Richards Made Group a Power Player in Democratic Party Politics
By Randall K O’Bannon, Ph.D. NRL Director of Education & Research
When Planned Parenthood hired Cecile Richards, a person without any medical training, someone who had never run an affiliate before, it knew what it was doing.
Richards had a long résumé, not in “reproductive health care,” but in political activism. That’s what Planned Parenthood wanted and that’s what it got.
And now, twelve years later, Planned Parenthood is not only the nation’s biggest abortion chain, but, thanks to Richards, a real power player in the nation’s abortion politics.
A partisan political background
The daughter of former Texas governor Anne Richards, Cecile Richards learned political activism at the kitchen table. Her first political campaign with her mom was in 1972 on behalf of Sarah Weddington. Weddington was the lawyer who represented “Jane Roe” (Norma McCorvey) in the classic Roe v. Wade case.
Weddington was running for the Texas state house, and won.
After graduating from college Richards began working as a union organizer in California for a group called “Justice for Janitors” in the 1980s. After helping her mother campaign for office, she founded the Texas Freedom Network in 1995 to combat the “religious right” with clergy and community leaders.
After creating and directing Pro-Choice Vote, a voter ID project for the Turner Foundation for the 2000 election, in 2002 she became a deputy chief of staff for pro-abortion Congressional Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Ca.).
In 2003, Richards founded and headed a group called America Votes, a coalition of groups that spent more than $350 million on political activities in the 2004 election.
This is the résumé Planned Parenthood saw when they hired Richards. Someone with high level political contacts, years of experience running political campaigns, and an ability to raise lots of money in a short time.
A fiery launch
Just months into her new job as president of Planned Parenthood, Richards gave a fiery speech at the “Take Back America” conference in June of 2006. Noting that the new group she headed had 860 “health centers” in 50 states, Richards declared,
We have the potential to swing the vote in 2006, 2008 and 2010, and that’s a lot of power. The question is, What are we going to do with it? And the answer is, We’re going to use it. We’re going to marry our current reality as the largest reproductive healthcare provider in this country with our opportunity to be the largest kicka** advocacy organization in the country…. We’re taking on the opponents of choice in the states and the districts where they live. Planned Parenthood is going to become more political so that healthcare can become less politicized.
Richards went on to point out that Planned Parenthood had more members, employees and staff than the 50 state Democratic parties combined.
Clear here is the intent to turn what were supposed to be healthcare employees into political activists.
Pushing politics at Planned Parenthood
While Planned Parenthood had been active in the political arena before, Richards quickly took PPFA’s politicking to a whole new level.
It is difficult to find clear records, but it appears that Planned Parenthood’s PAC spent a few hundred thousand to help elect some pro-abortion governors, congressional representatives and senators in 2006, Richards first year at the helm. We know that by 2008, the Planned Parenthood Action Fund, which Richards also heads, was spending close to $11 million.
In the 2012 elections, it was twice that amount– about $22.4 million (The Center for Responsive Politics, at www.opensecrets.org ).
Not satisfied with the limits on federal political action committees, Richards started the super PAC “Planned Parenthood Votes” in 2010 which fills a different political niche. A “super PAC” does not make direct contributions to a candidate or political party, but can raise and spend unlimited amounts of money to spend independently for or against certain politicians or political causes.
The Center for Responsive Politics (CRP) says that Planned Parenthood Votes spent $21.6 million in the 2016 election. CRP records make it appear that the bulk of Planned Parenthood’s political activity shifted over to the super PAC, but the Planned Parenthood Action Fund, still reported over $1.4 million of its own in independent expenditures for 2016, none of which went for Republican candidates.
Richards has made sure that money is not the only way that Planned Parenthood has been involved in politics.
Richards was a special speaker at every Democratic National Convention since she took office, twice declaring Planned Parenthood’s support for Barack Obama, then for Hillary Clinton.
Planned Parenthood did advertising, warning about Republican candidates wanting to overturn Roe and take away a woman’s “right to choose,” but took things further. It made phone calls, put out mailings, even recruited volunteers to go door to door in an effort to get sympathetic voters registered and out to the polls.
Richards was one of the first to see the importance of social media in political activism. Planned Parenthood had special websites devoted to tracking and trashing Republican presidential nominees John McCain, Mitt Romney, and Donald Trump. They posted stories in favor of candidates they liked and against those they didn’t on Facebook and ran Twitter campaigns to match.
Using social media, Planned Parenthood became one of the major drivers for and featured players at the large Women’s March that coincided with the Trump inauguration.
All told, Richards was quite successful in upping Planned Parenthood’s political game. But the best ads and spin that money can buy can’t hide what it is that Planned Parenthood does and on what it depends – the destruction of unborn lives, to the tune of 320,000+ a year.
And that’s a real negative that it is difficult to overcome.
Planned Parenthood & ObamaCare
Under Richards’ direction, Planned Parenthood continued to fight to promote abortion at all levels, pushing pro-abortion legislation, fighting laws they didn’t like in the courts, electing politicians who would keep the spigot open for Planned Parenthood to take in half a billion dollars a year from taxpayers’ pockets.
But one of the most critical areas where Richards and Planned Parenthood had an impact was as a driver and promoter of “health care reform,” popularly known as ObamaCare.
Richards and Planned Parenthood developed a relationship with Barack Obama early on, when Obama was merely “exploring” his candidacy for president as a junior senator from Illinois. They endorsed Obama and helped him win in 2008.
… [Obama] returned the favor in conference calls. White House meeting invitations and a promise to veto the budget bill if it defunded Planned Parenthood. (“The Genius of Cecile Richards,” The Nation, 3/26/12)
The point was clear – that Richards and Planned Parenthood would be players at the White House and be integral to the ObamaCare rollout.
Richards was one of those invited to the White House summit on health care reform in March of 2009 where she made the case for giving a prominent role for clinics such as Planned Parenthood’s.
Richards made Planned Parenthood a big part in health care “reform.” She pushed to get Congress to pass the president’s program. Once passed, not only did Planned Parenthood promote ObamaCare on its own website, but several Planned Parenthood affiliates became official “Navigators” for ObamaCare, assisting people in shopping for and selecting health insurance plans.
Besides being a cagey way to generate more foot traffic to Planned Parenthood clinics, it was a way to ensure that patients picked plans that included abortion and other services available there at the clinic.
Since the election of President Trump and continuing Republican majorities in the House and Senate, Richards and Planned Parenthood have been at the head of the parade rallying people in opposition to repeal and any threats to Planned Parenthood’s government funding.
As we have discussed in NRL News Today, “cancer screenings” and even contraceptives have fallen off at Planned Parenthood in recent years as the group has cut clinics and realigned its marketing priorities. However, Richards and her group continue to use these as arguments why government funding should not be touched.
Of course, hundreds of thousands of lives would be saved if Planned Parenthood gave up abortion and devoted itself to cancer screening, but this isn’t how Richards and Planned Parenthood think.
Richards and “The Videos”
If there was anywhere that Richards made her value to Planned Parenthood clear, it was in her handling of the embarrassing undercover videos that showed several of her top employees haggling over compensation for aborted baby body parts like eyes, livers, and brains.
While Richards called the exposed incidents “unacceptable” [?]and personally apologized for her staffers’ “tone and statements,” she admitted no basic wrongdoing, legal or otherwise.
The tack Richards and Planned Parenthood quickly adopted, however, was that the videos gave a false impression and were “heavily edited,” words that virtually every newspaper and media outlet dutifully echoed.
The spin that the media helped to spread was that there might be a few ill-chosen phrases here or there, but generally that these were just ordinary business. Prolife “spies” had deceptively cobbled together to make ordinary clinical discussions sound like something nefarious. Most people (and probably most reporters) simply took Richards’s word for it and never watched the videos themselves. They bought Planned Parenthood’s claims that they, rather than the poor babies they brutally aborted and shipped out in parts, were the real victims.
Members of Congress did watch the videos and saw Planned Parenthood as the well compensated supplier for a lucrative and legally suspect fetal parts/stem cell industry with ties to some of America’s top universities that needed to be investigated and possibly charged.
Called to testify before Congress, Richards masterfully spun, deflected, and filibustered when asked to defend or explain her group’s conduct. Again, accepting that the “tone” of some of her employees may have been unfortunate, she asserted that “The outrageous accusations leveled against Planned Parenthood based on heavily doctored videos are offensive and categorically untrue.”
Richards said the videos were “a deliberate and systematic effort by … opponents of safe and legal abortion to infiltrate our health centers, try and entrap our staff into potentially illegal conduct, and create discredited, doctored videos designed to smear Planned Parenthood” (CNN, 9/30/2015).
Richards admitted that a few of its clinics had supplied fetal tissue, but characterized this as assistance to researchers seeking cures for diseases. “Planned Parenthood is proud of its limited role in supporting fetal tissue research,” Richards told members of Congress.
Richards managed to avoid saying how much money Planned Parenthood makes every year from abortion. When Republicans challenged Richards on her salary and the group’s lavish spending, Democrats rushed to her defense, accusing her questioners of being disrespectful, misogynistic, and part of the “war on women.”
Though Congress recommended and some states attorneys general looked at possible charges which might be brought against Planned Parenthood, none are currently filed against the group or any of its employees. (However the Justice Department is said to be looking into the matter.)
The most successful part of Richards’ defense, however, has been to talk most of the press and much of the public out of even looking at the evidence of barbarity shown clearly on the video tapes.
Looking at the future
Little has been said at this point about Richards’ reasons for leaving Planned Parenthood or her plans for the future, but there are some voices urging her to run for political office, particularly the governor’s office in Texas (Yahoo News, 1/26/18).
With her political savvy, her ability to handle the press, her contacts and experience, and her ability to raise large sums of money, she would certainly be a formidable candidate.
Richards told the New York Times she is “not thinking of running for anything,” but acknowledged in a statement that she is a lifelong activist and intends to stay involved in women’s causes and progressive politics.
There is a book is in the near future, with her memoir, Make Trouble, due out in April.
One supposes that the search for Richards’s replacement has begun in earnest at Planned Parenthood, as there is no heir apparent.
Whether someone with a history in the organization, some politician or political activist, or some prominent abortionist will eventually take the reins, we do not know.
We do know it will be difficult to match Cecile Richards’s political savvy.