Christie Todd Whitman

(WOMENSENEWS)–A buzz of excitement energized 600 hundred pro-choice Republicans from across the country who crowded into the elegant Sky Club in New York City, 14 blocks north and 56 stories above the party’s convention site on Tuesday night.

With cityscapes visible from floor-to-ceiling windows, a raft of pro-choice elected officials, convention delegates and guests of the Republican Majority for Choice staked out political turf, claiming to provide the “big tent” under which all Republicans can unite. Organizers originally expected around 200 people, but Republicans from 35 states, including Virginia, Florida and Kansas, attended the gathering, co-hosted by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Elizabeth Pataki, the wife of New York State Governor George Pataki.

Even if many Republicans would not personally choose abortion for themselves, this cohort contends, most in the GOP still see it as a matter of individual, not state, responsibility.

The same theme was sounded at a breakfast the next morning sponsored by The WISH List, which drew 300 to a nearby Sheraton hotel in support of pro-choice women running for state and federal offices.

“The best way to change a party is from within. We have a role in this party,” declared former New Jersey Governor Christie Todd Whitman, a pro-choice Republican, who spoke at both events.

Whitman, who served as administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency in the Bush administration from January 2001 to May 2003, is writing a book on her experiences in politics due out in January called, “It’s My Party, Too.”

Along with party members, some Democrats also turned up to the events. Bush administration Cabinet member Tommy Thompson also put in an appearance. “I’m here as a pragmatic Republican who does not call myself pro-choice but understands that all Republicans need to be with us,” he said in an interview.

The Republican Party platform is profoundly anti-choice and calls for an amendment to the constitution giving equal rights to fetuses, use of an anti-abortion litmus test in the naming of judges and the removal of funding from organizations that offer abortion counseling.

Nonetheless, pro-choice Republicans used the convention–in a city and state with a pro-choice Republican mayor and governor–to highlight what they say is a distortion of the true position of a majority of party members’ tolerance for reproductive rights.

“Choice is a personal issue, and I believe it’s a conservative issue,” Whitman told Women’s eNews. “There are some people who have narrowed the party. It’s important to stand up to them. They are trying to force the Republican Party to the right and I have concerns about that.”

Gabriel Schwartz, a delegate from Colorado, who attended the evening event agreed with Whitman. “It’s unfortunate that our own party is fighting on choice,” he said. “It shouldn’t be an issue. Moderates will support a conservative. But conservatives won’t support a moderate, and it’s the Christian Coalition that does it.”

While generally toeing the line of party unity, some attendees spoke out against their party’s treatment of them.

New York State Sen. Nancy Larraine Hoffman wove her way through the crowd, describing how she was being targeted by an anti-choice Republican opponent intent on using her as an example for the wrath that could befall Republicans who support choice, as she does.

“So we need your help,” she appealed to people in attendance. “I want to do a job in New York. We cannot afford to go back to the coat-hanger era.”

Wishing for Women

The WISH List, based in Washington, D.C., tries to re-align Republicans on this issue by raising funds to elect pro-choice women to state and federal political offices. A dozen such candidates greeted Wednesday’s largely female breakfast contingent.

“We ask no more than the right to make well-informed decisions on our own behalf. That is not too much to ask in a free society,” said Connecticut Rep. Nancy L. Johnson, an honoree, who spoke via a pre-taped message while she is recovering from hip surgery.

By developing a stable of state and local pro-choice Republican candidates, The WISH List, which stands for Women in the Senate and House, is helping to improve congressional representation, said Johnson. Republican pro-choice women have tripled their numbers in the U.S. Senate and increased by 50 percent in the House since the advent of The WISH List in 1992, she said.

“There are more women who share our commitment to the traditional Republican principles of leadership,” said five-term U.S. Rep. Sue Kelly from New York, who was also honored at the breakfast. “We’re on school boards; we’re running school boards. We’re on city councils; we’re running city councils.”

Action over Talk

At the evening gathering of the Republican Majority for Choice, Bloomberg, acknowledging his two daughters, called for action over talk.

“You thought we would have won this battle,” he said. “But we haven’t won it. I have two daughters. I can’t tell you how much I care about them. This convention gives us an opportunity to make our case.”

He reminded audience members that one of his first steps in office in 2002 was to require the 11 city hospitals to teach obstetrics and gynecology–including how to provide abortion–to doctors-in-training. “All of us have to lead by example. I don’t see why everybody doesn’t understand that the party needs to reach out.”

At least 50 percent of the participants at the event were men.

Moderation Trend Detected

Some speakers talked optimistically about a slight change in the party’s platform this year as a trend toward more moderation. The platform’s preamble acknowledged that people can have differing opinions on a range of issues.

“The little bit of air let in the platform this year is a good thing,” said former Massachusetts Governor William Weld. “I’m a big George W. Bush fan. He doesn’t happen to be with us on this issue. Our cause will rise again.”

The large turnout and spike in energy is a response to the hard line of this administration, including on preventing stem cell research, said Elsie Hillman, a Pittsburgh resident who is one of the founders of the group that led to the Republican Majority for Choice, in an interview with Women’s eNews.

“For a long time, people didn’t even want to take our materials. And now they are willing to say, ‘That’s what I am.’ The harder the line is, the more and more people step forward and get angry. When you find people talking about things, it begins to change,” said Hillman.

By way of example, a contingent from Louisiana inquired privately of Jennifer Blei Stockman, current co-chair, about forming its own Republican Majority for Choice chapter. Louisiana annually ranks at the top among the states for its enactment of anti-choice measures.

Others were less optimistic about how the pro-choice message being promoted at these gatherings will be received by voters, given the administration’s anti-choice measures.

Bush’s anti-abortion position is “hard for a lot of people that I know,” said Barbara Maves, an Indiana resident who is on the board of the Republican Majority for Choice. “I have a lot of thinking to do between now and November.”

Cynthia L. Cooper is an independent journalist in New York, who writes frequently on reproductive rights and justice issues.
–Jodi Enda contributed to this story.

For more information:

Republican Majority for Choice:

The WISH List: