By Onnesha Roychoudhuri
Monday, September 11, 2006
Jennifer Lawless wrote a book about why women don't run for political office and then decided to run for Congress herself. On Sept. 12 she tests a three-term incumbent in Rhode Island's Democratic primary.
(WOMENSENEWS)--Brown University professor Jennifer Lawless, running for Rhode Island's 2nd congressional district seat in the Democratic primary, knows exactly what made her spend the past year campaigning.
While teaching political science at Brown University, Lawless, 31, began researching her 2005 book "It Takes a Candidate: Why Women Don't Run for Office."
Working on the book made her want to run herself.
"The fact that women were less likely to be recruited, or to think that they were qualified and still had a harder time reconciling home and career made me realize that that's precisely the reason we need more women in politics," Lawless said in a recent telephone interview. "Women are more likely to recruit other women and they're more likely to pass family-friendly legislation."
After the 2004 election that she decided to take action.
"I realized that the country was really headed in the wrong direction," says Lawless. "It wasn't enough to stay on the sidelines anymore."
Her platform includes more federal funding for educational programs and Medicaid, tax cuts and credits for low- and middle-income workers and a time table for beginning to pull U.S. troops out of Iraq by the end of 2006.
Perhaps what sets her most apart from her opponent, three-term incumbent James Langevin, is her passionate pro-choice stance.
During one of the candidates' two televised debates--on Aug. 30 and Sept. 1--Langevin said that his constituents are less concerned about abortion and more worried about the high price of health care and education.
"They're not talking about the right to choose with you because they know that they can't count on you to help protect it," Lawless rejoined, according to Rhode Island political columnist M. Charles Bakst, who covered the debate for The Providence Journal.
Bakst reported that Lawless didn't realize how harsh she might have sounded, but that she also told him that she doesn't regret the remark. "I have had hundreds of conversations with women who have actually said that they no longer even consider talking to him because it's been so ineffective," Bakst quoted Lawless.
A small-sample Brown University Taubman Center for Public Policy Survey poll in June, the most recent available, found Langevin had 68 percent support of those polled and Lawless had 11 percent support.
Amy Walter, House editor for the Cook Political Report in Washington says Lawless' chances aren't very high. "That's a pretty daunting challenge, in going after a sitting congressman who seems to have no problems with his base," she says. "I just don't see Langevin as particularly vulnerable in a primary."
Lawless shows no hint of resignation. "We're going to win this race," she says, pointing to the growing number of endorsements she has received, television, debates, spikes in Web traffic to her campaign site, and recent increases in volunteers.
Lawless, who lived in Providence for over three years, moved in May 2005 to the 2nd congressional district in central Rhode Island to take on Langevin.
Her decision was spurred by her belief in the importance of challenging incumbents. "Somebody needed to challenge Jim Langevin," says Lawless, "and I was passionate about the issues. When I looked at this congressional district and how out of synch Jim Langevin was with his constituents, I had no choice but to do it."
In January, Lawless spent nine days walking the 110 miles of the 2nd congressional district with her staff, going to door-to-door to ask voters what issues mattered most to them.
Apart from discovering that people were surprised to see a candidate on their doorstep, Lawless found that the war in Iraq, and privacy--the criminalization of the use of medical marijuana, end-of-life decisions, reproductive rights and the violation of civil liberties in portions of the Patriot Acts--were at the top of voters' concerns.
Lawless says the majority of people she met want to see the troops start to come home.
Her "Lawless for Congress" campaign embraces a comparison with the anti-incumbent, anti-war campaign of political upstart Ned Lamont, who unseated three-term political heavyweight Joseph Lieberman in the August Democratic primary in neighboring Connecticut.
But while Lamont, a wealthy cable company executive, spent over $2.5 million of personal wealth on his campaign, Lawless has had to raise almost all her campaign funds while keeping her day job as a professor at Brown. So far her campaign has raised over $300,000; 90 percent from individuals and the rest from women's political action committees.
To date, she has received endorsements from Women Under Forty Political Action Committee, Women's Campaign Forum, National Women's Political Caucus, National Organization for Women Political Action Committees, Business and Professional Women Political Action Committee, NARAL Pro-Choice America PAC, and Planned Parenthood Action Fund.
Executive Director of Planned Parenthood Votes Rhode Island Kathy Kushnir says Lawless' pro-choice stance resonates with Rhode Island's two-thirds pro-choice majority.
"We hope the Planned Parenthood Action Fund does all it can to make sure Rhode Island voters understand James Langevin's anti-choice record and what an improvement Congresswoman Lawless will be," Kushnir said in a news release.
In May 2005 Langevin voted against lifting a ban that prevents military personnel from using their own funds to obtain abortion services in overseas military hospitals.
While Langevin was one of 133 members of the House who voted against the resolution that gave President Bush authority to invade Iraq in October 2002, he has since sided with Republicans in pledging support for Bush's "war policy."
Women's eNews made frequent attempts to reach Langevin's press secretary, Joy Fox, to ask about the shift in his war stance, but calls were not returned.
While Democrats eager to take back Congress are often throwing support to the primary candidate most likely to win, no Republican is running for Langevin's district. The race therefore offers voters a rare opportunity to be more selective.
"Langevin is a reliably pro-gay Democrat, so gays could do a lot worse than reelecting him," New England's largest gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender newspaper, In Newsweekly, recently wrote. "But in this race, there is a stronger and more impressive choice in Lawless."
Lawless' campaign manager, Adam Deitch, a former student of Lawless and a recent graduate of Brown, says that Langevin's campaign refuses explain his continued support of the war and votes against a woman's right to choose. "They just change the topic," says Deitch. "They just won't answer the questions."
Onnesha Roychoudhuri is a Brooklyn-based freelance writer. A former assistant editor of AlterNet.org, she has written for AlterNet, MotherJones.com and PopMatters.
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