The scene at Monday night's annual WCF benefit, to which I was invited as a special guest and as a journalist, felt just like old times -- old election-season times, that is. At the Doyle Gallery on New York's Upper East Side, some of Manhattan's wealthiest political donors packed taut-cheek to smooth-jowl among a bevy of candidates, talking about the political heft of the women's vote, sounding very much like they did back in 2004 -- when we also understood how the women's vote could make a difference.
But wait, it's not 2004 anymore. Now we have a terrifying Supreme Court; they're trying to ban abortion in South Dakota; insurance companies are not paying for birth control anymore; the healthcare system is eroded; we're still at war. Now the women's vote -- and women's leadership -- really will count. Right? It's time for a Gingrich-style midterm revolution, except that this time, deliverance is going to come in the form of female candidates, mad as hell and unwilling to take it anymore.
Everyone at the WCF (formerly the Women's Campaign Fund) Parties of Your Choice benefit certainly thought so. Pinched between sofas and end tables, it was hard to maneuver toward any of the luminaries mingling amid the damask. But you could see them: There was former Planned Parenthood chief Gloria Feldt chatting up Glamour editor Cindi Leive. Teresa Heinz Kerry had come in -- was she wearing a scarf or just standing behind a brightly colored lampshade? Rep. Charlie Rangel, D-N.Y., kibbitzed near Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., and "Dr. Judy" Kuriansky from the fabled "Love Phones" radio show.
In the center of the party, United Action for Animals president Gary Kaskel was explaining why, from his point of view, women are preferable politicians. "They are more sympathetic to the plight of factory farm animals and animal testing," he said. "I don't know why, except that they usually have a more humane nature."
Just next to him was cherubic Manhattan borough president Scott Stringer, who said he first worked on a campaign as a boy, selling buttons for his neighbor Bella Abzug's 1970 run for Congress. "Look around this room," he said. "A night like this symbolizes what's wrong with the system. So much of it is about money and connections, and the fact is that the boys have had more long-term access to those kinds of networks and connections."
Designer Kay Unger was talking to Alexandra Lebenthal, former head of brokerage firm Lebenthal & Co. "You know they just elected a female president in Chile!" said Unger. "This country is so backwards. They are fine with women leaders in countries where women are hardly as free as they are here."
Coming through a fuzzy mike was the voice of spritely new WCF president Ilana Goldman, talking about the South Dakota abortion ban, "This is not just about abortion," she said. "This is all about control. And for the women and men who support us, it's time to take that control back." Goldman was talking about the night's honorees, WCF board chair Margaret Kavalaris, Pennsylvania Democratic congressional candidate Lois Murphy, and Idaho Republican congressional candidate Sheila Sorenson. Goldman talked about the nonpartisanship of the WCF, noting that a citation presented that evening had been signed by Sens. Patty Murray, D-Wash., Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Olympia Snowe, R-Maine.
Keynote speaker Al Franken was not as clap-happy about bipartisanship as his hosts.
Franken joshed, "I agree that the South Dakota ban was about control -- control over abortion," and wasted no time in pointing out that Collins and Snowe had voted for Alito. "I don't know how you get money from this organization and vote for Samuel Alito," he said. The crowd was silent. Franken was clearly touching a raw nerve -- the one that remembers how a bunch of Republicans railroaded choice groups into supporting them, running off with their money and still voting for likely anti-choice judges.
But seriously, folks, Franken said he realized this was a hands-across-the-aisle kind of shindig. "So the RNC is not so great on this issue," he said with a shrug, "but it is so great on so many other issues!" Pause. "Like voting for Samuel Alito!" Franken couldn't let it go. "Just what do you think the Concerned Alumni of Princeton were so concerned about?" he asked. "Do you think they were worried that the language labs needed some sprucing up?"
"Women!" shouted someone who was standing just across a piece of furniture from me. "Right," said Franken. "They were concerned about women. And blacks. So I just hope that when you're cutting new checks, Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins don't have many zeros at the end of theirs. Or maybe there should be a zero in the first column."
The speeches done, the crowd began milling with vague intent to head out to the smaller dinner parties being hosted around the city. Former 12-term Colorado Rep. Pat Schroeder was close to the door, swarmed by admirers. "You're a hero to a lot of us," said moderate Republican Florida state Rep. Nancy Detert, to whom Schroeder replied, "You're doing God's work." Detert, who supports abortion rights and broke with Republicans in refusing to support government intervention in the Terri Schiavo case, is one of seven candidates vying for chad harpy Katherine Harris' 13th Congressional District seat.
"The money is a little easier than it was," said Schroeder about the differences between her political career and current prospects for women. Schroeder contemplated a presidential run in 1987, and was famously felled by the press for crying during her announcement that she had decided against it. "But neither party is as supportive as we'd like. I think now there are so many women running because they're fed up with the incompetence. If women ran their homes like these guys have been running the country" -- here Schroeder made a gesture with her hand at her throat -- "they would be in big trouble!"
Next to Schroeder was Coleen Rowley, the FBI whistle-blower now running for Congress in Minnesota. She was passing out campaign fliers, talking to everyone she could, working the room. It was impossible to walk by her and not hear phrases like "culture of cronyism," "corruption" and "jaundiced infotainment" coming out of her mouth. "We only need 15 seats!" she told me with great intensity. Rowley, who was until recently a Republican, was attracting about as much attention as anyone at the party, until she moved on to the private dinner segment of the evening, held at the opulent six-story home of Marjorie and Michael Loeb.
That's where Martha Stewart was.
But sadly -- if not unexpectedly -- the line for Martha introductions was long and perhaps more obstructed for the lone journalist in the room. But milling around her were other stars, like McKinsey & Co.'s New York chief Joanna Barsh, who was proudly showing everyone a copy of her first video, "Living Portraits." Barsh's project is to interview women business leaders from many fields, searching for patterns and histories from the mouths of babes who have hacked their way through the business jungle. She'd just persuaded Stewart to participate. Overhearing Barsh talking about the professional approaches taken by women in their 70s vs. women in their 40s vs. women in their 20s, a 29-year-old guest approached with a glass of wine in her hand. "How old are you?" she asked Barsh, who didn't miss a beat and said she is 53. "It's so great that you never let anything get in your way," marveled the younger woman. Barsh cocked her head slightly and squinted. "Things get in my way every single day," she replied.
Everyone moved upstairs to a packed room where six tables for 10 were set with fancy silverware. After some awkward standing around -- it was open seating and everyone was trying to figure out which table Martha would take -- California Rep. Barbara Lee, the only member of Congress to vote against use of force after Sept. 11, got up to speak about pro-choice politics. In the circles I frequent, Lee is a culture hero, and so I was surprised to see some at my table not clapping for her; then I remembered -- this was a bipartisan dinner.
Diners tucked into their meals of roast chicken and mushroom gnocchi, all craning their necks as subtly as possible to get an eyeful of Stewart, who was looking cheerful. Earlier, she'd joked with the hostess about standing on the beautiful upholstery, and her eyes were skittering over every one of the ornate gewgaws in the room. Michael Loeb, the diminutive man of the house, stood and began to joke about his confusion when his wife wanted to have a WCF fundraiser in the house.
"I'm a guy," he said, "so I'm thinking WWF. I'm picturing Hulk Hogan eating here. I'm thinking: How can we fit 60 of those guys in one room? Then she says 'Martha Stewart will be there,' and I think, God, that woman has range!" At this point, Stewart piped up from her table, "MSO [Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia] and WWF went public the same day."
"You see?" Loeb replied. "It's bashert," the Yiddish word for "meant to be." "If you don't know what that means," he kidded Stewart, "talk to your circulation department; they would know."
Loeb noted that introducing Stewart to this particular crowd was like introducing "Christmas to the pope or malaprops to George Bush II -- there aren't any Republicans here, are there?" There were, and they were sitting next to me, looking slightly perturbed but prepared for such ribaldry.
Stewart herself did her best to steer clear of party politics, talking first about how she'd appreciated the Tiffany's chrysanthemum pattern on her table's silver. "I have noticed every single detail in this amazing place," she said, commenting that she lives "down the road" -- at 72nd Street and Fifth Avenue -- "in a modest little apartment, and when I come to a place like this I get inspired."
Stewart continued, "My experiences in the last three years were extremely difficult in terms of the static nature of what we do in this country. It's unchanging, untenable, unacceptable really. It made me grind my teeth -- actually I wore down some teeth. But my enamel is strong, the human body is strong, the human mind is strong, and I'm just looking for a little bit of evolution. I don't want to get political, because I'm not supposed to as the editor of a magazine that is sold to everybody, but it is time for a change. I'm happy to be here in the company of people willing to make a difference, and that's all I ask for is a little bit of a difference."
And that brought to the floor Coleen Rowley, who had flown out of a blizzard in Minneapolis to get there. She was loud, she was angry, and she wanted to make clear that in her race and all races, women -- especially Democratic women -- have a hard time fundraising. Why? Because, as she said, 63 percent of all contributions made to Republican incumbents are $1,000 or more. Rowley noted that she has 100 contributions of $5. Second, women politicians tend to be political newbies -- Rowley was an FBI agent for 24 years before running for office -- and thus shut out of the old-boys network. Third -- and here she held up the 2002 issue of Time on which she was pictured as one of three "whistle-blowers" named people of the year -- women tend to be identified as "whistle-blowers," "truth-tellers," "exposers." And who wants those no-fun snitches crawling all over your rotunda?
"Martha Stewart said she wants to change course a little," said Rowley. "I'm going to say that I want to change course a lot."