In New York, Women Are Taking on the New York Machine. But EMILY’s List Is Staying on the Sidelines.

EMILY’s List has declined to challenge one of the most male-dominated machines left in modern politics: the Democratic Party of the state of New York.

When Liuba Grechen Shirley decided to seek the Democratic nomination to run for Congress against the GOP’s Long Island mainstay, Peter King, she faced all the usual structural barriers that make it difficult to dislodge incumbents. But she also had to deal with a more immediate hurdle, one invisible to most men running for office: child care.

Who would watch Grechen Shirley’s kids while she knocked on doors, gathered signatures, called donors and voters, choked down rubber chicken at luncheon after luncheon, and put in the round-the-clock hours it takes to beat an entrenched incumbent like King?

Federal law was unclear on whether she could use campaign money to pay for child care — though it was entirely clear to Grechen Shirley that without child care, there could be no campaign. Her Democratic rival for the nomination, DuWayne Gregory, knocked her for even suggesting the possibility that child care could be part of a campaign, calling it “a very slippery slope.”

So she took the issue to the Federal Election Commission. And she won.

The opinion was celebrated by women’s groups as a significant step forward for feminism — one more win notched by women, who have risen up in historic numbers to oppose the Trump administration and a broken political system.

EMILY’s List, a political action committee with an affiliated Super PAC dedicated to electing pro-choice, female Democrats to Congress, has been the most visible champion of this new political energy, channeling it, celebrating it, boosting it with campaign funds and know-how — all with the aim of breaking the male stranglehold on Congress and state legislatures around the country. The group celebrated Grechen Shirley’s landmark win in early May: 

But while EMILY’s List was quick to endorse Grechen Shirley’s win at the FEC, it hadn’t yet endorsed her. The “EMILY” in EMILY’s List stands for “Early Money Is Like Yeast.” The slogan may sound anachronistic today, but it’s no less true than it was when the group was founded in 1985 in Ellen Malcolm’s basement.

By June, there was still no endorsement. Eight days before the primary, Christina Reynolds, a spokesperson for EMILY’s List, told The Intercept that Grechen Shirley’s race was one that the group was “closely monitoring.” Last Friday, the endorsement finally came — too late for the campaign to include in mail being sent out in the lead-up to Tuesday’s primary.

But at least it came. A review of races across New York finds that in at least seven additional primaries where women are running competitive races against men, or anti-choice women in high-profile primaries across the state of New York, they are doing so with conspicuous silence from EMILY’s List.

“At EMILY’s List, we are thrilled by the number of women stepping up to run across the country, including in many important races in New York,” said Reynolds, the EMILY’s List spokesperson. “Given the volume of women running, the endorsement process is still on-going and we are closely monitoring the great women candidates running in competitive New York primaries.”

In Syracuse, one of those great women is pro-choice candidate Dana Balter is running for the 24th Congressional District against a party-endorsed Democrat who has been active in the March for Life movement, but EMILY’s List isn’t getting involved.

In the 14th District — one of the most racially diverse districts in the state — Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is running against Joe Crowley, the party boss who heads a political machine dominated by white men. But EMILY’s List hasn’t weighed in.

In Rochester, a pro-choice female TV journalist named Rachel Barnhart is challenging Joseph Morelle — a machine boss who has enabled a culture of sexual harassment and even rape in the state assembly. But EMILY’s List stepped away from the race after it failed to recruit a Kirsten Gillibrand staffer to run. Along with Grechen Shirley’s, all four of those primary contests will be decided on Tuesday.

At the state level, there are three women launching primary challenges to members of the recently dissolved Independent Democratic Conference — a group of New York state senators who, though Democrats, caucused with the Republican minority to thwart progressive legislation like the Reproductive Health Act. These women, Jessica Ramos, Rachel May, and Alessandra Biaggi, are mounting credible challenges to IDC leaders, but they’re doing so without EMILY’s List.

And, in perhaps the most high-profile non-endorsement, EMILY’s list has stayed away from the governor’s primary race between actress and activist Cynthia Nixon and Andrew Cuomo.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., asks Defense Secretary Jim Mattis about the issue of transgender troops, during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on the Department of Defense budget posture, Thursday April 26, 2018, on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on the Department of Defense budget posture on April 26, 2018. Gillibrand is one of few candidates EMILY’s List has endorsed.

Photo: Jacquelyn Martin/AP

A recent Time magazine profile of EMILY’s List noted that it and its Super PAC have already spent nearly $20 million this cycle, to go along with more than $500 million over the past three decades. “The national nerve center for this year’s groundswell is the downtown-D.C. headquarters of Emily’s List,” the magazine wrote.

“We’ve been practicing 33 years for this moment,” EMILY’s List President Stephanie Schriock told Time.

Yet until it had endorsed Grechen Shirley, the group had backed just one congressional candidate in New York who wasn’t already in office, in a state dominated by men. So far, EMILY’s List has endorsed just four candidates for Congress from New York — Kirsten Gillibrand for Senate, and three House candidates: Grechen Shirley; economist Erin Collier, running as the only woman in a crowded field in the 19th District; and veteran incumbent Carolyn Maloney, who faces a primary challenge from her left by Suraj Patel.

EMILY’s List’s choice to stay out of so many other races matters — not just because female candidates tend to suffer from a funding disadvantage, but because campaigning without the EMILY’s List brand hurts female candidates in particular.  Women who have run for office say that when they make calls to women donors, the first question they’re asked is often, “Are you an EMILY’s List candidate?” If the answer is no, they’re told to call back when they are. Male candidates are never asked that question, because EMILY’s List, as a rule, does not endorse men. So, paradoxically, the existence of EMILY’s List can create a barrier for women who are not endorsed by the group that doesn’t exist for male candidates — further disadvantaging them against their male competitors.

While EMILY’s List may have mostly stayed out of these races, the Women’s Equality Party has not. Except it endorsed Grechen Shirley’s male opponent.

Cuomo created the “party” in 2014, when he faced an unexpectedly strong primary challenge from Zephyr Teachout. It served as a way to boost his standing with female constituents.

The Women’s Equality Party is once again backing Cuomo, this time against Nixon. Why has the WEP supported Cuomo over his female, pro-choice opponent with a strong record of LGBTQ advocacy? Asked to explain, Susan Zimet, chair of the WEP, was explicit about the cronyism involved. She told the New York Times: “Yes, Cynthia is woman, and yes she represents a lot of our values, but we have a governor who literally created the party.” She was equally dispassionate about the party’s backing of Grechen Shirley’s opponent, Gregory. “I see that Liuba is running a pretty remarkable campaign; I admire her,’’ she said. “But DuWayne came as a recommendation through our state committee person.” 

Assembly Majority Leader Joseph Morelle, D-Rochester, talks on a phone outside the Assembly Chamber at the state Capitol Thursday, March 29, 2018, in Albany, N.Y. (AP Photo/Hans Pennink)

Assembly Majority Leader Joseph Morelle, D-Rochester, talks on a phone outside the Assembly Chamber at the state capitol on March 29, 2018, in Albany, N.Y.

Photo: Hans Pennink/AP

If Gregory beats Grechen Shirley, how he’ll fare against King is not a mystery. Gregory was the 2016 Democratic nominee and lost to King in a monster of a landslide, but his political futility hasn’t stopped Gregory from getting the backing of Cuomo. In fact, in the upside-down politics of New York, his poverty as a candidate may be the entire reason he has support from the machine. As it turns out, Rich Schaffer, head of the Suffolk County Democratic Party, which exerts power over Shirley’s district, is a political ally of Republican Rep. Pete King — despite being in different parties. Gregory is likely Schaffer’s handpicked candidate not because he is a threat to King, but for precisely the opposite. His candidacy serves to prevent independent opposition, like Grechen Shirley’s, from emerging. 

The machine is at work in Rochester, too. Joe Morelle, a candidate for New York’s District 25, been a state assembly member since 1990, the chamber’s majority leader, and a top lieutenant in the New York Democratic machine. When Louise Slaughter died suddenly in March, Morelle knew he had to move quickly if he wanted the congressional seat he’d been eyeing for years.

EMILY’s List said publicly that Slaughter’s seat ought to remain in the hands of a Democratic woman and committed itself to backing one there. The group pinned its hopes on Sarah Clark — deputy state director for Gillibrand’s office, with deep connections in the state, but no elected experience.

Rachel Barnhart, a well-known muckraking TV journalist in the district, jumped into the race while Clark was mulling her bid. Her presence on television, coupled with previous races for mayor and the state legislature, had given her the kind of name recognition needed for a truncated, three-month primary. But her career in investigative journalism had also alienated much of the Rochester power structure, including the powerful mayor, whom she had also challenged in a primary.

According to Barnhart, after an EMILY’s List poll showed Morelle polling above 50 percent, well ahead of the unknown Clark, Clark took a pass. (Clark did not respond to requests for comment.)

That poll, however, did not include Barnhart, who told The Intercept that an EMILY’s List official told her that when they inquired locally about her, they found that she had little support with the political establishment, which, they explained, called her viability into question. (“We are talking to a woman who does have establishment support,” the official said, referring to Clark, according to Barnhart. An EMILY’s List spokesperson said that Barnhart had yet to announce officially; neither had Clark.)

EMILY’s List’s indifference to Barnhart persisted despite a sharp turn in the race, when Morelle’s prior role in dismissing rape allegations against a top Democratic Assembly staffer emerged. Barnhart’s opponent may have been pro-choice, but his career had also been enabled by his longtime support of disgraced party boss Sheldon Silver, who has a track record of ignoring claims of sexual assault and harassment in the Assembly.

In 2001, Silver dismissed the claims of Elizabeth Crothers, a then-24-year-old staffer who accused Silver’s chief counsel of rape, saying he was “certain” the charges were false. Morelle supported him, saying at the time: “I absolutely don’t believe word of it.”

Crothers ultimately declined to press charges, instead filing an internal complaint in the hopes of at least getting Silver’s counsel, J. Michael Boxley, fired. That didn’t happen, and two years later, Boxley was arrested and charged with raping a second young aide, and walked out of the legislature in handcuffs. He ultimately pled guilty only to sexual misconduct, but at his sentencing, he admitted: “On that evening, I had sexual intercourse and there was not consent.” (Despite that admission, he was sentenced to only six years of probation, no prison time.)

Silver’s grip on the Assembly took years to shake loose, despite a half a million-dollar settlement paid in compensation for his mishandling of the Boxley affair. In 2012, under fire for his mismanagement of a different sexual harassment case, Morelle continued to defend Silver. As the New York Times reported then:

Assemblyman Joseph D. Morelle, the chairman of the Democratic Party in Monroe County, said, “People in our conference not only have great affection for Shelly [Silver], there’s a lot of respect for his skills as a leader, as a speaker, and as an attorney.”

Mr. Morelle, who is close to Mr. [Andrew] Cuomo, has been seen as a potential successor to Mr. Silver, but laughed off the suggestion on Thursday, adding, “He remains strongly supported.”

It took a few more years for the law to catch up with Silver, but Morelle stood by him to the end. In 2015, Silver was arrested for corruption, launching a legal odyssey that resulted in two separate convictions — the most recent occurring in May 2018, with sentencing scheduled for July.

Crothers, who now lives in Washington, D.C., traveled to Rochester for a campaign event with Barnhart, endorsing her and condemning Morelle for dismissing her rape allegations in 2001. Silver, she said, apologized to her after the second victim came forward, but Morelle never had. Last month, he finally offered her one.

So Barnhart’s campaign ran its own poll, and the results showed Morelle at 35 percent, Barnhart at 20 percent, and a handful of other candidates in the single digits, including Robin Wilt, a former Bernie Sanders delegate who has secured the support of national progressive groups like Our Revolution and Justice Democrats. With Morelle holding a tight grip on in-state fundraising, and Wilt locking up the big progressive endorsements, Barnhart pinned her hopes on EMILY’s List to put her over the top in a now winnable contest.

Barnhart approached EMILY’s List armed with her poll results and a pragmatic pitch: The seat was clearly vulnerable since Slaughter had nearly lost in 2014. Morelle’s long career made him easy to paint as a corrupt politician, and he could lose to the neurosurgeon planning to run on the Republican side. Indeed, Republicans have telegraphed that if Morelle wins, they plan to make precisely that case. Better to pick Barnhart than lose the seat altogether, she argued.

But according to Barnhart, EMILY’s List said they weren’t convinced by the poll. They told her that she needed to use one of their approved consultants to conduct a new poll. Without it, they said, there would be no endorsement. Barnhart reached out to the consultant, who priced the survey at $25,000 — she couldn’t afford the expense, as her campaign has raised less than $19,000 total. (An EMILY’s List spokesperson said that the group simply wanted the most accurate data.)

EMILY’s List has withheld their public support, said Barnhart, but sent a staffer to help her campaign in the final two weeks.

The group has, however, made an endorsement in Rochester — for Lovely Warren, the city’s mayor, who Barnhart ran against last year, and whom she has hammered on corruption charges and campaign finance violations.

Barnhart, despite having been wildly outspent, thinks the shortened campaign, her debate performances, and her high name recognition means she has a chance. She said she has knocked on more than 3,000 doors. Over the weekend, in one suburb, she said she found 33 people voting for her, 17 for Morelle, two for Wilt, and 39 undecided.

Crothers traveled back to Rochester to door-knock against Morelle.

New York gubernatorial nominee Cynthia Nixon, right, answers questions for the media as she leaves the New York state Democratic convention, Wednesday, May 23, 2018, in Hempstead, N.Y. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)

New York gubernatorial nominee Cynthia Nixon, right, answers questions for the media as she leaves the New York state Democratic convention on May 23, 2018, in Hempstead, N.Y.

Photo: Julie Jacobson/AP

Cynthia Nixon’s gender and sexual orientation have occasioned some unfortunate remarks from establishment Democrats since she announced her candidacy, and former New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn dismissed her as “an unqualified lesbian.” (While Nixon identifies as bisexual, Quinn is, in fact, a lesbian — though presumably, in her own eyes, a qualified one).

Andrew Cuomo, he of the Women’s Equality Party, has attempted to appeal to his diverse constituency in a now infamous speech during which he declared, “I am a woman seeking to control her body.”

But the actual woman in the race, for whom control over her body is not an abstract rhetorical exercise, has not been backed by EMILY’s List. Meanwhile, as the head of the New York political machine, Cuomo has links to many of the very same donors who support EMILY’s List. For example, Margaret Loeb, the spouse of hedge fund manager Daniel Loeb, donated $73,000 to Cuomo, and $15,000 to EMILY’s List this year. Jon Stryker, a New York-based philanthropist and architect, donated over $28,000 to Cuomo, and $150,000 to EMILY’s List. New York means big money for EMILY’s List, and Cuomo maintains a tight grip on donors.

It’s no surprise, then, that the women challenging IDC candidates have gotten no support from EMILY’s List: Cuomo orchestrated the IDC, so to challenge former IDC members would be to anger the man who holds the strings.  

Joseph Crowley, a powerful figure in his own right who is widely considered to be next in line for Nancy Pelosi’s position as House Democratic Leader, has put the weight of his own Queens machine behind the IDC. Crowley endorsed Jose Peralta, the former leader of the IDC, despite doing so at some political risk. Peralta is facing a challenge from pro-choice challenger Jessica Ramos. Crowley, meanwhile, faces pro-choice challenger Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Neither Ramos nor Ocasio-Cortez has the support of EMILY’s List.

The group rarely makes endorsements against incumbent male Democrats, particularly pro-choice ones, arguing, not unreasonably, that it needs to husband its resources for high-priority battles against Republicans who oppose abortion rights. The result, however, is to leave unchallenged one of the most male-dominated machines left in modern politics: the Democratic Party of the state of New York.

President of EMILYs List Stephanie Schriock speaks on Day Three of the Democratic National Convention at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, July 27, 2016. / AFP / SAUL LOEB        (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)

The president of EMILY’s List, Stephanie Schriock, speaks during the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia on July 27, 2016.

Photo: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

EMILY’s List’s decision to take a hands-off approach to New York mirrors their conspicuous absence from several other races around the country, where endorsing a challenge could come with blowback from powerful figures. In the contest for Omaha, Nebraska’s 2nd District, EMILY’s List chose not to back Democrat Kara Eastman against Brad Ashford, even though Eastman ran on a reproductive freedom campaign, and Ashford had a history of supporting restrictions to abortion. The Democratic Party backed Ashford, but Eastman won on May 15 anyway. (A month later, Emily’s List endorsed her against her Republican opponent.)

And EMILY’s List declined, until very late in the race, to join Kirsten Gillibrand, Gloria Steinem, NARAL-Pro-Choice America, and a coalition of progressives in backing pro-choice Marie Newman against anti-choice Rep. Dan Lipinski in an Illinois Democratic primary. Ultimately, Newman lost a close race that may have been tipped by earlier support.

Both Eastman and Newman, and many of the women running in New York, do have the backing of a new group dedicated to backing pro-choice candidates, called #VOTEPROCHOICE.

Heidi Sieck, the group’s co-founder and CEO, said that EMILY’s List reticence when it comes to taking on establishment figures or backing candidates who don’t fit a conventional mold may be generational. “It’s a whole different ballgame than the [Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee] or EMILY’s List is used to playing,” she said. “We’ve got to give these people a shot. We have to be honest, we lost big, and we’ve been losing big for a long time. We can’t use the same strategy and expect a different result.”

She said, though, that she has faith that EMILY’s List will catch up with the moment. “I think EMILY’s List will get there, particularly through this cycle, because their heart is in the right place and their values are in the right place. I do hope that they will continue to broaden their definition of viability, because there has to be a new way to give opportunity to give these candidates who are connected to their community, but may not look like candidates have in the past. But I think that they will evolve.”

It may come too late for Dana Balter. In Syracuse, EMILY’s List does have a candidate — sort of. Juanita Perez Williams ran for mayor as the Democratic nominee in 2017 with the backing of EMILY’s List. In a heavily Democratic city, she managed to lose to an independent, yet was quickly recruited by the DCCC to run for Congress — entreaties she initially declined before jumping into the race mere weeks before the filing deadline. Around the same time, she traveled to Washington for the EMILY’s List annual gala, proudly posting about the trip on Facebook.

As it turns out, fewer than two years earlier, Williams posted from the March for Life, where she walked the streets shoulder to shoulder with the most zealous activists looking to overturn Roe v. Wade and criminalize abortion. Her attendance at the march was in line with her outspoken opposition to legal abortion, which were publicly disclosed in debates on Facebook with local Democrats long before her EMILY’s List endorsement (though the group had not been aware of her advocacy).

The DCCC explained its support of Perez Williams by arguing that the locally endorsed candidate for the race, Dana Balter, wasn’t raising enough money. Yet in the most recent quarter, Balter’s campaign reported raising $109,222  — more than half from small-dollar donors.

Williams, meanwhile, got the bulk of her money from PACs aligned with Democratic leadership, including Pelosi and Crowley. Still, with her campaign running out of money, the candidate the DCCC pushed into the race for her fundraising prowess had to loan her operation $30,000 to stay afloat. Even with the loan, she still raised less than Balter.

No matter, as outside groups connected to the party have propped her up. VoteVets, which often backs the same candidate as the DCCC, has spent $250,000 in ads for her in the final weeks, adding to what the party is spending, along with the Latino Victory Fund.

All of that support comes despite the report about her self-described “pro-life advocacy.” The party is sticking by its recruit. Latino Victory is standing by the Hispanic candidate. And VoteVets is rallying for the veteran in the race.

There is, of course, a group dedicated to supporting pro-choice Democratic women. But if Balter is to win on Tuesday, she’ll have to do it without EMILY’s List.

Top photo: Liuba Grechen Shirley.

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