Money, Packaging : Pro-Choice: L.A. Taking Center Stage
When the Supreme Court decided early this month to uphold a Missouri law restricting abortion, and implicitly invited other states to enact abortion curbs, it sent pro-choice and anti-abortion groups scrambling to raise money, recruit volunteers and plan strategy for the coming showdowns in state capitols across the nation.
How the two sides are doing so highlights some fundamental differences between them.
For anti-abortion groups, this mostly means drawing once again from a durable network of volunteers and small contributors around the country, many of them based in churches or allied with conservative political figures.
On the pro-choice side, meanwhile, it is a time of rapid change. After years on the defensive against a larger, better-organized adversary, the cause is clearly evolving into a well-funded movement based in the nation’s traditional urban liberal bastions. And Los Angeles, with its wealth and its unique ability to package and sell a message, is emerging in many respects as the movement’s most important center of power.
As they mobilize for the war over abortion rights, national pro-choice groups look to Los Angeles not just for money and members, but also for celebrities and direction.
Westside liberals provide an outsize share of the movement’s membership and financial support. Hollywood lends big names for national fund-raising and political efforts. And elected officials and consultants in the city’s Waxman-Berman Democratic organization help direct the movement’s political strategy from the local to the national level.
“Los Angeles is a source of support for the whole national campaign, for the whole 50 states,” said Kate Michelman, executive director of the National Abortion Rights Action League in Washington. “California--and Los Angeles in particular--is a very important source of members and a very important source of fairly high dollar donors.”
But even more significant, Michelman says, is the role played by the Hollywood entertainment industry.
Her organization has prominently featured entertainers in its advertising and fund-raising appeals. And Hollywood celebrities were in the front lines of the huge pro-choice march on Washington in April.
“Hollywood and Los Angeles are critical. These stars represent role models for people. They can reach an audience we can’t reach,” Michelman said. “They are vehicles for us to get our message out, to educate people, to help us really deepen our ability to spread the word. They are a very important resource.”
Anti-abortion activists readily acknowledge that participation by entertainers in the fight is overwhelmingly on the pro-choice side, and they are looking for ways to neutralize this advantage.
“The biggest influence we (in Los Angeles) have on the rest of this country is through the movie industry and TV,” said Susan Carpenter McMillan, president of the Right to Life League of Southern California. “So far in the movie industry it’s been one-sided.”
To counter a perceived pro-choice bias in Hollywood, anti-abortion forces have been pressuring advertisers to boycott television and radio programs they see as having an “anti-life” message.
In May, the National Right to Life Committee criticized as “prime-time, pro-abortion propaganda” a two-hour NBC television drama about the landmark 1973 Roe vs. Wade abortion case. The network was forced to reduce the price of commercials for the program.
In June, ABC radio aired an hourlong discussion on abortion, hosted by Barbara Walters, with no sponsors. ABC officials said advertisers were “scared to death” of the topic.
David O’Steen, executive director of the National Right to Life Committee in Washington, said advertisers should take a long look before buying commercials on programs with a pro-choice slant. “A lot of people might tune in to that show, be offended, and be less inclined to buy their products.”
Marge Tabankin, executive director of the Hollywood Women’s Political Committee, called the efforts to pressure advertisers with threats of boycotts outrageous and a form of blackmail.
Tabankin’s group was one of the principal organizers of the march that drew 300,000 pro-choice demonstrators to the nation’s capital in April. The demonstration was one of Washington’s largest ever, eclipsing civil rights and Vietnam-era marches and giving some pro-choice strategists hope that the issue was becoming the unifying cause that liberals have lacked for two decades.
When it comes to abortion, the entertainment industry has “a fairly unified position on a question that seems to be clearly dividing the country,” Tabankin said. “People are involved in this issue as activists. It is not just a fund-raising base.”
The stars were out in force that spring day. Jane Fonda, Morgan Fairchild, Whoopi Goldberg, Veronica Hamel, Polly Bergen, Anne Archer, Cybill Shepherd, Donna Mills, Michele Lee.
The night before the march, a star-studded cast performed before an overflow crowd at a Washington fund-raiser billed as a “Celebration of Personal Freedom.”
On stage were Fonda, Judy Collins, Melissa Manchester, Susan Sarandon, Glenn Close, Leonard Nimoy, Jill Eikenberry, Michael Tucker, Linda Ellerbee, Marlo Thomas.
In the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s Missouri decision, Tabankin said, thought is being given to using Hollywood’s creative powers to develop a pro-choice message for television commercials.
“One of the things we do very well in this town is communicate to the world,” she said.
And as the battle over abortion rights shifts to the states, Tabankin said, Hollywood figures will be there to help out pro-choice candidates.
“If you are sitting in a swing district in Illinois or an Assembly seat in Florida and a respected celebrity makes an appearance with a candidate or a pro-choice group, it’s going to get more coverage than if they were not there,” she said.
“Celebrity names help to get the grass roots to respond,” said Robin Schneider, executive director of the California Abortions Rights Action League. “Their names definitely add a certain glitz to our efforts.”
Anti-abortion forces say Los Angeles’ influence in the national pro-choice movement stems in part from the city’s liberal Democratic political organization.
“The Waxman-Berman machine is unalloyed in its advocacy of abortion,” said Brian Johnston, regional director of the National Right to Life Committee in Sacramento. “They are a force to be reckoned with.”
Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Los Angeles) said a “willingness to support a pro-choice position” on abortion is “very high on the agenda” when he considers supporting candidates for office.
Waxman’s clout extends far beyond his Hollywood-Fairfax district. His ability to help liberal candidates tap large sources of campaign contributions, combined with his own campaign resources, extends his reach statewide and nationally.
“Henry may be more powerful in Washington than he is in Los Angeles,” said Rep. Robert Matsui (D-Sacramento). “He has a great deal of influence over Democratic members of the House.”
Waxman, for example, is helping to raise funds in Los Angeles and elsewhere for Rep. James J. Florio (D-N.J.), the pro-choice Democratic nominee for governor of New Jersey. The November election there is considered an early test of the power of the pro-choice movement at the polls in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision in the Missouri case.
Enhancing Waxman’s reach, particularly in California, are the campaign techniques and targeted Democratic slate mailers developed by political consultants Carl D’Agostino and Michael Berman, brother of Rep. Howard L. Berman (D-Panorama City). These resources are made available to candidates whom the Los Angeles organization supports. Michael Berman also is respected and feared as one of the state’s leading tacticians on redistricting, an issue very much on the minds of politicians as the 1990 Census approaches.
Waxman said the entire Democratic congressional delegation from California is pro-choice. “It reflects the Democratic voter in California,” he said. “It reflects popular sentiment.”
The veteran lawmaker said he personally feels “quite strongly that the issue of abortion ought to be left to the choice of the woman involved. . . .
“The U.S. Supreme Court has come down with a decision that will open up the whole issue to politics and not leave it as a constitutional right that cannot be infringed upon,” Waxman said.
“Many people in Los Angeles, not just in the entertainment industry, feel strongly about this matter and will want to contribute to win the battle we are now forced to face.”
Just as pro-choice political candidates look to Los Angeles for financial support, so do the pro-choice organizations and their allies--Planned Parenthood, the National Abortion Rights Action League, the National Organization for Women, National Women’s Political Caucus, the American Civil Liberties Union, and others.
“There are very generous people in L.A,” said Michelman of the National Abortion Rights Action League. She estimated that 25,000 of the organization’s 300,000 national members live in Southern California.
Michelman said the money that is raised here will “impact on almost every state in some way” and will finance early battles against anti-abortion forces in Louisiana, Florida and Illinois.
“Money gives us the power to be more active,” said Dr. Joan Babbott, executive director of Planned Parenthood Los Angeles.
As legal challenges to the Roe vs. Wade decision have mounted, Babbott said, Planned Parenthood and other pro-choice groups have seen a surge in contributions--even before the Supreme Court’s Missouri decision. “There is a profound fight going on. It is going to go on state by state,” she said. “We’ve got a real . . . war on our hands.”
The Los Angeles Planned Parenthood affiliate raised $300,000 more than its $1.4-million fund-raising goal in the fiscal year that ended in January.
At the national level, the Planned Parenthood Federation of America expects to raise $17 million to $18 million this year, according to Peter Wilderotter, vice president of resources. That is up from $14 million in 1987. “We anticipate that people are going to come forward and be counted,” Wilderotter said.
Pro-choice leaders say the adversity of the recent Supreme Court decision has made fund-raising easier. “It’s very difficult to organize around the status quo,” Wilderotter said.
The national organization now has about 350,000 members, with California supplying about 14% of the total. “California represents a major portion of our donor base,” said Wilderotter. “What happens in Los Angeles certainly has a tremendous effect on what we do nationally.”
The California Abortion Rights Action League also has seen a sharp jump in membership and contributions this year. The organization’s Southern California branch has seen its membership grow from 6,000 to 8,000 so far this year. Many have been drawn by the prominent role the Santa Monica-based league has played in countering the Operation Rescue anti-abortion demonstrations.
In just the last three months, the organization has raised $180,000, compared to $200,000 in all of the last fiscal year.
“The bulk of our resources come from the Westside,” said executive director Schneider.
McMillan, the Right to Life League of Southern California president, agrees that pro-choice forces are more successful at raising money, particularly in Los Angeles.
“We’re not going to compare when it comes to the dollars,” McMillan said. She described anti-abortion forces as “a miniature David” competing with “an incredibly large Goliath when it comes to money.”
But McMillan and other anti-abortion leaders say the movement’s strength is in its numbers. The National Right to Life Committee has 300,000 donors nationally, but claims several million members through its network of local and state chapters.
“We could triple our funding and still be out-funded by the pro-abortion side,” said O’Steen, executive director of the committee. “What we have is a grass-roots network that they have never been able to duplicate.”