Beltway Brinkmanship - Nothing to risk our rights on
My grandmother's spirits were downcast last week because of baseball (the Red Sox lost lead of the American League.) But they soared when she remembered the Senate: "Just thinking about Jeffords cheers me up," she beamed. And this Memorial Day, she wasn't the only one celebrating the death of the Republican majority.
The end of George W's easy ride in Washington should mean good things to progressive thinking people, right? Democrats will have a chance to reshape the tax cut, strike down the Cheney/Rumsfeld nuclear agenda, and above all else, deny the new administration their most extreme appointees, including judicial nominees. Already in gear to fight aggressive anti-choice candidates as those come up for confirmation to the federal bench and sooner or later, to the Supreme Court, reproductive rights advocates were particularly pleased with the Vermont Senator.
When he announced his switch of affiliation from Republican to Independent, James Jeffords specifically mentioned choice as one of the "fundamental issues" on which he and the Bush team disagree. Now the Democrats take control of the leadership of Senate committees and regain the majority there. "These changes will be crucial to women's and reproductive rights, as pro-choice Democrats will replace anti-choice Republicans," wrote the Feminist Majority, May 24 (<a href=http://www.feminist.org/news/newsbite/printne ws.asp?id=5542> http://www.feminist.org/news/newsbite/printnews.as p?id=5542</a>.)
But much as I'm happy to see my beloved grandmother elated, I'm nervous too, about the sighs being heard around the Capitol. Democratic leaders, for one, can be counted on for almost nothing. As two of their number - James Carville and Paul Begala -- pointed out in a bizarre op-ed in the New York Times May 27, "It took a Republican to unmask the [radical] Bush agenda." (Why, one wonders, when those two have media access like no Democratic politician alive.)
Let's not forget that twelve Democratic Senators voted for that budget-less tax cut and, on the very same day that Jeffords reminded the nation of W's dubious electoral mandate, three voted to confirm as US Solicitor General, Ted Olson, the lawyer for GOP in Bush v. Gore. Olson, an aggressive, anti women's rights, anti-affirmative action attorney, is a critical player in the White House crusade to reshape the judicial world. The Democrats had the power to filibuster (the vote was super-tight: 51-47) but Daschle et al decided not to. Conciliation was the better part of valor, the Democratic leaders explained.
And there's the rub. As long, for example, that pro-choice activism decides to surge or fall with the Democrats, reproductive freedom will continue to be determined by the conventions of Capitol Hill. Put another way, choice will be decided according to good-old boy rules. The same is true of other "fundamental" issues, but there's none that more clearly illustrates the problem with permitting DC to dominate progressive activist priorities.
Consider the case of Denise O'Donnell. For the last two and a half years, O'Donnell, the US attorney for the Western District of New York, has been pursuing the killer of Buffalo obstetrician, Barnett Slepian.
Dr. Slepian was shot through his kitchen window in October 1998 for performing legal abortions on women who needed them. His killer escaped. After a complicated international investigation led by O'Donnell, police finally arrested James Charles Kopp, the alleged assassin, this March, in France. (Extradition papers prepared by O'Donnell's office were filed May 4, seeking the return of Kopp to New York to stand trial.) In the United States, federal prosecutors working for O'Donnell's office picked up Loretta Claire Marra and Dennis John Malvasi of Brooklyn, and charged them with aiding a fugitive, Kopp.
But O' Donnell won't be on hand to prosecute, if and when the cases finally come to court. On March 15, George W. Bush demanded O'Donnell's resignation in the middle of her four-year term. She is to vacate her office May 31. The story was brought to national attention, not by O'Donnell's home state paper of record, the New York Times, but by the excellent, crusading online service Women's Enews (www.womensenews.org.)
US attorneys, appointed by the President, mostly tender their resignation when a new administration comes in, but there have been exceptions. In O'Donnell's case, both New York's senators, Hillary Clinton and Chuck Schumer, asked the White House to permit O'Donnell to complete her term. No dice. O'Donnell's most likely replacement is a conservative Republican judge, currently on the state Family Court.
How important is a US Attorney? For beleaguered abortion providers like Dr. Slepian and the folks who run the clinics where they work, it comes down to - is there anyone in power I can call?
To quote from the WomensEnews article by Cynthia Cooper: "O'Donnell was the first woman in the post of U.S. attorney in the 40-lawyer, 17-county Western District. She was confirmed by the Senate only two days before Slepian was assassinated on Oct. 23, 1998. She had moved up through the ranks after joining the office in the Reagan administration in 1985. The Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act, known as FACE, was signed into law by Clinton in 1994, making the doctor's murder one of the biggest cases to land in her jurisdiction.
"For what we went through, thank God it was under the prior administration," Marilyn Buckham told Cooper. Buckham is the administrator of Buffalo GYN Womanservices, the clinic where Dr. Slepian performed abortions.
Patricia Baird-Windle, a retired abortion provider in Florida underscores the same point in a new book (co-written with Eleanor J. Bader, Palgrave, 5/01.) "Targets of Hatred; Anti-abortion terrorism," reports in chilling detail how a friendly US attorney can make life at a women's clinic possible, or hell, simply by enforcing, or choosing not to enforce the law.
Six years after the passage of FACE, Baird-Windle and Bader report that "improved relationships between clinics and law enforcement in some cities - Buffalo, Knoxville, Mobile and Pittsburgh, among them - have enabled clinic principals to focus on expanding and improving existing services." But health centers in Fargo, Ft. Wayne, Melbourne, Milwaukee, Pensacola, Redding and Wichita have not had this option. "Year after year providers in those areas find themselves returning to court to fight meritless lawsuits and get injunctions enforced and lawbreakers arrested. Mired in holding their ground rather than expanding their vision they feel frustrated and betrayed." And that was BEFORE John Ashcroft became Attorney General.
National reproductive rights organizations have by necessity, had to fight hard on Capitol Hill. Almost as soon as the Supreme Court in Roe v. Wade, recognized a woman's right to chose to end her pregnancy, DC legislators with their legal associates began scheming to roll back the decision, and banned federal funding for abortions, so the right was a right to choose something that for many was impossible actually to do. Fighting the legal and electoral attack required big money, DC lobby-power and huge amounts of electoral cash.
But for just as long, the battle for reproductive choice raged locally too, with few of the same resources and way less attention. "Foundations tend to award money to groups working to keep abortion legal," writes Baird Windle, by way of example, "This leaves us the providers of abortion, the key link in the chain, to fend for themselves. It seems to me that they are putting things in the wrong order because without providers, choice is an empty right and legal abortion is meaningless," she writes.
With the exception of the Feminist Majority Foundation, national pro-choice groups, writes Baird-Windle "have confined their efforts to lobbying against abortion restrictions and to working to elect pro choice candidates" while violent anti-abortion extremists have tried, and successfully too, as once in Buffalo, to make clinics a war zone.
In the case of O'Donnell, or more importantly, her former "clients" - the people of Western New York -- maybe the shift in the Senate will change the situation. Schumer sits on the Judiciary Committee, maybe he and his colleagues will be able to block the incoming US Attorney candidates, and demand O'Donnell's reinstatement. That will depend on whether Democratic leaders consider the post of US Attorney important enough - and what party brinkmanship requires that day.
It illustrates the importance of keeping DC in perspective. Celebrate Jeffords by all means, but keep an eye on the local league too.
"The Laura Flanders Show,"
Monday-Friday, 12- 2pm, EST
Call in: 1 877 WAB-CHAT (877-922-2428)