Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), who campaigned on a progressive platform during his 2016 quest for the Democratic presidential nomination, will speak at a rally Thursday that will include anti-choice Democrat Heath Mello.
Sanders and Mello, along with Democratic National Committee Vice Chair Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN), are scheduled speakers at the “Come Together, Fight Back, Vote Democrats” Rally in Omaha, Nebraska, where Mello is running for mayor. The event is a part of a party-sponsored national tour.
Sanders voiced his support for Mello in a statement published Wednesday by the Wall Street Journal. “If this fellow wins in Nebraska, that would be a shot across the board, that in a state like Nebraska a progressive Democrat can win, that will give hope to folks in other conservative states that perhaps they can win as well,” he said.
Mello represented Nebraska’s District 5 in the state legislature from 2009 to 2016, when he reached his term limit. He co-sponsored an anti-choice measure later signed into law forcing doctors to offer patients seeking an abortion an ultrasound prior to the procedure. The law required the doctor to “perform the ultrasound at least one hour prior to the abortion” and “simultaneously display the ultrasound image to the woman so that she may view it if she chooses,” according to the Center for Reproductive Rights.
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Mello said in an Associated Press interview that the legislation was a “positive first step to reducing the number of abortions in Nebraska.”
Mello is a sponsor of the final version of a 20-week abortion ban approved by the governor in 2010, and cast anti-choice votes in favor of requiring physicians to be physically present for an abortion in order to impede access to telemedicine abortion care, and a law banning insurance plans in the state from covering abortions. He has previously been endorsed by anti-choice group Nebraska Right to Life.
The Daily Kos, which describes itself as “a news organization, community, and activist hub,” pulled its endorsement of Mello after revelations about the Democrat’s stance on abortion. The site said it had been unaware of Mello’s anti-choice stance, but that “as soon as we learned this information, we withdrew our endorsement, because this legislation clearly runs contrary to Daily Kos’ deepest values, including our support for women’s reproductive rights and our staunch opposition to laws that in any way impede women’s access to reproductive health care.”
Jane Kleeb, Nebraska Democratic Party Chairwoman, confirmed to the Wall Street Journal that Mello still opposed abortion rights but reportedly said it had not been an issue in his campaign.“Voters know he’s pro-life but we have a lot of pro-life Democrats in our state,” Kleeb said. “It’s not the single issue people vote on anymore.”
In a Thursday statement to the Huffington Post, Mello confirmed his opposition to abortion rights but claimed he wouldn’t restrict access should he be elected. “While my faith guides my personal views, as Mayor I would never do anything to restrict access to reproductive health care,” he said.
Planned Parenthood Action Fund President Cecile Richards is scheduled to speak Saturday at the final stop of the Democrat’s unity tour in Las Vegas. Richards will join Sanders and DNC chair Tom Perez to rally in support of a “progressive agenda” that includes access to reproductive health care.
Sanders in an appearance on MSNBC’s Morning Joe last month 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.”
Perez told the Wall Street Journal that while the Democratic platform supports abortion rights, the party doesn’t require that its candidates do so. “If you demand fealty on every single issue, then you know it’s a challenge,” Perez said of the subject.
Sanders recently endorsed Democratic gubernatorial candidate Tom Perriello, who voted for the anti-choice Stupak amendment during his time in the U.S. House of Representatives. Perriello has since said he regrets that vote.
Sanders in the 2016 race for the Democratic nomination voiced his support for abortion rights, including rolling back the Hyde Amendment’s ban on most federal funding for abortion care. However, he disappointed some reproductive rights advocates by failing to engage with reproductive rights as an economic issue.
As Atima Omara explained in a recent commentary for Rewire, reproductive health care “is fundamentally important to economic justice for women.”
“Studies show that poor women have significantly higher rates of unintended pregnancy, which in turn leads to a higher rate of unintended births,” Omara wrote. “Nearly 70 percent of women who obtain abortions have incomes below 200 percent of the federal poverty line (roughly $48,000 income annually or less for a family of four). One of the top reasons women choose to have abortions is because they are unable to take on the expense of having a child. Many already have families and can’t afford to add another child. And the majority of those seeking abortions are women of color, mostly Black and Latina.”
Voters in Omaha will take to the polls on May 9 to pick the city’s next mayor. Mello’s opponent, incumbent Jean Stothert, also opposes abortion.
CORRECTION: This article has been updated to clarify Nebraska Right to Life’s endorsement.