Copyright The Washington Post Company Apr 21, 2002
Rep. John D. Dingell (D-Mich.), one of the toughest members of the House -- an ardent proponent of gun rights, he also dismissed the Kyoto global warming agreement as "the most asinine treaty I've ever seen" -- is touting his credentials this year as the ideal women's candidate.
The House's senior member cites his championship of legislation barring "drive by" baby deliveries (the Minimum Obstetrical Medical Security Act, or "MOMS"), and the Mammography Quality Standards Act, setting standards for equipment used to detect breast cancer.
On Monday night, the Dingell campaign has put together an impressive Washington fundraiser hosted by many of the most influential Democratic women in the city, including former representative Pat Schroeder (Colo.), Sen. Mary Landrieu (La.), former top Clinton appointee Jamie Gorelick, and lobbyists Anne Wexler, Liz Robbins and Hilary Rosen. Dingell is struggling to affirm his feminist credentials in the face of the most serious Democratic primary challenge since he first won office in 1955. Not only has he has been redistricted into a battle with fellow incumbent Democrat Lynn N. Rivers, but Rivers has the backing of an emerging political juggernaut: EMILY's List.
"We are huge," declared Ellen R. Malcolm, president and founder of the group, which backs pro-abortion-rights Democrats. "We are the biggest fundraiser of 'hard money' other than the parties in the country."
EMILY's List doesn't just give money to candidates. It mobilizes 68,000 supporters to send individual checks; it does more polling than the Democratic National Committee; it runs TV ads for and against candidates; it staffs campaigns; it provides strategic advice.
Already a major player, EMILY's List will only gain in stature with the enactment of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform act. While the national parties are struggling to figure out how to survive without "soft money" -- large donations often exceeding $100,000 from corporations, unions and individuals -- EMILY's List is free to continue to raise both hard and soft money, and to pursue its true specialty: the bundling of small contributions into large packets of cash for favored candidates.
"We are the essence of campaign finance reform," Malcolm recently told supporters. The new legislation "does absolutely nothing to change the way we support our candidates. . . . It actually makes us even more powerful."
A candidate must meet three qualifications to be considered for an EMILY's List endorsement: back abortion rights, including the right to late-term (or "partial birth") abortions; be a Democrat; and, in primary elections, be a woman.
In many respects, EMILY's List is the Democratic counterpart to the National Rifle Association, a major Republican Party ally. The NRA was the top political action committee fundraiser in the 1999- 2000 election cycle, at $17.9 million. Emily's List was second, at $14.6 million, although Malcolm pointed out that her group raised an additional $3.3 million for Democratic parties in 13 battleground states, making them virtually equal.
The Democratic Party views EMILY's List as crucial in general elections. In 2000, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee gave the group $1.3 million in soft money. With the emergence in 1980 of a "gender gap," with women favoring Democrats and male Republicans, the ability of EMILY's List to mobilize women's voters has been viewed as essential to victory in close contests.
In recent months, however, as EMILY's List has flexed its muscles in several Democratic primaries, its role has become increasingly controversial. The group angered many Clinton loyalists when it backed former state representative Nancy Kaszak (D) against former White House aide Rahm Emanuel in a Chicago area congressional primary. Emanuel supports abortion rights and most other women's issues, but EMILY's List spent over $400,000 on ads attacking him for his support of NAFTA.
"Washington insider Rahm Emanuel says he fights for working people," the ads declared. "But Emanuel led the fight for the NAFTA trade agreement, which cost Illinois more than 11,000 jobs."
Malcolm defended the ad, contending that in the group's 17-year history, "this is not anything new." She said EMILY's List endorsed then-Rep. Barbara A. Mikulski in her 1986 senatorial primary against then-Rep. Michael Barnes (D), who had much of the party's establishment backing.
Emanuel defeated Kaszak, and now EMILY's List is in an uphill fight against Dingell, a Democratic icon whose support of abortion rights has been mixed -- he opposed late-term or partial-birth abortions -- and whose support of gun rights over the objections of many of his Democratic colleagues is legendary.
As the former chairman and now ranking Democrat on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, Dingell has for the past two decades been viewed as one of the most powerful figures in Washington. He has always had strong support from his overwhelmingly white, working- class Dearborn district.
Now, portions of Dingell's district have been merged with Rivers's, including the more middle-class, suburban, socially liberal precincts of Ann Arbor, where the issue of gun rights is a tougher sell, and abortion rights are strongly backed by Democratic primary voters.
The district favors Dingell, but EMILY's List contends that its polling -- which gives Dingell a 52 to 44 advantage over Rivers -- also shows him vulnerable to attacks on abortion, the environment and gun control.
"Voters in this district are pro-choice, pro-environment, and favor gun safety restrictions," Diane Feldman, the pollster wrote, contending that voters "move dramatically toward Rivers on these issues." On abortion rights, according to Feldman, voters sided with Rivers over Dingell 66 to 28; on the environment, by a 74 to 20 margin; and on gun control, 75 to 22.
Anita Dunn, media consultant to the Dingell campaign, said that the Washington fundraiser on Monday, which has been dubbed "Great Women For Dingell," will be followed by a similar event in Michigan made up of "a broad cross-section of the women of southeast Michigan who have worked with John Dingell on women's health issues."