Image: Florence Johnson
Tom Curry  /  MSNBC.com
New York union organizer Florence Johnson took part in the Take Back America conference in Washington
By Tom Curry National affairs writer
msnbc.com
updated 6/21/2007 2:16:26 PM ET 2007-06-21T18:16:26

This week brought two divergent parts of the Democratic Party to Washington for their annual meetings.

By far the bigger event, the progressives’ Take Back America gathering sponsored by the Campaign for American’s Future, drew presidential contenders Sen. John Edwards, Sen. Hillary Clinton, Gov. Bill Richardson, and Sen. Barack Obama, as well as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

The smaller conclave Wednesday was Democrats for Life of America (DFLA), whose members oppose abortion, capital punishment, and euthanasia.

The pro-life faction is outweighed by the Democratic Party’s abortion rights and progressive forces.

Yet there’s common ground on which both progressives and conservative pro-life Democrats can agree — at the very least, the common ground of electoral self-interest.

Pro-life Democrat carries Bush district
Without the national Democrats’ funding and without a lot of safe Democratic House seats that freed up campaign funds, a conservative Democrat such as Brad Ellsworth in Indiana’s Eighth Congressional District would have had a harder time winning.

President Bush carried the district with 62 percent of the vote in 2004, but Ellsworth defeated GOP incumbent John Hostettler last November, winning 61 percent of the vote and outspending Hostettler three-to-one.

On the other hand, a Democrat such as Ellsworth — who voted against federal funding of embryonic stem cell research — helped give Pelosi her House majority and is probably the only kind of Democrat who could carry his district.

Image: Mimi Stewart
New Mexico state Rep. Mimi Stewart
Perhaps the first step in the Democrats for Life and the progressives finding common ground on issues would be for them simply to know that each other exist.

Why are they Democrats?
“I’ve never heard of this group. I’d have to look at why they consider themselves Democrats,” said Mimi Stewart, a Democratic state legislator from Albuquerque, N.M., when asked about Democrats for Life.

Stewart, in town to attend the Take Back America event, said, “Women’s reproductive health is a huge issue for me. I really don’t feel the government should be telling women what to do. I believe that in my gut. I would be more interested in a coalition with a pro-choice Republican than I would be with an anti-choice Democrat.”

At the Democrats for Life conference Wednesday, Oklahoma Democratic state legislator Rebecca Hamilton, who has successfully sponsored legislation to restrict abortion, spoke of the arduous role of being a pro-life Democrat.

She said she’d been “attacked about as much as a human being can be attacked by my party.”

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Recently the Oklahoma Democratic Party state convention narrowly defeated a resolution to censure Hamilton and another anti-abortion Democratic legislator.

Hamilton has a sense of mission, telling her fellow Democrats for Life at Wednesday's meeting: “We’ve got to save the soul of our party because it is in trouble.”

“The pro-life movement needs very badly, for its own integrity, to have a strong Democratic voice, a strong pro-life voice,” she declared. “The Democratic Party for its own integrity needs to have a strong pro-life voice.”

Defining the meaning of 'progressive'
She even uses one of the trademark words of left-of-center people in her party, “progressive,” as she says, “To protect the sanctity of human life, if that isn’t a progressive issue, I don’t know what is.”

She said, “The logical thing for anyone who is a progressive or anyone who’s for human rights, would be to be very strongly in favor of the most important human right of all – the basic right to life.”

Why does Hamilton choose to be a Democrat?

“It’s easier if you believe in human life and human dignity," she replied. "It’s easier, I hope, to change one issue where a party’s wrong than to change the whole philosophy of a party. And the Republican Party is so oriented toward the large corporations that they enact policies that are harmful to ordinary people.”

“This isn’t about making abortion illegal, this is about ending the murder of unborn children,” she said. “The first and foremost thing we need to do to do that is to help the women.”

So she favors, for example, paid family leave for new mothers.

A day earlier at the Take Back America conference, New York labor union organizer Florence Johnson voiced pessimism about the potential for accord between progressives and Democrats such as Hamilton.

Image: Rebecca Hamilton
Oklahoma Democratic legislator Rebecca Hamilton
“I think a woman has a right to choose and that decision can’t be made by a court or anybody else,” she said.

Discord on capital punishment
Then there’s DFLA’s opposition to capital punishment.

Johnson said, referring to her fellow activists at the Take Back America conference, “Unlike most of the people you probably hear at this event, I don’t have a problem with the death penalty; I have a problem with a way that it is enforced. It happens to be people of color who generally are given the death penalty.”

She added, “I have lost three brothers to the drug wars. I don’t see anything wrong with executing the people who killed my brother. And euthanasia? I watched my dad die of cancer. It would have been his preference to go home from the hospital and end his life. He was too ill to go home, so he died in the hospital, but he lived his life the way he wanted to live it and he should have had the right to determine whether or not to end it.”

Sizing up the Democrats for Life, she said, “I guess their beliefs and mine are very divergent.” 

Added clout in wake of elections
Despite the divergence, Democrats for Life claimed new clout in the wake of last November’s elections, with the victories of Ellsworth, fellow Hoosier Joe Donnelly in Indiana’s Second District, and others.

“It’s the first time in probably over 25 years that number of pro-life Democrats (in Congress) actually increased,” said DFLA’s Executive Director Kristen Day. “The party’s strategy in the past hasn’t been to promote and help pro-life Democrats; the strategy had been to get them not to run, or to kick them out of the party. Over the last three elections some sort of realization has come into play.”

“We’re a big tent party and this group represents my personal views,” said Donnelly as he and Ellsworth mingled with guests at the Democrats for Life annual dinner Wednesday night.

Noting his vote against federal funding of embryonic stem cell research, Donnelly said, “There’s been no pressure from (House Democratic) leadership at all.”

It's partly due to votes from Donnelly and other pro-life House Democrats that Bush’s veto of stem cell funding will likely be sustained. They are wielding power, even if in a way that in this case stymies Pelosi and other progressives.

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