Private Facebook posts show a Democrat recruited by the national party to challenge the local party’s preferred choice in a congressional primary proudly engaged in “pro-life advocacy,” including participation in the March for Life, as recently as 2016. Despite that, she earned a 2017 endorsement in her previous race from the pro-choice group EMILY’s List.
Juanita Perez Williams, a 2017 Syracuse mayoral candidate and former prosecutor running in New York’s 24th Congressional District, initially declined to make a bid for Congress after being recruited by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, but changed her mind earlier this month. She is competing in the primary against the pro-choice Dana Balter, who is supported by a coalition of local grassroots groups.
Perez Williams’s Facebook posts leave little room for doubt about her position on the issue. “My heart has also been changed for life from the many women I know, both young and old like me, who have suffered greatly from abortion,” she wrote in a post dated two years ago. “It is a choice that leaves many with years of suffering. It is a choice that leaves one with depression, and sadness, and often hurts relationships. I mention this because there is nothing in my pro life advocacy that even suggests judging or condemnation. I hate that crap! Women suffer with pregnancy and often feel hopeless. This I know! Be good!”
EMILY’s List, which was founded to elect pro-choice women to Congress, endorsed Perez Williams in her mayoral bid last year. She won the nomination but lost the election in a landslide to an independent candidate.
“We are taking a close look at this race,” an EMILY’s List spokesperson told The Intercept, referring to the congressional race. “Although we do not discuss our internal endorsement process, we do re-examine every candidate with fresh eyes when she pursues a new office and evaluate every race on a case-by-case basis.”
As part of that process, last weekend, Perez Williams was in Washington, D.C., for EMILY’s List’s annual gala.
Asked about her Facebook posts on the issue of abortion rights, which were surfaced by activists in the district, Perez Williams did not dispute their authenticity. She told The Intercept in a statement that while she may personally be opposed to abortion, she supports the legal right for others.
I believe 100% in women’s right to choose and will always defend and protect that right. I further believe that women should have access, funding, and education with regard to their reproductive health and therefore I will advocate for and defend organizations like Planned Parenthood. Like many women, my personal beliefs on the issue of choice have been shaped by my life experiences, both as a Hispanic and a Catholic and as a mother and a grandmother. My own personal opinions are far more nuanced then some people would like you to believe. I will always vote to support the choice of all women.
Conor Lamb, who recently won a special election in a conservative district in Pennsylvania, took a similar approach — private moral opposition matched with public support for the legal right. But in some of Perez Williams’s posts, the policy and the morality blend together.
She has been a supporter of the movement to ban legal abortion, proudly marching in the streets, she wrote in a January 2016 post reacting to a story about Hillary Clinton meeting with Mother Teresa. “I love this. I am a Dem who supports all life. From beginning to end. To some it is strange but it makes all the sense to me. My parents taught me at a very young age that as Dems we, as members, care about all those who can’t defend themselves. So yesterday I proudly marched for life. Perhaps Secretary Clinton doesn’t see exactly eye to eye with me on this issue but she will come around. For that she has my support.”
The post is dated January 23, 2016. That year’s national March for Life in Washington was on January 22. (Perez Williams did not respond specifically to questions about her professed participation in the March for Life.)
Later that year, when Clinton selected Sen. Tim Kaine, a Virginia Democrat who personally opposes abortion, as her running mate, Perez Williams celebrated. “Wow our girl picked a Dem pro lifer. Now you’re talking …”
In another post, this one dated August 2016, she shared an article from LifeSiteNews, a conservative, anti-choice website, on the Irish High Court ruling “unborn” children are clearly children with significant rights, adding, “I love the Irish!”
Balter, a Syracuse University professor who has the backing of local activists and Democratic clubs, said women’s rights are “non-negotiable” and that the posts were “disturbing.”
I believe we need a Democrat in this race who stands firmly for Democratic values. One of those values is that women’s rights are non-negotiable. That holds whether we are talking about the right to equal pay for equal work; the right to be free from harassment and abuse; or the right to access reproductive healthcare. Women’s rights are non-negotiable.
I find Juanita’s statements disturbing. How can we consider electing a Democrat who describes herself as a pro-life advocate? Especially at a time when women’s access to abortion is under attack across the country. I am absolutely pro-choice and believe that abortion is a personal decision between a woman, her family, her faith, and her doctor.
The question of abortion rights as a litmus test for Democrats roiled the party in early 2017, when Bernie Sanders and Democratic National Committee Chair Tom Perez campaigned on behalf of Omaha mayoral candidate Heath Mello. It sparked a debate within the party over whether anti-choice candidates in conservative areas deserve national party support. But in Syracuse, there is no burning demand for a March for Life-style candidate. Instead, DCCC support for Perez Williams likely comes without knowledge of her professed “pro-life advocacy.” (A DCCC spokesperson didn’t respond to requests for comment.)
While it could be chalked up to a simple mistake, it is also a predictable result of a top-down approach to choosing candidates.
It’s a flaw in the strategy identified by former New York congressional candidate and professor Zephyr Teachout in a previous interview with The Intercept about the DCCC’s approach to campaigning. “Structurally, they’re going to be idiots because there’s no way they can bring in the talent to do it right,” she said. “Their strategy is stupid in the first place and bad for democracy, but then it’s really stupid because they have 26-year-olds sitting around who don’t know anything about the real world deciding which candidates should win.”
The way the news broke also shows the difficulty of foisting a candidate from Washington onto a community that has already rallied around a different woman. Successful insurgencies rely on support from the local community, and in this case it was local activists, not high-priced opposition researchers, who surfaced evidence of Perez Williams’s anti-abortion rights advocacy. Two of the posts were tweeted by a local activist and flagged for The Intercept, while two other activists sent two additional posts. The national party may have had no idea about the candidate’s anti-choice views, but the Onondaga County Democrats who had debated with her in Facebook threads certainly did.
The DCCC helped push Perez Williams into the race in a last-minute move that incensed local officials and progressive groups, as The Intercept previously reported. Local Democrats had already rallied behind Balter, who leads a local Indivisible chapter. In a January interview with Syracuse.com, Perez Williams said that she would sit out the race and support the designated nominee. But just days after donating to Balter, Perez Williams backpedaled and decided to challenge her in the primary, citing Balter’s poor fundraising.
With the help of the DCCC, Perez Williams paid canvassers to collect enough signatures for what appeared to be a spot on the ballot. But opponents on Monday filed objections with the state Board of Elections in Albany, claiming that more than 2,400 of her signatures are invalid. A final hearing to determine whether she can remain on the ballot will come in early May, with the primary on June 26.