Inside the Republican pro-choice coalition

Meet the women who are vowing a floor fight in Philadelphia over abortion.

Topics: Abortion,

As the delegates to the Republican Platform Committee strode into the Pennsylvania Convention Center yesterday for the party’s quadrennial assessment of its mission, they found themselves greeted at the door by the welcoming committee of the Republican Pro-Choice Coalition (RPCC). Politely applauding the approach of each delegate, the ladies cried out, “Yay, delegates! Help us out!” With one of the group’s signature yellow T-shirts pulled over her smart black outfit, Carole Harper, president of the Morris County (N.J.) Republican Women’s Club, held open the door for Chuck Cunningham, former field director of the Christian Coalition and current director of federal affairs for the National Rifle Association, all the while beaming a gracious smile.

Within moments, Dina Merrill, the actress and heiress who sits on the RPCC board, emerged from the building, evicted on account of the yellow T-shirt she flaunted under her trim, unbuttoned purple blazer. No yellow T-shirts in the hall, she had been told. Merrill had entered the building with Susan Cullman, the group’s co-chairwoman, and fellow board member Jennifer Blei Stockman, who had both declined to mar the understated palette of their tailored suits with the offending garment. They made it as far as the lobby before being turned around. When a police officer told them to move across the street, the pro-choicers politely moved on, with no choice words conferred upon the cop.

But the group is committed to their cause. Even though the anti-abortion language did not change in the new kinder, gentler GOP platform, members of the group remain committed to getting that language out of the platform next week, even if that means a fight on the floor of the convention.

But members of this group are clearly not your garden-variety political activists. They range in age from their 20s to 70. They wear pearls and Ferragamos; I even saw one with a pastel cashmere sweater tied across the shoulders of her crisp, black suit. There are a handful of men enlisted in this cause: some six or seven guys under the age of 30, and three notable grown-ups — Dr. LeRoy Carhart, the Nebraska abortion provider who took his challenge to his state’s so-called partial birth abortion ban to the Supreme Court (the high court ruled in his favor); attorney Glenn Murray, who represented abortion provider Dr. Bernard Slepian until the doctor was felled by an assassin’s bullet; and Randy Moody, a platform delegate and national co-chair of Planned Parenthood Republicans for Choice. Among the 30 or so volunteers who have come to do battle on the platform, only two — a beefy fellow with gelled, stand-up hair, and a slim ingenue in a short, slit skirt — have made discernable fashion statements.

Many of the women smoke, though generally not in public settings (unlike the on-duty cop I saw this morning on a corner-minding beat), and I’ve yet to hear any of them claim to be vegetarians. The only things pierced in this crowd are ears, one hole in each lobe, thank you very much.

But don’t mistake their tame demeanor for lack of passion. After years of being shunted to the margins of their own party, they’ve learned a thing or two about organization and have marshaled their resources for the single-minded purpose of pulling the GOP’s anti-abortion plank out of the party platform. Theirs are the faces of 21st-century American feminism: poised, genteel and determined. Of course, the ladies themselves may shy from the “f” word for fear of its connotation of stridency. These are Republicans, after all — old-style Republicans, the kind we used to have before the women-haters and gay-bashers seized control of the party of Lincoln, the kind of Republicans who loathe government intrusion in people’s personal lives as passionately as they do its interference in the marketplace.

Merrill, for one, finds the right’s success in seizing the party “upsetting,” and has few kind words for former President George Bush, a classic country club Republican whom she sees as having helped the right achieve its aims. “His voting record in Congress was pro-choice,” she explains, “and his wife is a member of Planned Parenthood.” For Bush to have moved over to the anti-abortion side for the sake of political expediency, she says, “doesn’t play with me.” In her 70s, Merrill, who starred in “Desk Set” and “Butterfield 8,” is still a well-appointed beauty, her perfect, champagne-blond pageboy swept behind a black hairband.

“People ought to stand up for what they believe in,” she says, emphatically. “If you have a strong belief and a passion, you don’t sell out. And he sold out, in my humble opinion.”

Though Merrill is one of the group’s well-heeled and notable members, her story is not unlike others in the group. Born to a rock-ribbed Republican family, she was raised with the values of civic involvement and attachment to good causes that typically engaged many of her class. She has long supported Planned Parenthood as one of its celebrity advocates, but she never considered herself to be terribly political until she saw Susan Cullman in action at the 1996 Republican National Convention in San Diego. In 1996, Cullman’s organization, then called the Republican Coalition for Choice, nearly pulled off a floor fight over the platform.

“For the first time, we have a real grass-roots movement coming together on this issue,” says Cullman. “That’s what we want to build.”

While liberals may scoff at the notion of a grass-roots movement of the bourgeoisie led by the privileged, they’d be wise not to. For the future of abortion rights, and civil rights in general, lies less with the Democrats than it does with the Republicans — simply because the Republican Party, as currently constituted, poses a grave threat to both, and Republicans have been known to win the presidency, and countless other offices, from time to time. And that’s one reason, these women will tell you, that they stick with the party — but not the only one.

“I’m a Republican because I believe in less government in all aspects of my life,” explains Cullman. “I also believe in a strong defense, I believe in less regulation, I believe in less taxes — these are the issues that make me a Republican. And to have the pro-life position determine whether or not you’re a Republican will make us a very small party in the end.”

At first blush, Cullman herself is an unlikely activist. She came to Washington in 1981, the wife of a well-off Reagan appointee, whom she has since divorced. A Washington wife with a penchant for good works, she ran Call For Action, a national nonprofit that provides a help line to the public that steers callers to appropriate agencies and organizations that provide assistance on a host of problems. She was a volunteer for the President’s Task Force on Private Sector Initiatives. Though she never agreed with Reagan’s anti-choice views, she didn’t perceive a real threat to reproductive rights at the time, taking comfort in the notion of abortion as a constitutionally protected right as decided by the Supreme Court in Roe vs. Wade, the 1973 decision that made abortion legal nationwide.

But times changed, as did Cullman’s personal life. The influence of the right grew ever stronger, not only in the GOP but throughout the country, as anti-abortion judges grew in number at all levels of government. Cullman divorced and began contemplating the landscape that confronted her only child, a girl. In 1991, motivated by a 1989 Supreme Court decision (Webster vs. Reproductive Health Services) which gave states the right to restrict abortion, she brought the focus and organizational skills honed during her years of volunteer work to the Republican Coalition for Choice, a group she founded with like-minded party activists.

A slim, coltish woman of 50, Cullman wears her neatly trimmed salt-and-pepper hair in a straight line a few inches past her shoulders, and favors finely fitted pants suits and minimal makeup. A polite indignance simmers in her piercing gaze, which radiates purpose and competence. Among the volunteers staffing RPCC phones (including the mother-and-daughter team of Gretchen and Scarlett Johnson of the Johnson & Johnson family), Cullman inspires an impressive level of loyalty. Many among the ranks have told me that they’re here because of her. One young woman scurried to Philadelphia from New Jersey after reading a commentary by Cullman that appears in this month’s copy of Glamour magazine. Even Merrill has manned the phones, calling 31 Republican governors to marshal their support for changing the platform.

Cullman spends much of her days here in Philadelphia in a smoke-filled room, plotting strategy with Lynn Grefe, the RPCC’s national director, and several board members. She periodically appears to address her troops in the two large salons at the Hilton that the group uses as its convention headquarters.

Call the wisecracking Lynn Grefe the perfect foil to Cullman’s cool, composed disposition. Small and slender with expressive brown eyes, Grefe just can’t help herself from talking in sound bites. Seeking to avoid an off-putting message, it was Grefe who arrived at the group’s slogan, “Warning! GOP Pothole Ahead!” that appears across the backs of the yellow T-shirts. “We truly believe that this abortion language is a pothole on any road to unity for this party.” Grefe explains, “and we are asking that it be taken out.”

A hyperactive New Yorker, and mother to two kids who were school age when she adopted them, Grefe represents another face common to this group: regular, middle-class people, several of whom have worked in the social service field. Long before she found a life in politics, Grefe worked in a halfway house for delinquent girls run by the woman who is now the group’s animated administrator, Susie Walrich. Both found their way to New York, where Grefe began consulting to corporations and Walrich found employment in the New York State Division of Child and Family Services. Walrich, who shares with her husband a nearly full-time interest in auto racing (together they command a Nissan 500 tube-frame car designed for road racing), came on board to work for Grefe in the RPCC’s New York offices earlier this year after leaving her 25-year career with the State of New York.

When she and her colleagues are accused of disloyalty to their party, a nearly everpresent smile suddenly disappears from Grefe’s face. “You know what’s interesting?” she asks. “The platform has been bad, as far as we’re concerned, for 20 years, and we’re still here. We’re still Republicans. The other side, they say ‘change one word of that platform or you pick a pro-choice VP, and we’re out of here.’ I don’t think they’re Republicans.” At a press conference earlier this week, Grefe offered to buy a bus ticket for any pro-lifer who cares to bolt the party over a change in the platform language.

Platform deliberations are expected to continue until 6 p.m. on Saturday, when Platform Committee chairman Tommy Thompson, the pro-life Wisconsin governor, has promised to settle all issues with a strike of his gavel. Should the talks not go their way (as of late Friday, discussions appeared to have closed on the topic), the coalition continues to hold open the possibility of seeing the issue raised on the convention floor next Monday, when convention delegates will be asked to ratify the platform. “We’re willing to go as far as it needs to go,” says Cullman.

This morning I joined members of the coalition for breakfast at the Marriott, the dining spot most often used by platform delegates before they resume their places in the convention center. Seated nearby was Rep. Henry Hyde, R-Ill., the notoriously anti-abortion congressman who chaired the platform committee in ’96, and who today sits on the subcommittee that will take up the issue of the abortion plank. I asked him to assess the coalition’s chances of winning the plank’s removal. “I have no idea,” said Hyde. But what would it mean for the party, I asked, if the issue were to be raised on the convention floor on Monday?

“It would mean that democracy is in full force,” Hyde replied.

Adele M. Stan is AlterNet's Washington correspondent.

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