Advertisement

The Abortion Battle : Politics: Female Democratic candidates in Ventura County are focusing on a woman’s right to have an abortion as a major theme in their campaigns.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In the first general election campaign since the U.”. Supreme Court revived the abortion debate last summer, female Democratic candidates are asking voters to elect them as guardians of a woman’s right to abortion.

Ginny Connell, a former Catholic nun, decided to run against Assemblyman Tom McClintock (R-Thousand Oaks) out of frustration over his antiabortion votes and rough treatment of those who disagree with him. Although she retains deep Christian beliefs, Connell said preserving abortion rights is her No. 1 issue.

Anita Perez Ferguson is challenging Rep. Robert J. Lagomarsino (R-Ventura) with the rallying cry that the veteran congressman is “standing in the way of exercising our rights and trying to take away our reproductive freedom.”

The two Democrats, both taking on entrenched incumbents, are hoping that their campaigns will get boosts from a fellow abortion-rights advocate leading the Democratic ticket in the Nov. 6 election.

Advertisement

Dianne Feinstein, who is matched against Republican nominee Pete Wilson in the gubernatorial race, suggests in her speeches that the only way to ensure abortion rights in California is to elect her as governor.

Candidates who support abortion rights are counting on the upcoming nomination hearings of U.”. Supreme Court justice nominee David Souter to keep the abortion issue fresh in the minds of the voters. The hearings are expected to begin shortly after the Senate returns from recess on Sept. 10, less than two months before the election.

“Abortion will be in the news no matter what we do,” said Dee Dee Myers, a spokeswoman for the Feinstein campaign. “Abortion is going to be an important issue in the campaign, not because candidates are making it an issue, but because people care about it.”

Last summer, the U.”. Supreme Court upheld a Missouri law that bans abortions in public hospitals and forbids public employees from assisting in abortions. The Webster decision opened the door for other states to place restrictions on abortion for the first time since 1973, when the court stopped states from regulating abortion with its Roe vs. Wade decision.

Advertisement

That shift intensified interest in legislative races and awakened abortion-rights activists who had seen little need for political activity to match the increasingly visible antiabortion movement.

In the past year, for instance, the California Abortion Rights Action League has seen its annual donations double to $500,000 and its membership quadruple to 50,000, said Robin Schneider, CARAL’s executive director.

Schneider suggests that renewed concern over abortion rights can translate into votes in the upcoming election.

“I don’t think abortion is a miracle issue,” Schneider said. “But it can take a campaign that is a little bit of a long shot and make it competitive.”

Advertisement

As proof, she cites two long-shot female candidates who overcame antiabortion competitors in special elections to win legislative seats shortly after the July 3, 1989, Webster decision.

In the most widely publicized case, Democrat Lucy Killea of San Diego won a special election in a Republican-dominated state Senate district after Catholic Bishop Leo T. Maher banned her from receiving Communion because of her advocacy of abortion rights.

Both Ferguson and Connell hope that the abortion rights fervor that ignited Killea’s supporters will spark their own campaigns. “It is still very much an issue,” Killea said. “Certainly with women, it is not just a philosophical issue, it is a personal issue as well.”

Brian Johnston, director of the National Right to Life Committee’s Western region, disagrees that voter sympathies have swung toward supporters of abortion rights. He lists a string of defeats for abortion-rights advocates in the June primary that shows favoring legal abortion does not necessarily enhance a candidate’s chances of success.

Advertisement

“Ferguson and Connell will be another demonstration that being pro-abortion isn’t a boot up,” Johnston said. “I’m not writing off those races, but I think Anita Ferguson and Robin Schneider are blowing smoke to try to create an image of a stampede that isn’t there.”

Johnston said that if needed, he will unleash his group’s full arsenal of political weapons--including direct-mail brochures, volunteers walking precincts, and phone banks--to protect antiabortion incumbents Lagomarsino and McClintock.

“Lagomarsino has carried water for us,” Johnston said. “I’ve known Tom since 1985, and he’s voted with us consistently.”

In the congressional and Assembly race, the views of all four candidates spring from deeply rooted beliefs, albeit from widely different perspectives.

Advertisement

McClintock, whose Assembly district stretches from Ventura to Thousand Oaks, is well-known for his opposition to public financing of family-planning clinics that perform abortions. Unlike some who oppose abortion on moral grounds, his position stems from the same fiscal conservative zeal that motivates him to protest tax increases and government spending.

Although McClintock opposes abortion, he said he does not favor an outright ban on the procedure because it would drive the practice underground. But he vehemently opposes state financing of “wholesale abortions on demand,” he said.

“There are certain things the government should not promote, and abortion is one of them,” he said.

Ginny Connell, a former nun who now is a licensed marriage and family counselor, decided to run against McClintock after she was nearly forcibly ejected from his office building while trying to persuade him to alter his voting pattern.

Advertisement

On Aug. 17, 1989, Connell was one of the speakers at a news conference outside McClintock’s office in Camarillo, designed to pressure the assemblyman to vote to restore cuts in the state budget for family planning clinics.

McClintock declined an invitation to present his views at the news conference, and his staff asked building security officials to remove the assembled group from the premises, Connell and other organizers said. Failing to break up the gathering, security personnel called the police, who arrived just as the group was dispersing. There were no arrests.

McClintock denies that either he or his staff tried to squelch the news conference. “It was an action by the building superintendent without the knowledge of our office,” he said.

But Connell and other organizers do not believe him. “That was a very big part of my decision to run,” Connell said. “That was a very strong experience of how extreme his position was . . . how his kind of representation was very unacceptable, very narrow and very dangerous to women.”

Advertisement

Connell said she did not give abortion much thought during the 1960s when she was a nun teaching inner-city school children in Brooklyn, N.Y. It wasn’t until after she left the order that she formulated her views, largely in response to the 1973 Supreme Court decision Roe vs. Wade.

“It became something I felt very strongly,” Connell said. “Neither the church nor the government should make that decision for a woman.”

Although Connell spent 10 years as a nun and considers herself Christian in philosophy, she is no longer a practicing Catholic. After leaving to attend postgraduate school, she married Phillip Connell, a former priest.

Marrying a priest is grounds for excommunication, and the Connells decided to leave the church voluntarily instead of forcing the issue. They are both licensed counselors living in Thousand Oaks with two teen-age sons.

Advertisement

In the 19th Congressional District that straddles Ventura and Santa Barbara counties, both candidates share Catholic upbringings even though they split on the abortion issue.

Lagomarsino refused to be interviewed for this article. But John Doherty, his spokesman, said the congressman remains steadfast in his opposition to abortion and to government funding of abortion.

Doherty said Lagomarsino supports amending the Constitution to outlaw abortion. He also believes that parental consent should be required for juveniles seeking abortions and that physicians should be criminally prosecuted for performing abortions.

“It is not going to have any effect on his campaign because his views are the way they always have been, and he’s not going to change,” Doherty said. “He sees no point in talking to you.”

Advertisement

Although she was raised Catholic, Ferguson said her position in support of abortion rights began to form when she was growing up in Montebello and one of her best friends in sixth grade became pregnant.

“She was in my Girl Scout troop, and her mother was one of the co-leaders of the troop,” Ferguson said. “She was a member of my church. It was a good family involved.”

At age 12, Ferguson said she suddenly realized, “Life was not a ‘Father Knows Best’ TV serial. It has adult problems that need adult information. You made tough choices and stuck with them.”

Ferguson said working with programs that cater to pregnant teen-agers and victims of rape and incest has strengthened her resolve to protect abortion rights.

Advertisement

“When you meet these girls face to face, you realize that they are just like your sister, your neighbor. They need to have the opportunity to understand what abortion is about and make that decision with their families.”

Ferguson believes that her views are more in step with those of the voters. She backs up her assertion with a June 21-23 survey of registered voters in Santa Barbara and Ventura counties that showed 64% consider themselves “pro-choice” rather than “pro-life.”

The polling firm, paid by her campaign, singles out the abortion issue as the most important to the success of her campaign. In a poll with a margin of error of 5%, nearly half of voters surveyed agreed that they would “vote against a member of Congress solely if he opposed a woman’s right to have an abortion.”

In a memo to the Ferguson campaign, the firm wrote, “Most importantly, fully 71 percent of voters did not know that Rep. Lagomarsino is anti-choice. Ferguson’s support can only grow if her campaign is able to educate voters about respective positions on this crucial issue.”

Advertisement

Ferguson has tried to hammer Lagomarsino on the issue, but her campaign lacks money needed to broadcast her message on television, radio, newspapers or through direct mailings.

For its part, the California Abortions Right Action League is planning to help abortion-rights candidates by lining up volunteers to get out the vote and mail slate cards listing candidates espousing their views.

In a massive statewide effort, the league is calling every woman registered to vote who is between the ages of 25 and 45, to recruit those who are abortion-rights advocates.

“Those names will be available to pro-choice candidates such as Anita Perez Ferguson and Ginny Connell,” Schneider said. “We are going to make sure that they vote and that they know who the pro-choice candidates are.”

Advertisement


Advertisement