Pope likes to be known as a champion of free enterprise, not an anti-choice zealot. Nonetheless, Pope money helped propel the anti-choice measures that were shoved into a motorcycle-safety bill, with the North Carolina Family Policy Council leading the charge. The Family Policy Council, as it turns out, is the state affiliate of the anti-gay, anti-choice Family Research Council, and Pope’s family foundation donates to both groups.
If 2010 offered the right an advantage in the midterm elections, thanks to Citizens United and the anti-Obama backlash, its place in the decennial calendar was a boon to the Kochs and their allies as they set about making over the Republican Party in their own image. It was a census year, and the U.S. Census, taken every decade in years ending in zero, also sets in motion the boundary-setting process for legislative and congressional districts. In each state house, the party in power gets to redraw district lines. (States each have their own rules about whether the process is conducted by the legislature or the governor’s office.)
Whether Democrats or Republicans are in charge, each party draws the districts to favor its candidates. But 2010’s Republicans are a special breed.
With right-wing Republicans having trounced Democrats in the midterms and several notable Republicans in the that year’s primaries, they gained control of the redistricting process in many states, where they set about redrawing the lines of congressional and legislative districts in such a way that only very conservative Republicans could win, for instance, finding ways to make the votes of Black and Latino populations less influential within a given district.
In some cases, the outcome of redistricting gave the right enhanced sway. In Ohio’s 2012 congressional elections, for example, the Cleveland Plain Dealer reported that even though the state’s population was almost evenly divided between Republican and Democratic voters, Republicans enjoyed a 12-4 edge in the outcome of House seat races, while the U.S. Senate seat contested that year was won by a progressive Democrat. (Senate races are statewide elections, not determined by district.)
“This is the reason why, in the State of Ohio, we can re-elect [U.S.] Sen. Sherrod Brown (D), we can re-elect the president of the United States, but we have a different result on the state level,” Nina Turner told Rewire. “It’s absolutely the result of gerrymandering.”
In North Carolina, Sue Sturgis sees redistricting as a factor exacerbating the polarization of her state, where abortion was among a host of contentious issues, including voting rights, that fueled the historic weekly Moral Monday protests.
“That’s certainly how it appears here, where you have a party that’s become more extreme, and is essentially rigging the system to be more extreme,” Sturgis said.
Republicans also won the U.S. House of Representatives in 2012, despite the fact that Democrats won a majority of the popular vote.
In Texas, meanwhile, the worst impulses of district cartographers had been kept somewhat in check by the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which subjected Texas—because of its history of disenfranchising non-white voters—to “pre-clear” certain changes to its district maps with the U.S. Department of Justice. In fact, without Texas’ place on the list of jurisdictions subjected to pre-clearance under Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act, Wendy Davis would likely have lost her last Senate race because of an attempt to redistrict her voters away.
Davis won a challenge to the new district lines under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. Since then, however, the Supreme Court struck down the portion of the act that made Texas subject to added scrutiny, opening the way for more race-based gerrymandering.
But as Justin Leavitt, associate professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, sees it, redistricting doesn’t tell the whole story, which he sees as one more of political polarization than a simple tale of game-rigging.
How else to explain what’s happened to the U.S. Senate, where candidates run statewide, asked Leavitt, an expert in redistricting. “The Senate’s not districted, and, lo and behold, the Senate’s more polarized, too,” he said.
That’s where the influence of the big-money, right-wing groups really matters.
A major player in Republican primaries is the Koch-linked Club for Growth, which appears to exist almost solely to challenge Republican incumbents its leaders deem to be not right-wing enough. With the group’s ad money looming as a threat, GOP incumbents face primary challenges in statewide races if their legislative votes veer from the playbook prescribed by right-wing leaders. The Club for Growth played a critical role in the election of Ted Cruz (R-TX) to the U.S. Senate in 2012, and Mike Lee (R-UT) to the same body in 2010, both through the Republican Party’s nomination process.
Indeed, the draconian abortion law that passed this summer in Texas had its origins, in part, in Ted Cruz’s Senate campaign. Backed by the Club for Growth and other donors allied with the Tea Party, Cruz essentially won his seat in a primary challenge to Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst (R-Houston), who was dismissed as not conservative enough by the right-wing groups that came to control the Republican primary process.
Now up for re-election to his current office, Dewhurst needed to prove his bona fides to the right, said Texas Sen. Kirk Watson (D-Austin), who chairs the Democratic caucus in the Texas state Senate. “This really comes down to the issue of, if you get primaried, or if you look like a moderate Republican, you can’t play to an extreme base,” Watson told Rewire.
Justin Leavitt says the jury’s out regarding the origins of the polarization that characterizes our current politics.
“Political scientists have an endless, probably unresolvable debate about whether it’s the party elites polarizing more and bringing the people along with them, or the people are polarizing more and bringing the party along with them,” Leavitt said. “But there’s far less cross-over voting or ticket-splitting than we’ve seen in the recent past.”
But what if it’s neither the people nor the party leaders? Could it be that the influence of outside spending groups, bent on challenging the established leadership of one party, has intensified the polarization of the whole body politic?
In red states across the nation, that “extreme base” mentioned by Watson has been nurtured and riled by a steady flow of advertising dollars from, as well as rallies and events sponsored by, the very groups unleashed by Citizens United, including “free-market” groups such as Americans for Prosperity, the Club for Growth, FreedomWorks, and the Center to Protect Patient Rights, and anti-choice groups such as the Susan B. Anthony List, Americans United for Life Action, and the Concerned Women for America Legislative Action Committee.
An Overplayed Hand?
Democratic pollster Celinda Lake can’t help but smile when she thinks back to the soul-searching by Republicans in the aftermath of Mitt Romney’s defeat in the 2012 presidential election. Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus commissioned a strategy document that especially emphasized the party’s need to be more friendly to women and members of ethnic and racial minorities.
“He must think they’ve absolutely gone crazy to jeopardize their status as a major competitive party if they keep at this,” Lake told Rewire.
Sue Sturgis concurs. “The Republicans have really pissed off a broad swath of the North Carolina public,” Sturgis said. “If you look at the people who have been involved in the protests, it’s not all Democrats. There have been Republicans who have been arrested, and independents. And you know this is … a purple state; it’s not a red state.”
A poll by Public Policy Polling taken as the motorcycle abortion bill made its way through the assembly bears out Sturgis’ assertion.
Not every Republican in the Texas state Senate was happy to have to cast a vote on the notorious SB 5 abortion bill filibustered by Wendy Davis, said Kirk Watson. “The truth of the matter is there were a lot of Republicans on the floor with heartache about this because they know they’ve got women that didn’t support what they were doing. It was very difficult for [Lt. Gov. Dewhurst] to even get that to the floor,” he said.
According to one Democrat present in the Texas Senate during the debate over the SB 5 version of the abortion bill, keeping the heat on Dewhurst during the fight over the bill was Elizabeth Graham, director of Texas Right to Life, who the source said was seen in Dewhurst’s office during the proceedings. Texas Right to Life spokesperson Emily Horne said she couldn’t confirm Graham’s presence in Dewhurst’s office, but didn’t deny it. “I wasn’t with her the whole day,” Horne said of Graham, “but I don’t believe that’s true.”
A message left with the lieutenant governor’s staff requesting confirmation of Graham’s presence in Dewhurst’s office during the debate went unanswered.
But given the limitations imposed on pro-choice candidates by the redistricting crafted by hardline anti-choice Republicans, and the vast flows of money from right-wing outside spending groups, how are the current pro-choice minorities in the affected states ever to gain a political majority?
“Statewide offices,” said Nina Turner. “In these states, the districts are rigged to such an extent that it may be nearly impossible to win any of those [legislative and congressional] districts that are extreme. We’ve got to do it by taking back the statewide offices. That is my recommendation to people here in the state of Ohio.”
Turner, it seems, is taking her own advice, launching a 2014 campaign for the office of secretary of state, the office that oversees the conduct of elections, challenging incumbent Republican Jon Husted, whom Turner calls the “secretary of suppression.” (During the 2012 presidential race, the Obama campaign won a challenge to an Ohio law that “blocked early voting in person on the three days before election day,” according to the ClevelandPlain Dealer.)
The offices of governor, auditor, treasurer, and attorney general were named by Turner as examples as positions for which she’d like to see her pro-choice Democratic colleagues run.
In Texas, meanwhile, Wendy Davis is echoing Turner’s strategy, planning a run in 2014 at the governor’s mansion. The Lone Star state may be red, but a majority of Texans were none too keen about the draconian abortion bill that got through the legislature in spite of Davis’ filibuster, according to a poll conducted by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research before the bill passed into law.
Sue Sturgis noted that North Carolina still has a vestige of the kind of divided government Turner seeks—that the Tar Heel State’s attorney general, Roy Cooper, is a progressive Democrat. But with the state’s new voter ID law coming into play, ground organizing of potential voters is critical, Sturgis said, and it’s already begun in advance of the 2014 midterms.
“You’re going to see efforts to register, efforts to make sure people have the kind of ID they need to have to vote, and you’re going to see big voter turnout efforts,” Sturgis said, adding that the 900 people who were arrested in the Moral Monday civil disobedience actions are being pressed into service as organizers.
For her part, Lake isn’t willing to concede the U.S. House of Representatives to the Republicans or its anti-choice Tea Party caucus. While acknowledging the difficulties posed by the 2010 redistricting, Lake believes enough seats could be in play by November 2014 to give pro-choice Democrats a fighting chance.
Turnout is the key, she said—a notoriously difficult task during midterm elections among the Democrats’ key constituencies, including young people and single women of all races, together with African Americans and Latinos in general.
“[I]f we get the turnout up, they’re gonna overshoot it, they’re gonna overshoot it for suburban women. They already are. This is just going too far,” said Lake of the anti-choice, anti-contraception crusade the Tea Party-driven GOP Congress has embarked on. But the key to Democrats winning in those tough congressional districts, Lake said, will be in raising the money and crafting the messaging to run on those issues.
In Tampa, Florida, at an event sponsored by Americans for Prosperity during the 2012 Republican National Convention, I got a few words with Art Pope, who was being honored at the party, alongside David Koch. Then, he urged caution to his Tea Party allies when looking forward to the 2014 midterm congressional elections. The Tea Party triumph of 2010, he said, “does not signify a permanent realignment.” Rather, he said, “it’s an opportunity.”
If the Democrats meet their turnout goals—and that’s not a given—the 2010 Tea Party victories could signal an opportunity blown. The legislative sessions that closed with vitriol and rights-rollbacks have left a lot of anger in their wake. How that anger manifests on election day is anybody’s guess.