Afternoon Jolt

Pro Choice Group Gets Tough with Democrats

With its nuanced legislative report card, NARAL ends era of grade inflation for status quo Democrats.

By Josh Feit April 28, 2016

Jolt axth2t

NARAL Pro-Choice Washington has rewritten the formula for legislative report cards. Most advocacy groups that issue annual scorecards on state legislators' voting records traditionally track the group's top priority bills (in NARAL's case this year it was bills such as the "Pregnant Worker Fairness Act" and legislation governing access to birth control) and tally which legislators voted against them and which legislators voted for them.

The result has always been a bit predictable...and generic. Democrats get As from labor rights, civil rights, and women's rights groups, for example—while Republicans...not so much.

But ultimately, how helpful is that? Particularly in Seattle where everyone is a pro-choice, pro-worker Democrat. For example, check out the Washington State Labor Council's annual scorecard where they simply give legislators a point for voting the right way on floor votes which allows a parade of house Democrats to claim an A grade without necessarily being a "champion." Earlier this year, the Washington Community Action Network took a step toward sharpening the legislative report card concept by upgrading metrics that look at both votes and sponsors.) 

NARAL has upped the ante even more by zooming in on the full legislative process, which officially ends the era of grade inflation. As a NARAL press release marking the debut of the group's "Legislative Scorecard" says today: They're putting "lawmakers on notice."

Too many legislators this year voted the right way when given the opportunity but didn’t work proactively to promote pro-choice legislation, didn’t push their fellow legislators, and didn’t take public action to promote policies that best serve women.

This scorecard puts lawmakers on notice: If legislators want the pro-choice vote, they can’t take their pro-choice constituents for granted.

The result? A crew of Seattle Democrats wound up with Cs, which means, according to NARAL's metrics: "Supports women and families by voting to protect access to a full range of reproductive healthcare options." Meh.

It's no A: "Outstanding champions for women. They devote tremendous time and energy to protecting women's health and promoting economic justice. They actively and energetically promote bills and policies that stand with women."

Some well-known liberal legislators that ended up with Cs after this year's session: Seattle representatives Frank  Chopp (D-43, Wallingford), Zack Hudgins (D-11, Southeast Seattle), Ruth Kagi (D-32, N. Seattle), Sharon Tomiko Santos (D-37, Southeast Seattle), Gael Tarleton (D-36, Ballard), Seattle state senators Reuven Carlyle (D-36, Ballard), Bob Hasegawa (D-11, Beacon Hill), plus other liberal reps such as Hans Dunshee, Jake Fey, Luis Moscoso, Chris Reykdal, Cindy Ryu and liberal senators Rosemary McAuliffe, and Christine Rolfes.

After analyzing the legislative process, which includes behind the scenes action, NARAL executive director Rachel Berkson explains that a C grade gives credit for simply showing up and voting the right way, while a B means in addition to voting with NARAL, legislators may have spoken out on the issue (like writing an op/ed as B student state senator Cyrus Habib did.)

However, A student legislators, she said, “go to the mat” for pro-choice, “aggressively lobbying their colleagues behind the scenes.”

Berkson explains that NARAL decided to be sticklers because she noticed that for such a supposedly pro-choice state, many bills weren’t even making it to the floor for a vote. “Most of the action happens before the votes,” she says, explaining that it’s one thing for C grade Democrats to co-sponsor a bill and support it during the  floor vote (thanks), but it’s another thing to be the prime sponsor and “make it a take home issue” (yass!)

Berkson also points out that while the Democratic voting majority in the house "has been able to stop bad bills, that's not good enough." She notes that with the changing medical landscape, where things like the Affordable Care Act now jeopardize insurance coverage for abortions, it means it's no longer okay to simply defend the status quo. "We need to be working proactively to make sure all insurance covers abortion," she said.

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Is this grading system fair? After all, should a Democrat who focuses on McCleary funding and locking down a budget that secures social service funding get a demerit for divvying up the progressive agenda by letting another member take the lead on pro-choice issues.

"Their 2016 legislative scorecard makes it virtually impossible to receive a top grade without prime sponsoring their top bills and making it central to your agenda," state senator Reuven Carlyle noted on Facebook. (Carlyle has a strong pro-choice voting record.) "Being 100 percent focused on writing a morally responsible budget unfortunately isn't part of the picture," he said.

"Not everyone can be a Jessyn Farrell [North Seattle's A grade state representative]," Berkson says. "It's supposed to be hard to get an A." Farrell  prime sponsored the Pregnant Worker Fairness Act which would have prevented employers from docking workers who need things like more bathroom breaks during pregnancies. The final house version, that NARAL supported, didn't get a hearing in the senate.

Some other A students: State senators David Frockt (D-46, North Seattle), Steve Hobbs (D-44, Lake Stevens), Pramila Jayapal (D-37, Southesast Seattle), and Sharon Nelson (D-34, West Seattle.)

There is one interesting note on the Republican side: State senator Steve Litzow (R-41, Mercer Island), who has long enjoyed a pro-choice reputation thanks to a previous stint on NARAL's PAC, received a D this year from NARAL. As a member of the majority party in the senate, he bears extra responsibility in NARAL's opinion, for not pushing his pro-choice politics. 

Full Disclosure: PubliCola co-founder Erica C. Barnett currently works as NARAL's communications director.

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