Commentary Politics

No Thanks, Bernie: Virginia Abortion Rights Advocates Know Better

Erin Matson

Sen. Bernie Sanders’ ongoing drive to own what the progressive brand within the Democratic Party should look like—a quest currently taking place in Virginia with gubernatorial candidate Tom Perriello—coupled with his willingness to make abortion rights an optional part of that brand, is dangerous at a critical moment for reproductive health care.

Editor’s note: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not imply endorsement by Rewire.

The importance of the Virginia governor’s race can’t be understated for progressives and reproductive health, rights, and justice advocates, whether or not they live here. Taking place off-cycle with national elections in November 2017, the returns out of Virginia—and the other state holding a governor’s race at the same time, New Jersey—offer one of the first shots for a referendum on the right-wing dominance in Washington. Since taking office, President Donald Trump and his administration have carried out sweeping attacks on access to reproductive health care, from a room full of men in the White House who disagree with maternity coverage to the Global Gag Rule.

Here in the Commonwealth, the Family Foundation of Virginia has announced its intention to sue to block the rollback of unconstitutional abortion restrictions. There’s no question that abortion opponents in Virginia are hoping to force a new vote at the state’s Board of Health after new appointees get placed by Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s successor. McAuliffe is term-limited and cannot seek re-election in 2017. Blocking a 20-week abortion ban depends on a governor’s veto. Just this week, Republican candidate for governor Ed Gillespie said, “I would like to see abortion be banned” at a candidates’ forum. Although his campaign after the event clarified any “ban” would include exceptions for rape, incest, or life endangerment, such attempts to restrict abortion access are an assault on our constitutionally protected right.

We can’t afford to blow this election.

It is for that reason that I’m particularly concerned about a recent comment from Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), who has endorsed Democratic gubernatorial candidate Tom Perriello, a one-term former Virgina congressperson, for governor. On MSNBC’s Morning Joe last week, the former presidential candidate agreed with host Joe Scarborough that Democrats should “be open to candidates that may not be rigidly pro-choice, may not be rigidly pro-gun control.”
Sen. Sanders is coming into my state to prove a point, along with other national Democrats fixing to send a signal that has little to do with Virginia—they want to use our election night to demonstrate that they hold the keys for national elections in 2018 and 2020. They’ve landed on Perriello, who has primarily played in national and not state politics, as the vehicle to do that. It makes sense that Center for American Progress founder John Podesta is going there because Perriello previously served as president and CEO of the Center for American Progress Action Fund. Podesta’s Perriello endorsement column in The Washington Post is titled, “The governor’s race that could define the Democratic Party’s future.”
What’s uniquely concerning about Sanders’ quest to send a national signal in Virginia with Perriello is Sanders’ ongoing drive to own what the progressive brand within the Democratic Party should look like, coupled with his willingness to make abortion rights an optional part of that brand. That’s dangerous at a critical moment for abortion rights. As I’ve covered for Rewire, there is nothing progressive or winning about a so-called big tent on abortion. Perriello, whom FiveThirtyEight recently declared “a political opportunist in the age of Trump,” seems to keep moving his sleeping bag from tent to tent on the abortion issue. It’s not clear where he stands on Sanders’ willingness to accommodate anti-abortion actions and actors in the Democratic Party, all while carrying a mantle of economic justice that can’t be complete without access to ready, funded access to reproductive health care.
In my personal capacity as an abortion rights activist and the mother of a young daughter in Virginia, I am proud to witness Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam (D-VA)’s continuous unwavering support for reproductive freedoms as he campaigns for the governor’s mansion. Northam has a long history of championing reproductive rights. As a state senator from Norfolk, he was the first to reference “transvaginal” ultrasound in the General Assembly in 2012, framing that ultimately forced then-Gov. Bob McDonnell (R-VA) to sign a watered-down version of the law.

From day one, Northam has been part of the successful team that delivered upon Gov. McAuliffe’s promise to roll back the abortion clinic shutdown restrictions designed to force abortion clinics to close. “We don’t find many elected officials like Ralph Northam,” said NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia Executive Director Tarina Keene in an email to me, explaining what she called a “clear choice for our endorsement …. Virginia women trust him.” (Full disclosure: I sit on the NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia Foundation Board of Directors, which played no role in NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia or NARAL Pro-Choice America’s endorsement, and I am not speaking for any organization with which I am affiliated.)

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Northam is unwavering in his support for comprehensive reproductive health care access, understands our local politics, has positive relationships with local players, and is the straight-talking, consensus-building leader we need in Richmond. It’s been my honor to have breakfast with other activists in the lieutenant governor’s office to strategize before a pro-choice lobby day that helped to secure bipartisan support for a new law allowing Virginians to access a 12-month supply of birth control, and he has hosted this event with the Virginia Women’s Equality Coalition for three years.

As far as reproductive rights are concerned, the lieutenant governor couldn’t be more different than Tom Perriello, who voted for the Stupak-Pitts amendment in the Affordable Care Act—one of the worst moments in the history of the Democratic Party’s sell-outs on reproductive rights—and has since offered “regret” for that vote, saying he’s “always been pro-choice and a supporter of Roe v. Wade.” Problem is, he’s made contradicting statements. And he’s led a scorched-earth strategy with abortion rights advocates on the ground, who look at his troubling record and ask the legitimate, necessary questions about why women in Virginia should trust a man who betrayed not just them, but women across the nation.

Federal Funding for Abortions: Perriello’s “Litmus Test Issue”

The Stupak amendment was an anti-abortion, poison-pill addition to the Affordable Care Act that nearly prevented health-care reform from passing. In a breathtaking act of masculine ego, former Rep. Bart Stupak (D-MI) and 63 other Democrats, including then-congressman Perriello, threatened to block a vote on Obamacare unless people who received subsidies were prevented from using their own private dollars to purchase plans including coverage for abortion care. This was not a continuation of the Hyde Amendment that bans federal funding for abortion, as suggested by Perriello at a campaign speech for Arlington Young Democrats three weeks ago, but rather a massive departure from insurance industry norms.

When Stupak’s amendment was introduced, the vast majority of employer-based insurance plans—87 percent—covered abortion care, and the net effect of that amendment would have been to, in the words of a George Washington University study at the time, “move the entire health benefits industry away from its current inclusive coverage norms [regarding abortion] and toward a new norm of exclusion …. Thus, if the result of national health reform is to move millions of women into a market that operates subject to the exclusion, then it is fair to predict that the entire market for coverage ultimately will be affected as a product tipping point is reached.”

While the Stupak amendment failed to make its way into the bill that ultimately passed, it did pave the way for deep gashes to abortion coverage within the Affordable Care Act, and an insulting executive order signed by President Obama affirming the Hyde Amendment in the insurance market—again, a departure from what had been inclusive coverage norms for abortion coverage in the private insurance market.

While Perriello now claims his vote for Stupak was a way to fulfill a pledge to constituents, in 2009 he spoke more strongly about the issue, saying: “It is a litmus test issue for me. I will not support a bill that includes federal funding for abortions.” He reiterated this position a few weeks later, bragging “I’m a ‘no’ on the [entire health care] bill right now, and I actually helped lead a lot of the freshman to block the efforts to vote on this thing in July.” I should note that his history of shifting on the Affordable Care Act itself is a marked departure from an op-ed he recently wrote in the Los Angeles Times titled, “I lost my seat in Congress because I voted for Obamacare. I don’t regret that decision at all,” which brags about how he made the decision to “balance what I thought was right versus what I knew was politically advantageous.”

In February, Perriello wrote on Medium, “I have always been pro-choice and a supporter of Roe v. Wade. Full stop,” backing up this position with paid Google search ads that said the same thing to anyone who typed in his name. The rub is that he hasn’t always been saying that, full stop. In 2010, he said, “I strongly support efforts to reduce the more than 1 million abortions that occur in America each year. I have rejected the labels pro-life and pro-choice, often drawing ire from both sides of this debate.”

And in an audio clip from a 2008 interview he reportedly did with WINA radio host Rob Schilling, a voice that sounds like Tom Perriello’s says, “As I said, I am anti-abortion and anti-criminalization. I think that we have different questions of conscience and questions of constitutionality. That doesn’t make me happy about that situation, but I think that’s where we are.” (Note: This clip is derived from a longer, graphic anti-abortion video posted to YouTube by The Schilling Show in October 2010 in which Perriello purportedly says that he is “against abortion, but [that he is] not for overturning Roe v. Wade.“)

So even with his Stupak vote aside and the fact that he stopped at an abortion clinic during a recent listening tour, Perriello’s transition to always being pro-choice, full stop, doesn’t pass the smell test. Being pro-choice, full stop, means supporting abortion access for everyone, regardless of ability to pay. Abortion funding bans are not pro-choice.

Perriello Campaign Staffers Respond to Activists on Twitter

In light of Perriello’s voting record, shifting explanations about his vote for Stupak, and contradicting statements about personal views he now says he’s “always” held, it’s legitimate to ask questions. Let me be clear: An evolution to supporting reproductive rights is a good thing, and new people—including people vying for the power to make decisions and policies that affect our lives—are welcome on the bus to dignity, equality, and justice for all people. It’s still necessary to ask questions. Accountability is important for all public officials—advocacy is not a cheerleading routine.

Bizarrely, some Perriello campaign staffers have spent time criticizing the same reproductive health, rights, and justice activists that Perriello would need to work with on the ground if he became governor and wanted to make good on his new pledge. Repeatedly, his campaign manager and communications director have responded to tweets from activists who do not initiate conversations with them. Personally, I have been called “dishonest” or told I am sharing a “flat-out lie” by his team more times than I can remember, and you can see examples of that here and here.

It’s not just me. NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia’s Keene has had to correct a misleading claim from Perriello’s communications director that her organization provided the candidate a 100 percent rating, which she says it did not. Anna Malinowski, an activist who lives in Charlottesville, an area that Perriello represented in Congress, has been met with unsettling feedback from his campaign manager. When asked what she thought when the campaign staff responded to her in this way, she told me in an interview, “It makes me think they are trying to hide something, truly. Why argue with reproductive rights activists if your candidate is truly, unapologetically pro-choice?”

I agree, and to take that a step further, it raises questions for me about this campaign’s aptitude for leadership in the disastrous age of Trump. Accountability is a part of the pursuit of elected office—and the ideal way to respond to concerns and questions from your targeted base is to strengthen your position, and to create space for earning trust that you would actually support their community.

One lonely early afternoon at the East Falls Church Metro station in Arlington, a man approached me and asked me to sign a petition to put Tom Perriello’s name on the ballot. After expressing surprise that he didn’t already have the required number of signatures, I identified myself as an abortion rights supporter with concerns about his record. The answer I received was swift and felt a little condescending—yes, he made one disappointing vote, the canvasser said, but we hope you’ll sign in the spirit of democracy.

In the spirit of democracy, I signed. I believe in robust debate. I’m also speaking out. I didn’t attend Perriello’s rally with Sen. Sanders on Thursday at George Mason University in Fairfax. Instead, I visited an independent abortion clinic in Alexandria, strategizing with Lt. Gov Ralph Northam and local reproductive rights leaders who both know how to dig in and win the long, protracted battles we face in Richmond to keep our abortion clinics open and resist each and every proposed abortion restriction. We welcome reinforcements.

If Perriello hopes to mend some fences, he could start by publicly disagreeing with Sanders’ vision of a left inclusive of those who would vote against abortion access.

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