Everything about freshman Congresswoman Gwen Moore is fabulous–from her rhinestone glasses and her cackling laugh to her passionate grassroots politics and blunt outspokenness (something the professional handlers, if they can get hold of her, might try to tamp down). Moore represents Wisconsin’s Fourth Congressional District in Milwaukee, with areas of black unemployment as high as 59 percent. She’s the second woman and the first African-American the state has ever sent to the nation’s Capitol.
When Moore was a young single mother of three, the repo man came for the washer and dryer she got from the local rent-to-own shop. “I’d paid for it two or three times, I’m sure,” she says. “That’s how it works.” In response, Moore organized a march on her local bank and helped form a community development credit union. Today she’s on the House Financial Services committee.
If you want progressive politics, Moore has the whole package. She fought for women’s reproductive rights as a state senator. She battled former governor Tommy Thompson over his welfare “reform” experiments and still gets worked up when she talks about it: “Ten thousand women got kicked out of college and technical college!” (Moore herself finished college while on welfare.) She’s a big supporter of labor. She’s also, perhaps surprisingly, a star candidate for EMILY’s List, the political action committee best known for using the power of the purse to propel such heavy hitters as senators Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein to “Year of the Woman” victories.
As EMILY’s List–the name is an acronym for Early Money Is Like Yeast (it makes the dough rise…)–turns twenty this year, it has built an impressive track record with its innovative fundraising and its simple mission of electing prochoice, Democratic women to office. The group has helped elect sixty-one women to the House and eleven to the Senate, along with eight governors and hundreds of state officeholders. Members gave $10.7 million to EMILY’s List candidates in the last election cycle, making it the wealthiest PAC in America.
But EMILY’s List has not been known for working with grassroots, progressive campaigns. So when the group began calling Moore during her primary, she says, frankly, “I was irritated.” When the group had reached out to a woman candidate for governor in Wisconsin, Moore says, “They courted her and talked to her and smiled, and in the end they didn’t do much.” Moore figured EMILY’s List wouldn’t put any real energy into her race either, especially since she was running against other prochoice Democrats. She finally agreed to go to lunch with an EMILY’s List representative, whom she told, “I know all about you. You’re the people waiting on the shoreline with the warm towels and the hot chocolate after the woman swims the English Channel.”
To Moore’s surprise, EMILY’s List put more than $685,000 into Wisconsin last year–not only helping send her to Washington but filling the State Senate seat she left behind with another African-American woman, Lena Taylor. EMILY’s List also helped a third candidate, Tamara Grigsby, win Taylor’s seat in the State Assembly. “I was stunned that they got in and they got in as deeply as they did,” says Moore. EMILY’s List supported Moore not so much because of her progressive values, but because she was a viable candidate. With the group’s expert advice, Moore built her own crack fundraising operation–a good thing, because she didn’t have a dime of her own to put into the race. No one was more surprised by it all than Tamara Grigsby, a social worker whose initial thought when her friend Lena Taylor suggested that she run to fill her State Assembly seat was, “You must be crazy!”