The Genius of Cecile Richards

The Genius of Cecile Richards

How, exactly, did she turn a relentless right-wing assault into a source of renewed political power for Planned Parenthood?


Planned Parenthood president Cecile Richards heard whispers that the Susan G. Komen foundation would stop funding Planned Parenthood’s breast cancer screenings from an anti-choice blog in early December. But she shrugged it off as the kind of bullying rumor that often circulates in her world. (Until Planned Parenthood, she says, “I had never worked with an organization where there were people that literally got up every day trying to figure out how to keep us from doing our work.”) Then the Komen foundation president called just before Christmas to say it was true. “It came as a total surprise,” says Richards, who requested a meeting with Komen’s board to revisit the matter but was denied.

It was only after an Associated Press reporter broke the story in late January that Richards let loose the deluge. “Disappointing news from a friend” was the subject line on Richards’s January 31 late afternoon e-mail to more than a million supporters. The first Facebook posting on the subject received 2,438 shares.

Four days later, Planned Parenthood boasted $3 million in new funding; 32,000 new Facebook fans; 22,000 people who “shared” the freshly inaugurated Planned Parenthood Facebook badge, leading to upward of 100,000 new viewers of the site; the very public support of New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who donated $250,000 to the organization; vast television and radio exposure; and… the Komen funding back in place.

How exactly did Cecile Richards pull off this trick?

Richards is not your standard-issue CEO. Her organizing experience began back in junior high with her neighborhood’s first recycling program and powered on with her stints as a campus activist, labor organizer, deputy chief of staff to then–House Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi and head of the Democratic electoral coalition America Votes in 2004. (She even met her future husband, Kirk Adams, former organizing director at the AFL-CIO, while signing up New Orleans hotel workers.) Since taking the helm in 2006, Richards has steered Planned Parenthood through treacherous rapids, ensuring each time that it emerged not just unscathed but stronger. Indeed, this was the metaphor she chose last April, on the historic day federal funding for her organization was subjected to an up-or-down vote on the Hill, when I observed her at work in her office. “It’s like a five-day whitewater trip,” she told a Capitol Hill supporter on the phone. She went on to compare the attacks by anti-choice Republicans to Level 4s and 5s: she has been down the rapids before, figuratively and literally. “We’re just going to run this sucker. We just have to do it, and go out the other side.”

A few days earlier in April, the government had threatened to shut down over funding to Planned Parenthood. During numerous Oval Office skirmishes, President Obama, Speaker of the House John Boehner and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid finally hammered out a compromise to let the budget pass, if Planned Parenthood submitted to the unprecedented yes-or-no vote. Such dramatics might rattle the average nonprofit president, but Richards, who was methodically thanking a list of supporters by phone, showed only mild flickers of the nearly twenty-four-hours-a-day sweat she had endured over the previous week.

With cropped blond hair, bright red nails, short black dress and black sling-back shoes, Richards, 54, looked like a stylish morning-show host. She has a television voice too, a slightly raspy light Texas twang, which slips easily between jokes and strategy. On one finger she was flashing a large aquamarine ring her famous mother, former Governor Ann Richards, owned and wears in her portrait in the Texas Capitol Rotunda, and which bestows luck.

At one point, Cecile Richards made a soft pitying face as she described Republican overreaching to a supporter. “They’re kind of sawing the limb off on this one,” she said, miming the Wile E. Coyote error, which ends with the coyote driven to the ground by the bough, his last remaining refuge. Richards’s almost maternal pity underscores, more than would insults or demonizing, just how confident she is: not only does she know how to handle these attacks; she has energy left to pity her opponents their blunders. Her mother’s most famous line, the one she delivered about George H.W. Bush at the 1988 Democratic convention, had a similar tone: “Poor George, he can’t help it. He was born with a silver foot in his mouth.” But Cecile Richards’s style is gentler. She sometimes tears up when she talks about the women who rely on Planned Parenthood’s services. “I’m such a drag because I say to my staff, ‘You have a job that pays you to do good work on behalf of other people.’… I’m not saying it has to be drudgery and it can’t be fun, but it’s an incredible honor.”

When that protective instinct goes up against conservative attacks, Richards becomes a formidable force. Just this past year, after fending off the vote to defund the organization, Richards battled a House bill to restrict insurance coverage for abortions. She is facing an “investigation” of the organization’s finances, spearheaded by the same House Republicans who led the failed defunding drive. That investigation has not been scheduled for a Congressional hearing but proved potent as a floating threat, in that Komen originally cited the pending investigation as the reason it could no longer fund Planned Parenthood. Other fights in the past year included Mississippi’s unsuccessful ballot initiative to define personhood as the moment of inception. Seven states have moved to defund the organization—five of these attempts failed either for lack of votes or legal issues around the implementation. Wisconsin and Texas are still trying to enact the ban.

But the conservative assault is proving to have an upside for pro-choicers: every time an opponent mentions Planned Parenthood, supporters are given a cause to rally around. Tait Sye, a Planned Parenthood spokesman, notes that the avalanche of attacks helps bolster its supporters’ commitment: “For new volunteers from the funding fights, Mississippi gave them something real to work on right away.” All those supporters who sign on through the political arm can be activated for future fights, future elections.

The same dynamic is playing out on a big stage right now, thanks in part to Rush Limbaugh, who thought there was political hay to be made from shaming women as sluts for seeking access to affordable contraception (he was forced to apologize). The stage was actually set for Limbaugh’s humiliation in late February, after Congressman Darrell Issa deliberately excluded Limbaugh’s target, Georgetown Law student Sandra Fluke, from testifying at hearings on a birth-control benefit in health plans, instead featuring a panel of five men. Planned Parenthood posted the photo to its Facebook with the caption “These are the witnesses testifying on the birth control benefit right now on Capitol Hill. What is wrong with this picture?” Within a day, that photo had been shared 21,000 times from Planned Parenthood’s wall and had more than 9,000 comments. The all-male panel was another misstep that Richards capitalized on. In an election year in which women figure as a key voting bloc, the whole episode, to borrow a line from Richards, looks like Republicans sawing off another limb.

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How did Planned Parenthood find itself the focus of constant high-profile attacks? There are two major factors. One, of course, is the ongoing battle over abortion that started with Roe v. Wade in 1973. Planned Parenthood performs roughly 25 percent of all abortions in the United States, because it operates about 800 clinics and has absorbed the work of the stand-alone clinics that anti-choice forces shut down over the years. That makes it Target One for anti-choice activists.

But leaving aside the ideological fight, a second, less obvious factor is that Planned Parenthood is a political force on the rise. For the almost 100 years since Margaret Sanger founded the clinic that would grow into Planned Parenthood, the organization focused only on service, whereas the National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws (NARAL), launched in 1969, was the political side.

But in 1989 Planned Parenthood created its own political arm. Richards’s arrival in 2006 brought a highly experienced, national organizer to the helm, one who has, through her work heading the America Votes coalition, run an organization that rivaled the financial scale of Al Gore’s 2000 campaign. In 2008 Richards was quoted as saying of Planned Parenthood, “We aim to be the largest kick-butt political organization” and launched the One Million Strong Campaign to bring 1 million pro-choice voters to the polls through phone-banking, direct mail and door-to-door canvassing. That year, Planned Parenthood, at Richards’s direction, collaborated with Catalist, a national progressive voter file, to build the country’s first model of support for choice. Thanks to this tool, every woman voter in the country has a score between one and 100 indicating her likelihood to be pro-choice, and there is a way to reach her. It’s an efficient way to mobilize pro-choice women to vote or even persuade them to canvass for Planned Parenthood–endorsed candidates.

A turning point for Planned Parenthood came during the group’s 2007 summer policy conference, when Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and Elizabeth Edwards all showed up to speak. Planned Parenthood endorsed Obama (only the second presidential endorsement in its history); he returned the favor in conference calls, White House meeting invitations and a promise to veto the budget bill if it defunded Planned Parenthood. When hammering out a compromise for the Catholic bishops on contraceptive coverage this year, Obama placed three phone calls—one of them to Cecile Richards.

Given the group’s mounting influence, it should be no surprise that Planned Parenthood has found itself the target of a concerted Republican attack. James O’Keefe, who funded the 2009 videos that brought down ACORN—also a potent electoral force for Democrats—had helped a young Lila Rose go undercover at Planned Parenthood clinics starting as far back as 2008. Back then, Rose posed as an underage girl seeking an abortion. In January 2011, Live Action posted more sting videos produced by Rose, which in one case showed a supposed underage prostitute accompanied by her pimp, seeking advice about how to get birth control and abortions without the authorities noticing their activities. A Planned Parenthood office manager seemed to want to assist. “The woman in question in New Jersey was terminated the same day because her behavior was totally inappropriate and not something we would support,” says Richards. And Richards directed the retraining of thousands of staff, but the scandal appeared to whet conservatives’ appetite for conflict with the organization.

As with the attacks on ACORN, targeting Planned Parenthood makes a kind of tactical sense for Republicans. It’s not lost on them that the rising electorate of newly registered voters—people of color, young voters and unmarried women who hadn’t been organized in significant numbers but would make up the majority—made a crucial difference in electing Obama in 2008. Guess whom Planned Parenthood serves and whom they can activate through their political arm?

“There was always this sense that Planned Parenthood had extraordinary potential because of the organization’s credibility earned through being there, doors open, on the ground in so many communities, being a trusted provider of really intimate medical care,” says Samantha Smoot, the Planned Parenthood political and field director for the 2008 campaign. In other words, you might listen to the Sierra Club for advice on the best candidate to vote for, but the Sierra Club wasn’t in your bedroom last night. Planned Parenthood sees 3 million patients a year. The group officially claims more than 6 million activists, donors and supporters nationwide who can be contacted for political work.

What’s more, under the new healthcare act, Planned Parenthood can be a Medicaid provider, which will likely increase its reach by several million. The organization’s recent efforts, directed by Richards, to put information on birth control and sexually transmitted disease, and even contraception refills on its website attract 33 million visits a year. All those clients are potential pro-choice voters and canvassers. That’s where Cecile Richards’s power can really be understood. As a lifelong organizer, she knows how to convert bodies into voters, into activists.

Of course, money—in the millions—will be required to push enough pro-choice candidates to victory to tip the scales in Congress. And Planned Parenthood tends to spend more money on issues, such as the personhood fights, than on candidates—which is where its frequent collaborator EMILY’s List focuses its energy and resources. Comparatively, Planned Parenthood’s PAC money is small—and at the end of the day, most voters, including women, are more concerned with pocketbook issues than anything else. But in the case of the Oregon special election of Suzanne Bonamici in late January, nearly eight in ten voters for Bonamici said her opponent’s anti-choice stand made them “less likely” to vote for him. To put Bonamici over the top, Planned Parenthood coordinated with EMILY’s List on TV, print and online ads, and direct mailing. They regularly held phone-banking sessions targeting about 17,000 female swing voters.

In a general election, 6 million Planned Parenthood supporters, fiercely motivated by the issue of women’s health, who can phone-bank from their homes using the same technology the Obama campaign used in 2008, could be a real force.

“We have hundreds of thousands of people we have never had before,” said Richards after the budget attacks. In 2011 Planned Parenthood attracted 1.3 million new supporters, half of them under 35. “These are not just people who have fought for choice all their lives. They’re young people. Fresh legs.”

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For Richards, Planned Parenthood offers an especially potent constituency for which to fight—lower-income patients, women and young people. She remembers when she visited a Planned Parenthood clinic as a Brown University undergraduate; she compares the memory to the scene in Ratatouille when the food critic takes a bite and is transported. “I walked into a Planned Parenthood. My mother never talked to me about birth control! Oh, my God…” she marvels at how odd that would be. “Look, I don’t want to dishonor the memory of my mother. I’m sure she did have some conversation with me. But whether your folks talk to you or not, Planned Parenthood was the one place where you could ask questions and folks would talk to you without guilt, without a lot of lecturing. No matter how much things change, some things are immutable: the need for basic sexual education will never go away.”

Getting young people on board Planned Parenthood has been Richards’s mission since her first days on the job when she toured a sample of the eighty-five affiliates. She persuaded peer educators to become spokespeople, potential lobbyists. And in a major change in the demographics of Planned Parenthood, about a third of the Young Leaders are now young men.

Richards’s educational campaigns show a sense of humor that speaks to the younger demographic (which she understands more fully from her college-age twins and 25-year-old daughter). Last year, Live Action founder Lila Rose announced a bus tour to press seven states to cut Planned Parenthood funding. Richards asked her team to come up with a response. Within days, Planned Parenthood sent out its own fuschia bus; announced its itinerary of several cities on Twitter and Facebook; and preceded Rose to each of those stops so that by the time Rose rolled through each outpost, her press opportunity had deflated. “That’s the genius of Dawn [Laguens],” Richards says of Planned Parenthood’s vice president. “Sending the pink bus around America. People just can’t see the pink bus without getting a happy feeling.”

The Internet favors Planned Parenthood’s agenda. In 2008 a viral e-mail of unknown origin asked Sarah Palin opponents to make a donation to Planned Parenthood in her name. The campaign raised more than $802,000 in a matter of weeks.

Last spring, four Wesleyan students voluntarily made a video to support Planned Parenthood that in a few months had generated more than 334,000 views on YouTube. “I Have Sex” shows dozens of students holding signs indicating whether they were sexually active, intercut with compelling printed messages explaining why Planned Parenthood needed protection. All at no cost to Planned Parenthood. The group had another, larger publicity coup around the same time, when Senator Jon Kyl falsely claimed that “well over 90 percent of what Planned Parenthood does” is abortions (in actuality, only 3 percent of its services are abortion services). Kyl was forced to retract, saying it “was not intended to be a factual statement.” Stephen Colbert spoofed the retraction in a segment viewed by millions.

All this goes to show how Richards has refocused Planned Parenthood’s profile—with brighter pink graphics, youth-friendly websites and even its own brand of “designer” condoms. Far from being the beleaguered defender of choice, Planned Parenthood now presents itself as an upfront, healthy-sex focused organization that provides abortions among a broad range of health services.

Although Cecile Richards most often traces her political lineage through her well-known mother (her parents divorced when she was a few years out of college), her brother Dan Richards thinks her true-believer streak comes most directly from her father, David Richards, a respected labor and civil rights attorney who often took long, unpaid cases: conscientious-objector, freedom-of-speech, public education fights. “I don’t know that she ever took any advice from my mom,” Dan says, considering the idea that Cecile lost her mentor with her mother’s death in 2006, eight months after Cecile started at Planned Parenthood. “They would disagree on stuff. Cecile is much more of a true believer than my mom.” Cecile concedes, “I get my impatience from my father. He would not suffer any fools.”

But when Cecile talks about protecting women, supporting women, the echo of Ann Richards’s speeches reverberates. And Cecile Richards’s skill at responding quickly and instinctively to attacks on Planned Parenthood is based on a philosophy she learned from her mother: take advantage of every opportunity, even if it isn’t ideal.

“My mom used to say that as women we keep thinking we’re going to be perfect,” Cecile says. “Our kids are going to be the exact right age [to go for a job]. We’re going to have the right suit. We will have gotten the exact degree we need. And the job will be one that is just at our level and not too much more. Or we think someone is going to come to us and say, ‘I’ve looked at your résumé, I’ve looked at all the things you’ve done, and I think you are the perfect person for this next opportunity.’ But it doesn’t happen. So she always said to me, If a new opportunity comes, you just have to take it. I think in my day-to-day life I try to channel a little bit of Ann in that. I think my failures are when I don’t just say, Look, I can’t get 100, but I could probably get in the high 80s, so that’s enough to just go—whether it’s meeting with the administration or testifying, or going on TV.”

Although Richards, according to Evan Smith, former editor in chief of Texas Monthly and current CEO of the Texas Tribune, has been begged by Democratic leaders in Texas to run for office, friends, family and colleagues see her staying at Planned Parenthood for a long while—or at least, colleagues point out, through Planned Parenthood’s 100th anniversary in 2016. She has experience with Capitol Hill horse-trading, having served as deputy chief of staff to Pelosi, but statewide office doesn’t necessarily entice her. “I worked for Ms. Pelosi in the House,” Richards says, “and I have such admiration for her and for the people who serve up there, but the hours and hours, and where did it ever lead? With this job, I have immediate gratification. In good times and bad, we provide 3 million women with healthcare every year. I feel like I can take that home with me every night no matter what kind of day we’ve had.” And governor? She laughs. “Texas is not quite ready for me.”

In any case, she is very much in the political game running Planned Parenthood. “Because we have so many supporters,” Richards says of her organization’s 2012 efforts, “we use every new technology for folks to take action from their homes, to contact their representatives, to do block walking. We have seen an explosion in social media for Planned Parenthood. Women are too busy to focus on politics. They are too busy particularly in this economy. They don’t have time to watch TV or follow politics. But they are on social media. Women listen to other women. And they listen to Planned Parenthood. And this will be the silent majority, but it will be the majority of voters in 2012, all of whom communicate with each other with less traditional means, but through a very powerful network.”

Editor’s Note: Cecile Richards was the winner of the 2010 Puffin/Nation Prize for Creative Citizenship, awarded by the Nation Institute and the Puffin Foundation.

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