Sen. Mary Landrieu; Suzanne Terrell

WASHINGTON (WOMENSENEWS)–After what was a disappointing midterm election year for Democrats, Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) gave her party something to cheer about in her contested Senate runoff election.

Saturday, she defeated Suzanne Terrell by a slim margin, turning back a strong challenge from a Republican candidate backed by the popular President Bush and holding at bay the Republican Party’s ascendancy in the South.

Taking place in one of the most anti-choice states in the union, the race turned in large part on the issue of abortion, with both candidates playing up their anti-abortion credentials.

Landrieu, however, has earned a mixed record on abortion during her six years in the Senate, while Terrell campaigned on a strict anti-choice platform.

Landrieu’s victory prevented the Republican Party from expanding its narrow majority in the Senate but did not affect the balance of power in the Senate. Republicans, who won control of the chamber in November, have 51 seats and Democrats now have 48 seats. Sen. Jim Jeffords from Vermont is an Independent.

The national Republican Party employed the same strategy in Louisiana that worked so well in the midterm elections, when Republicans candidates across the country rode a wave of support for the popular president.

But the strategy proved ineffective in Louisiana, which hasn’t elected a Republican senator since Reconstruction. Indeed, Bush and a number of GOP luminaries, including former President George H.W. Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.), former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and Sen.-elect Elizabeth Dole campaigned with Terrell in recent weeks.

Nonetheless, she won only 48 percent of the vote, while Landrieu captured 52 percent.

Also in Louisiana, Democrat Rodney Alexander eked out a razor-thin victory against Republican Lee Fletcher in the runoff in the 5th district seat in the northern part of the state. With 229 seats in the House of Representatives, Republicans still maintain control of the chamber.

Many other mid-term races focused on the looming war with Iraq or the economy’s troubles, however, abortion rights were the central issue in Louisiana, where two middle-aged Roman Catholic women competed for the state’s unresolved Senate contest. Despite their avowals to the contrary, both were charged with changing their positions on the issue of reproductive rights for political gain.

“It’s a southern state and a Catholic state,” said John Maginnis, editor of the newsletter Louisiana Political Fax Weekly, when asked why abortion played such a prominent role in the Pelican State Senate race this year. “It’s also probably the most pro-life state in the union.”  Suzanne Haik Terrell

The incumbent, Democrat Landrieu, failed to win more than 50 percent of the vote in the Nov. 5 general election and was forced to square off against the second-highest vote-getter, Republican Terrell, in a runoff election.

Landrieu’s victory comes at a critical time for lawful abortions. One of the five U.S. Supreme Court justices who support reproductive rights is expected to retire before the 2004 election year and could be succeeded by an anti-choice nominee of President Bush’s choosing.

Landrieu Blurred Position on Abortion

Landrieu, a Democrat who first won office in 1996 as a pro-choice candidate, hedged her support for abortion rights in her bid for a second term.

“I am as pro-life on this issue as anybody else,” Landrieu said during a debate Monday night when asked point blank if she is pro-choice. “I don’t think labels necessarily represent our positions.”

Since first winning office in 1996, Landrieu has supported several initiatives viewed as anti-choice, including a controversial bill that would ban several categories of common abortion practices. In debates and campaign rallies during the general election and in her runoff campaign, Landrieu declined to call herself “pro-choice,” instead emphasizing her promotion of adoption and her support for abortion specifically in the cases of rape, incest and the life of the woman.

“I emphatically say that women or their doctors should not be put in jail for a medical procedure that might be necessary to save their life in the cases of rape or incest,” she said. “You tell me what that label is. I don’t think either label actually clarifies that position.”

Still, Landrieu has earned relatively high ratings from pro-choice groups such as Planned Parenthood Federation of America and the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League, winning far greater approval on the issue than most other Democratic and Republican members of the Louisiana delegation.

Nonetheless, Landrieu’s mixed record on abortion rights prompted Emily’s List, a political action committee devoted to electing pro-choice Democratic women to office, to dump her from its roster of allies, leaving her without the financial windfall that helped catapult her to victory six years ago.

Terrell Also Flip-Flopped on Abortion

Landrieu’s opponent was also accused of modifying her position on abortion since she entered the campaign late last summer.

Terrell recently appeared on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” where she told moderator Tim Russert that she opposed abortion in all cases. One day later, however, she said she would make exceptions in the cases of rape, incest and the life of the woman.

But Terrell denied any change of policy, contending that she has supported those exceptions consistently throughout her campaign.

“I am a practicing Catholic and I am pro-life and I will fight for the unborn,” she said during Monday night’s debate. “My church says there is only one exception, when the life of mother at stake. If incrementally we can get there and limit the number of abortions performed in this country, then we’ll have to accept [the exceptions of] rape, incest and the life of the mother.”

Moreover, Terrell has been accused of reversing her position on abortion in order to run for the Senate. Her critics contend that she was pro-choice during the mid-1990s, when she served on the New Orleans City Council. To prove their claim, they point to a 1994 Planned Parenthood invitation that listed her as a co-chair of the group’s 10th anniversary celebration.

Terrell told Russert that she was unaware that her name appeared on the brochure, but has nonetheless failed to completely stamp out doubts surrounding her position on abortion rights.

Abortion Issue Reflects State’s Conservative Leanings

The hemming and hawing on this controversial issue is not surprising in what was a critical race in a socially conservative state with deep religious convictions.

Religious fervor in the Catholic south and Protestant north–the heart and soul of the Bible Belt–has prompted this longtime Democratic stronghold to shift to the right in recent years.

In the only remaining Dixieland state with two Democratic senators, Louisiana Republicans have triumphed in recent elections. President Bush beat former Vice President Al Gore by an 8-point margin during the 2000 presidential elections, and, in 1996, the state sent Republican Gov. Mike Foster to the governor’s mansion.

President Bush was hoping voters would send the first Louisiana Republican since Reconstruction to the Senate in Saturday’s election–an outcome that would tighten his party’s grip on the South.

Landrieu remained confident throughout the race that she would not suffer the fate of Georgia Sen. Max Cleland and Missouri Sen. Jean Carnahan–both Democratic freshmen from states that backed Bush in the 2000 elections who lost their seats on Nov. 5.

An accomplished legislator who has earned a reputation as a moderate who votes with Bush more often than not, Landrieu said: “People in Louisiana are very open-minded. People are going to . . . say, ‘Look, we’ve got a senator we’re proud of and she’s got an effective, independent record.'”

Allison Stevens covers politics in Washington.

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Spurned Miss North Carolina Competed for Miss World

By Kara Briggs
WEnews correspondent

Rebekah Revels, banned from the Miss America pageant after an ex-boyfriend threatened to sell topless photos of her, lost her bid to become the next Miss World.

Rebekah Revels

(WOMENSENEWS)–Pageants haven’t been kind this year to Rebekah Revels, who remains MissNorth Carolina only by court order. She had one last chance at pageantroyalty Saturday when she competed for the Miss World title, but lost to MissTurkey, Azra Akin.

Miss Colombia and Miss Peru were runners up, in a pageant marred by riots and controversy.

Revels is a 24-year-old high school English teacher, a Lumbee Indian, and for a short time last summer pageant watchers called her the best chance to become the first Native American Miss America. That unraveled when the pageant’s organizers banned Revels from competing after an ex-boyfriend threatened to sell topless photographs of her.

But days after the Miss America debacle, U.S. organizers for the Miss World Pageant telephoned Revels. A change in management had kept them from holding a preliminary contest in the United States this year to pick a representative. They wanted her to go to the pageant in Abuja, Nigeria.

“When news broke about Miss America, I couldn’t believe what I was watching,” said Jean Renard, the Los Angeles-based director of Miss World United States. “It was ridiculous. But I was amazed at how she handled herself.”

Revels Praised By Miss World Officials as a Quick Thinker

Revels was no stranger to pageants last year when she began competing in the Miss America system. She had competed in pageants since she was 2 years old and dreamed of becoming Miss America.

Within 48 hours of receiving the e-mail, Miss America Organization’s leaders, many of whom are still shaken by the 1984 memory of Vanessa Williams’ photos in Penthouse Magazine, decided to ban Revels from the Miss America Scholarship Pageant. No one had seen the photos, or knew for sure that they existed, her lawyer Barry Nakell said.

They did, however, know that Revels had identified the e-mail address as belonging to her abusive ex-boyfriend. And that he once took pictures without her permission while she changed shirts, Nakell said.

Revels battled the national organization in state and federal courts and told her story in the North Carolina media and on Good Morning America. But the doors to America’s oldest pageant wouldn’t budge.

Revels has not responded to telephone or e-mail communications since leaving for the Miss World pageant. But she was in Abuja when Muslim-Christian rioting broke out over a newspaper column that said Muhammad would pick a wife from Miss World contestants if he were alive today. The ensuing riots caused 200 deaths. The worst rioting was within a mile of the contestants’ hotel. Organizers moved the pageant to London for safety.

Revels’ personal history, Renard said, has prepared her for the complexity of the world stage.

“It’s even more important now with this catastrophe to have someone who can think on her feet,” he said.

Revels Seeking Financial Settlements for Miss America Controversy

But to understand the importance of Revel’s story in the often ridiculed world of pageants, it’s worth looking at the events that led her to Nigeria and, then London.

Weeks after winning the Miss North Carolina Scholarship Pageant, Revels was living in the home of one of that pageant’s board members, part of the “pageant family” notion that’s promoted in the Miss America system of local and state preliminary pageants. Then one evening in late June, state directors called her to a meeting. They refused to explain its purpose, and advised her to come alone, Nakell said.

“She was caught completely flat-footed,” he said.

Four board members and an attorney showed her the e-mail, which asked what would constitute immorality or a “shadowed past” under Miss America’s rules and concluded that “nude photos of Miss America bring big bucks.”

Revels immediately recognized the e-mail address as that of Tosh Welch, and she told North Carolina officials of the college romance that turned emotionally and physically abusive and ended two years earlier. She explained that he once took the nude photos of her, catching her by surprise as she changed shirts while he yelled obscene names at her.

The board members already knew that Miss America officials wanted them to fire Revels, or get her to resign. They gave her until 9 a.m. the next day to decide. On the way out the door, Nakell said, one board member whispered in Revels’ ear that it was in her best interest to resign.

Nakell contends that her resignation was coerced and that has formed the basis of a handful of lawsuits in state and federal courts. Court decisions restored Revels’ Miss North Carolina title and $12,000 in scholarships, but stopped short of forcing the Miss America Organization to let her compete.

Nakell is now seeking financial settlements, including one with the ex-boyfriend. One judge called Welch “below despicable.”

A spokeswoman for the Miss America Organization last week said questions about Revels were “inappropriate.”

Vanessa Williams Photos in Penthouse Cast Long Shadow Over Pageant

Most of the 51 state pageant directors have been in their volunteer jobs long enough to remember when the pictures of Miss America 1984 Vanessa Williams, which were taken in 1981, were published. It still gives them pause.

The 82-year-old Miss America program has tried to distinguish itself from Miss USA and Miss World by projecting a virtuous, girl-next-door image. And it has become, according to its own publicity, the largest women’s scholarship program in the world, giving $40 million in its local, state and national pageants each year.

That Williams broke the lily-white string of Miss Americas, only to be embarrassed by the release of three-year old photos by Penthouse, reaffirmed exotic, erotic stereotypes of brown-skinned women in American pageants, Sarah Banet-Weiser wrote in her 1999 book, “The Most Beautiful Girl In The World: Beauty Pageants and National Identity.”

But Revels’ story of an abusive relationship shouldn’t have surprised the organization today. Miss America 1992 Carolyn Sapp spoke openly during her reign about her abusive relationship.

The Miss America board has also changed demographically since 1984. Its current chairwoman is an African American school administrator outside Atlantic City. But the demographics of the state pageant leaders and contestants have also shifted and are decidedly conservative Christian. Since 1980 more than half the Miss Americas have been evangelicals, and many promote abstinence.

As one state pageant director said of Revels, “In my day, good girls didn’t get caught.”

Revels the Image of Propriety at Miss World

Perceptions of Revels, at least in international circles, have changed since she signed on with the Miss World Pageant. Nearly one-quarter of the contestants appear in their publicity photos to be discreetly topless. Revels wears a tight, black mock-turtleneck sweater.

“Miss World is a show business pageant,” Renard said. “It’s not for people who want to go out and become doctors.”

Miss Universe, which is owned by Donald Trump, is better known in the United States. But the London-based Miss World is the largest pageant in the world, and typically attracts 2 billion television viewers. It isn’t broadcast in the United States. Winners, and even competitors, often get movie and recording deals in Europe and Asia. Others go on to big-time entertainment careers. Actress Halle Barry competed in 1986, making waves with her skin-baring bikini.

Revels wants to be a professional singer and impressed London audiences last week with her renditions of jazz standards.

She was the first Native American to represent the United States at Miss World.

Kara Briggs, who has extensively covered the Miss America Organization, is a former president of the Native American Journalists Association. She is a journalist and writer in Portland, Ore.