Last Woman Standing?

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The Women in Leadership (WIL) invitation to luncheon had to be read twice. The speaker: Eileen Padberg, who has managed political campaigns and strategic business planning for more than 30 years. Her subject: “The Republican Party and Pro-choice Republicans: Can This Marriage be Saved?”

In her introduction, WIL board member Patricia Schuler called up one of Yogi Berra’s oft-quoted lines as she pointed out that apropos of reproductive rights, “It’s déjà vu all over again.”

Actually it’s been “déjà vu all over again” for most of the 39 years since the U.S. Supreme Court upheld Roe v. Wade. Like a recurring marital argument, the issue of women’s reproductive choices has been repeatedly raised by the right wing of the Republican Party. Padberg’s earliest inkling that the issue would not go away came at the 1980 Republican National Convention, when a plank on abortion was adopted, which read in part: “While we recognize differing views on this question among Americans in general—and in our own Party—we affirm our support of a constitutional amendment to restore protection of the right to life for unborn children.”

“The party leadership was just beginning to be pushed by social extremists,” Padberg recalled. They allowed [the language] in, thinking the movement would fade away. Instead it only grew.”
Padberg had always held dear the GOP’s principles of limited government, individual liberty, and separation of church and state. As a moderate pro-choice Republican, she is a passionate advocate of women’s rights; she worked for the Equal Rights Amendment. But by 1992, the GOP leadership’s tolerance for women like Padberg was evaporating.

At that year’s Republican National Convention, Patrick J. Buchanan heralded the Religious Right’s ascendance: Nominee George H. W. Bush is “a defender of right-to-life and a champion of the Judeo-Christian values,” he said, while “Mr. Clinton, however, has a different agenda. At its top is unrestricted — unrestricted abortion on demand.”

You won’t be surprised to learn that Padberg was persona non grata at the convention.

“I was asked to leave the Platform Committee meetings, which was where it was all happening. We were trying to get the Platform Committee (and had since 1988) to take the issue of ‘Abortion’ out of the Platform. And I was never given floor passes to the actual convention.”

Other women were also shoved out of the GOP’s formerly commodious tent. (You can read all about it in “The Republican War Against Women,” by Tanya Melich.) That year Padberg joined a national organization devoted to electing pro-choice Republican candidates, lobbying members of Congress about women’s issues, and educating voters through blogs and newsletters — the Republican Majority for Choice.

The name draws double takes – pro-choice Republican office-holders in Washington, D.C., being as scarce as chickens in Corona del Mar.

Padberg finds the attrition daunting: “We only have 13 pro-choice Republicans in Congress — five of them are not a straight vote for Choice – and Olympia Snowe’s retirement will mean we are down to 12. … [Yet] national surveys show that 60 to 72 percent of Republicans are pro-choice.”

So Padberg remains engaged in scratching out a place for pro-choice moderates in the GOP.

“I’m not going to be chased out of my party. I made an early decision to stay and work from within. Remaining a Republican has given me the ability to have a platform to speak from.”

Her platform, however, sits on especially hostile ground.

“The Orange County Republican Party doesn’t support [moderate] women for public office,” she explained. “The first question asked when a candidate seeks party support is, ‘Are you pro-choice?’ If so, they mark a big red X, then they beat you up in the primaries.”

Over the years, she has seen very few pro-choice Republican women elected – among them Marilyn Brewer (70th Assembly District, 1994 to 2002) and Lynn Daucher (72nd Assembly District, 2000-2006).

According to Padberg, “both were really negatively impacted by their pro-choice position.”

Padberg’s talk was sub-titled “Can this marriage be saved?” After listening, I wondered why a pro-choice Republican would want to continue in such a relationship.

Padberg has courage in abundance – several years ago she spent 22 months coaching the women of Iraq in successful business practices – and she has shown the integrity to remain true to her values in conservative Orange County. But courage sometimes suggests that you walk away. After all, she has her platform, but where are the listeners in the party leadership? Locally and nationally the party leadership’s ears are closed to pro-choice women. Padberg cited Rep. Loretta Sanchez’s (D-Santa Ana) comment that “in any given week, there are approximately 500 pieces of legislation [introduced] that can be considered `anti-women.’”

Padberg stressed that she doesn’t think the Democrats are much better: “It is women that are going to have to demand their rights.”

But given Padberg’s long advocacy for gender equality, why would she advise any woman to remain in a “marriage” where she has no say, no power?

Padberg had said, “Until the Religious Right is neutralized, that’s not going to stop. Not until the party has lost so badly will they finally say, ‘Enough.’”

Well, amen to that.

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