EMILY’s List is dumping big money into an upcoming Democratic primary in Texas’s 7th Congressional District, pitting the women’s group against a pro-choice woman who was, in the months after the election of Donald Trump, a face of the resistance.
Laura Moser, as creator of the popular text-messaging program Daily Action, gave hundreds of thousands of despondent progressives a single political action to take each day. Her project was emblematic of the new energy forming around the movement against Trump, led primarily by women and often by moms. (Moser is both.)
It was those types of activists EMILY’s List spent 2017 encouraging to make first-time bids for office. But that doesn’t mean EMILY’s List will get behind them. Also running is Lizzie Pannill Fletcher, a corporate lawyer who is backed by Houston mega-donor Sherry Merfish. EMILY’s List endorsed her in November.
The 7th District includes parts of Houston and its wealthy western suburbs, and Merfish and her husband, Gerald Merfish, are among the city’s leading philanthropists. Gerald Merfish owns and runs a steel pipe company in the oil-rich region and Sherry Merfish, who worked for decades for EMILY’s List, is a major donor to the Democratic Party and to EMILY’s List.
Actor Alyssa Milano, another face of the Trump resistance, is backing Moser, and plans to drive voters to the polls as a campaign volunteer. “I like EMILY’s List a lot but I feel like they missed the boat on this one,” Milano told The Intercept. “Laura is a proud progressive Democrat and her values are the values of the majority of the country, which is evident by the success of her grassroots campaign and her broad base of support.”
The Houston district is one of scores where crosscurrents of the Democratic Party are colliding. Democrats, who in the past have had difficulty fielding a single credible candidate even in winnable districts, have at least four serious contenders in the race to replace Republican John Culberson. Moser, who has more than 10,000 donors — more than 90 percent of whom are small givers — and cancer researcher Jason Westin make up the progressive flank, while Fletcher and Alex Triantaphyllis are running more moderate campaigns. Triantaphyllis, a former Goldman Sachs analyst who doesn’t live in the district, has the backing of some establishment elements of the party.
“Alex T has been open about being the chosen candidate of the [Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee],” said Daniel Cohen, president of Indivisible Houston, who is not endorsing any particular candidate. (The DCCC has not officially endorsed a candidate in the primary, though its support can come in less public ways.)
As the race heats up ahead of the March 6 primary, 905 donors from the Houston area have given to Moser, with 48 percent of itemized donations coming from Texas. She also has gotten money from all 49 of the other states, including $1 from Guam, she told The Intercept. Fletcher, according to her campaign spokesperson Erin Mincberg, has 600 overall donors who live directly in the district, and 75 percent of their funds come from Houston.
With both Fletcher and Moser battling for a spot in the two-person runoff, and Westin surging in the race, EMILY’s List’s endorsement of Fletcher could end up having the paradoxical effect of producing a runoff between the two men. EMILY’s List, while expending resources in several competitive primaries between women, has also stayed out of other races that pit a pro-choice woman against an anti-choice man. Despite significant pressure, the group held out on endorsing Marie Newman against Democratic incumbent Daniel Lipinski, only shifting course when it became clear the SEIU would be breaking with Lipinski.
EMILY’s List’s endorsement of Fletcher could end up having the paradoxical effect of producing a runoff between two men.
The group has also declined to endorse the pro-choice Kara Eastman running against anti-choice Democrat Brad Ashford; the same is true for Lupe Valdez running against Andrew White for Texas governor. (White says that he believes Roe v. Wade is the law of the land and that his religious beliefs would not influence how he approached the issue, but he is far from a champion of reproductive rights.)
The support of first Merfish and then EMILY’s List for Fletcher raises questions about whether the endorsement was made at the behest of a major donor or because the organization truly believed Fletcher is the stronger candidate.
An EMILY’s List endorsement alone is useful in helping a candidate break out of a crowded pack, but the group has also announced funding for eight rounds of mailers as well as digital ads, including video, all ahead of the upcoming primary. In justifying its decision, EMILY’s List cited Fletcher’s past activism and her legal work. “As a senior in high school, she linked arms with hundreds of other Houstonians to keep protesters out and a Planned Parenthood clinic open. Since then, she became a lawyer to help those in need and co-founded the Planned Parenthood Young Leaders program to get the next generation involved,” reads a statement from the group.
Bryan Lesswing, a spokesperson for EMILY’s List, said that the group backed Parnell Fletcher because of her local roots and a history of activism. “We see so many women running as a good problem to have. Ultimately, we want to see as many women elected as possible and that sometimes means making tough decisions,” he said.
Moser is blunt in her criticism of the group. “Rather than lifting us both up, EMILY’S List has pitted us against each other. I knew as a progressive, pro-choice woman running in Texas, I would face obstacles. I never dreamed EMILY’s List would be one of them,” she said.
Mincberg, Fletcher’s spokesperson, also highlighted the candidate’s ties to the district.
She noted that the Chronicle’s dual endorsement of Fletcher and another candidate, cancer researcher Westin, could not be explained away as a favor to a donor and had more to do with the type of candidate the paper thought could feasibly win the district. Moser is known as one of the most progressive candidates in the race, along with Westin, in a district that is trending Democratic but by no means a lock. It went to Mitt Romney over Barack Obama by more than 20 points in 2012; Hillary Clinton edged out Donald Trump by just a point in 2016. Clinton topped Bernie Sanders there in the 2016 primary by a 2-1 margin.
Indeed, until 2017, Moser was living in Washington, where she worked as a writer, and only recently relocated back home to Houston. Her husband, Arun Chaudhary, a partner at Revolution Messaging, which did media and email work for the presidential campaign of Bernie Sanders, hasn’t gotten around to updating his bio, which still suggests that he “lives in Washington, D.C., with his wife, son and daughter.”
“I’d always agreed with my husband that we would move back to Houston when the time was right, and part of my commitment [to the resistance] led me to speed up my plans,” Moser said. “Women all over the country felt the same call and returned home to try to ‘be the change.'”
But Fletcher’s legal work for “those in need” has caused her problems in the campaign. The firm where she is a partner largely represents employers and won a major case against local janitorial workers, who were predominantly immigrants. The firm boasted, in its effort to attract future business from employers, that it won the case in part by studying the social media feeds of the jury pool to make sure the jury was stacked with Trump supporters. PJS, the firm’s client, was involved with Empower Texans, a right-wing group working to undermine organized labor in Texas.
When local unions raised the issue recently, Fletcher defended herself by saying that she did not work directly on the case, and that she does not always share the views of her clients. She also claimed to have represented workers before the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
The defense has not resonated with local workers. The local AFL-CIO has not endorsed in the race, but it did take the remarkable step of resolving to non-endorse Fletcher: Union members will be canvassing the district urging residents to vote for any candidate other than her.
“She’s trying to claim she’s represented women before the EEOC — but lower and middle class people can’t afford to hire an attorney every time they get screwed by their boss, that’s why they need a union,” said Ginny Stogner McDavid president of the Harris County AFL-CIO Labor Assembly.
The extent of Fletcher’s activism on reproductive rights has also been called into question by a photo she recently posted, and that she presumably will be using in mailers to come.
It’s an image from 1992, when she was a senior in high school at a demonstration supporting a Houston-area Planned Parenthood as the Republican Party gathered for its presidential convention nearby.
The photo has been strangely cropped. Only when examining the original does the reason for the crop become clear: She is standing next to Benjamin Moser, the brother of her primary opponent Laura Moser, who was also at the rally. In addition, in the cropped version the Planned Parenthood sign has been moved so it can be seen over Fletcher’s head.
Benjamin Moser, who was even tagged by Fletcher when she originally posted the photo on Facebook in 2013, raised the obvious question in his own recent Facebook post. “Lizzie, I do get that it’s unfortunate that Laura’s brother is standing right next to you. (Needless to say, Laura was at this same protest.) But isn’t there a better solution?” he wrote. “Maybe a picture from some other event, some other activism you’ve been involved in over the *quarter-century* since this picture was taken? Unless, of course, there aren’t any, and this highly awkward crop is the best you can do.”
Fletcher also notes on her website that she co-founded Planned Parenthood Young Leaders, which was a group that met for happy hours and other events to try to attract younger supporters for the organization.
Benjamin Moser’s defense of his sister, though, clashes with the image Laura Moser painted of herself last year as an overnight activist who was startled awake by the election of Trump. As the photo demonstrates, she has been active in, and around, politics for much of her adult life, through her own writing and the work of her husband, Chaudhary, who was a key member of Obama’s 2008 campaign and went on to become the first White House videographer. That led to an iconic photo of Moser’s 2-year-old daughter having a temper tantrum on the floor of the Oval Office.
Indeed, Moser is now leaning into her long record of advocacy on the campaign trail. “I have seen the other candidates say the right things and pay lip service to feminist ideals. And I’ve seen Laura,” wrote Laura’s mother Jane Moser in a recent email to campaign supporters. “I’ve seen her spend a lifetime time standing up, speaking out, and taking action. She never planned all her life to run for office. But she’s been acting and advocating all her life. As a journalist, she has written about everything from K-12 education to gun violence. To be called an activist in this race is a high compliment.”
She said, however, that there is a crucial difference between then and now. “While I had a close-up seat to the political world for the duration of the Obama administration, I had never worked in politics or really ever considered working in politics until Trump’s election,” she said. “I was active in the way many politically aware people are, but I had two kids and a full-time job and it was only after November 8 that I truly decided I had a patriotic duty to turn my whole life upside-down.”