Omaha—On my first morning here in Nebraska, I walked right into a glass wall. “Wow! Didn’t see that coming,” I thought, as the blood poured down my nose. So I have some sense of what it must have been like for Heath Mello, the young Democrat trying to get elected mayor of the biggest city in one of the country’s deepest-red states, when Tom Perez and the Democratic National Committee threw him under the bus last week.
Mello, who finished three points behind Republican incumbent Jean Stothert in the five-way, nonpartisan primary on April 4, has been attracting national attention—and support—from progressives for months now. Our Revolution first endorsed Mello on March 9 as one of two dozen candidates the group is backing in 2017. Daily Kos jumped in after the primary, pointing out that in addition to offering the chance to flip City Hall (Omaha makes up most of Nebraska’s Second Congressional District, which the Democrats lost by just over one point), “a good showing” in the race “will energize progressives and encourage strong candidates to run” in 2018.
An Omaha native first elected to Nebraska’s unicameral legislature in 2008 at the age of 29, Mello successfully led the fight to overturn Republican Governor Pete Ricketts’s veto of a bill permitting young people in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program to obtain a driver’s license. Last year, he again put together a coalition that managed to reverse another of Ricketts’s vetoes—this time of a bill allowing young undocumented immigrants to apply for professional or commercial licenses. In Nebraska, which resettled more refugees per capita in 2016 than any other state, that kind of leadership stands out. As does Mello’s outspoken emphasis—unusual in a state dominated by Big Agriculture, and which still gets most of its energy from coal—on fighting climate change and protecting the environment. Likewise his record on LGBTQ issues, including a call for a law to ban discrimination in housing and employment. With strong union support from firefighters, teachers, and city workers, the Sierra Club’s enthusiastic endorsement, and the backing of an array of Democratic heavyweights, from former senator Ben Nelson to former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley, Mello was beginning to look like the party’s best chance for a win after disappointments in Kansas and Georgia.
Especially since his opponent, Stothert, ousted her Democratic predecessor in 2013 by promising to repeal an unpopular restaurant tax—and never kept her promise. With registered Democrats in the city actually outnumbering Republicans—while Donald Trump won nearly 60 percent of the vote in Nebraska, Hillary Clinton carried Douglas County, which includes Omaha, by over 5,000 votes—the arrival of the Democratic “Unity Tour” on Thursday was supposed to provide a final burst of enthusiasm to carry Mello across the finish line on May 9.
Instead, on April 19, The Wall Street Journal ran a story noting that Mello, a practicing Catholic, is pro-life. The story also falsely claimed that Mello had co-sponsored a bill “requiring women to look at an ultrasound image of their fetus before receiving an abortion.” A similar error was made by The Washington Post, which claimed that Mello had “previously backed a bill requiring ultrasounds for women considering abortions,” and then again the following day by David Nir, political director of Daily Kos, who announced the site was withdrawing its endorsement of Mello—a move applauded by Ilyse Hogue, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, who’d launched a 12-part Twitter storm linking to the WSJ article and accusing Sanders and Perez of kicking off their tour with the message “shame women; we’ll support u anyway.”
Here’s the truth about Mello’s record: Back in 2009, he co-sponsored a bill requiring a physician performing an abortion to tell a woman that an ultrasound is available (as most already did). It neither mandated that the ultrasound be performed nor, if performed, that it actually be viewed by the woman—although it did require abortion providers to position the screen in such a way that the ultrasound was easily viewable. Daily Kos member Nova Land—a Tennessean who had never heard of Mello before the controversy—posted a comprehensive, well-sourced correction to this effect the same day. That didn’t lead Nir to reconsider (Nir did post a correction to his original post; see update below). Nor did it stop Perez from issuing a statement announcing that he “fundamentally disagree[s] with Heath Mello’s personal beliefs about women’s reproductive health,” which was worded in a way that appeared to cast doubt on the sincerity of Mello’s pledge that he “would never do anything to restrict access to reproductive health care.”
“I would have appreciated it if NARAL had taken the time to talk to some of us on the ground” regarding Mello, said Megan Hunt, an Omaha reproductive-rights activist. If they had, they might have heard the story of a man whose mother became pregnant with him at 16 and spent her life cleaning other people’s houses to support her son. For much of his first term, Mello’s positions were conventionally pro-life. In 2010, he voted to ban abortions after 20 weeks and to introduce new screening requirements. In 2011, he voted to bar the health exchanges set up under the Affordable Care Act from funding abortions; supported a ban on using telemedicine to perform abortions; and voted to change a parental-notification requirement to one requiring parental consent. All of these bills were opposed by Planned Parenthood—and, given the realities of Nebraska politics, all easily passed.
What’s more interesting is what happened next—and what didn’t. In 2012, Mello voted with Planned Parenthood on two out of three bills tracked by the group—and was excused from voting on the third. After that, Mello, who had become the influential chair of the state legislature’s budget committee, voted with Planned Parenthood 100 percent of the time. By 2015, the group was celebrating a “fourth straight year…without enacting any new abortion restrictions in Nebraska, thanks largely to committed women’s health advocates engaged in the legislative process.”
Hunt, who spent much of the past week lobbying the legislature, is one such activist. Another is her friend Sofia Jawed-Wessel, who teaches sexual health at the University of Nebraska Omaha. Long before The Wall Street Journal made it an issue, Mello had asked Jawed-Wessel to speak at Thursday’s rally. “You know the slogan ‘Women’s rights are human rights’? Well, women’s rights are economic rights, too,” said Jawed-Wessel, to cheers from the crowd.
Tom Perez’s public spanking of Mello may have won him a tweet of approval from Hogue:
My thoughts on @DNC & @TomPerez very strong statement in support of women today. Let’s work together 2 make sure we all live it every day. pic.twitter.com/XnqyEA6xIw
— ilyse hogue (@ilyseh) April 21, 2017
But in Omaha, the DNC’s response was greeted with dismay. “It was Heath’s credibility with pro-life legislators that enabled him to take mandatory ultrasounds off the table and substitute a bill that stated that women had a choice to have one and to see the image,” said Jane Kleeb, chair of the Nebraska Democratic Party, of the ultrasound legislation. The competing bill not only required ultrasounds before an abortion; it also required clinics to position the screen so that women would be forced to view the fetus.
“I wish the national organizations would respect the relationship we have been nurturing, instead of just assuming we don’t know what we’re doing,” Jawed-Wessel told me afterward. “Then they might have reframed their statement in a way that added momentum to someone we consider a strong ally.”
That last part may be hard for someone in Washington—or New York—to understand. All of the women I spoke with here were well acquainted with Mello’s personal opposition to abortion. But they also knew that while remaining true to his beliefs and his Catholic faith, he has been a public defender of Planned Parenthood, one who has shifted his efforts from blocking abortion to helping women avoid unwanted pregnancies by supporting comprehensive sex education and access to contraception—the same path travelled by politicians from Bill Clinton to Joe Biden to Tim Kaine.
As governor of Virginia, Kaine not only backed laws mandating parental consent and banning late-term abortions; he also signed a law that actually did require women seeking abortions to undergo medically unnecessary ultrasounds. He also signed a bill to create “Choose Life” license plates in the state. Kaine’s record prompted Rewire Editor in Chief Jodi Jacobson to charge that by choosing him as her running mate, Hillary Clinton demonstrated that she “values progressives in name and vote only.” Rewire has been equally unforgiving of Mello.
Hogue, on the other hand, seemed much more relaxed about Kaine. “I don’t think we’re in the business of thought policing,” she told Katha Pollitt in July. “I’m OK with people having their own ideas as long as they don’t prevent other people from exercising their right.” Hogue didn’t answers my e-mails (see update below), so I was unable to ask whether her tolerant attitude toward Kaine was influenced less by his record than by her own loyalty to Hillary Clinton. Or how much of her current outrage was really directed at Heath Mello—or Bernie Sanders.
Nir’s motivations are less obscure: His group poured over $1 million into Jon Ossoff’s centrist campaign to “flip the 6th”—a largely white, affluent, suburban Georgia district. Even as he was withdrawing Mello’s Daily Kos endorsement, Nir tweeted that Sanders “should either endorse Ossoff and raise money for him, or keep his silence.” That was followed by a petulant “second thought: Sanders shouldn’t endorse Ossoff. He should just remain silent and not hurt the efforts of those of us helping in #GA06.” Sanders actually did endorse Ossoff. But Nir has yet to apologize to Mello’s campaign—or to admit that his actions were based on what it’s hard to avoid calling “fake news.”
Mello’s critics, including Hogue, are absolutely right to argue against any political calculus that involves selling out women’s rights—including the right to control their own body. And to oppose calls to “balance” those rights against some imaginary gain for the working class (as if women didn’t make up a majority of the working class). Americans tried that once with slavery—and it didn’t work out well. But no one has a right to use abortion, or Heath Mello, or the working people of Omaha—black, brown, and white—who see him as their champion, as pawns in some Democratic Party power game.
Like many of his supporters—including some of his most fervently pro-choice ones—Mello told me that he would like abortion to be a private matter between a woman and her partner, or her conscience. So long as women’s rights are under threat, that can’t happen. But when I ask Mello if, when he says he “will not restrict women’s reproductive care,” that includes abortions, he doesn’t equivocate: “Of course. I thought that was obvious.”
What isn’t obvious is whether a party that sets the bar so high that it excludes Heath Mello can ever hope to become a majority.
Updated on April 26, 2017: On Tuesday I was finally able to speak with Ilyse Hogue of NARAL Pro-Choice America. The conversation was wide-ranging, but in answer to my question about how she would distinguish between Heath Mello and Tim Kaine, Hogue said “We judge people on their records: public statements, public votes.” She said didn’t condemn Clinton’s choice of Kaine as the vice-presidential nominee because of his record as a senator, where he “had taken votes that reversed his prior votes” on issues such as the 20-week abortion ban he he’d enacted as governor. Mello, she said, had performed no such public reversal.
In response to the dismay expressed by local reproductive rights activists who felt a valuable ally was being steamrollered by national organizations, Hogue said NARAL had “a ton of Nebraska members” and that she had consulted them. “I appreciate that people closer to candidates have a deeper insight. We talk to people all the time who are on the wrong side of our issues. But talking isn’t enough. You have to take action. I appreciate the great work of people on the ground who are helping him evolve. But those aren’t public record conversations.”
When I pointed out that Mello had publicly defended Planned Parenthood, which his opponent wants to defund, Hogue responded “Which is awesome! We love that. That doesn’t make someone fully pro-choice.” Hogue said a politician’s personal beliefs don’t concern her, citing Mario Cuomo’s 1984 Notre Dame speech as an example of a Catholic politician who felt personally bound by Church teaching on abortion, but rejected any effort by the state to coerce those who disagreed with that teaching.
Hogue said her target was not Mello, but the Democratic Party leadership whom she thought seemed willing to trade off women’s rights in the cause of a big tent. Tom Perez’s first comments—when the DNC chair said “if you demand fealty on every single issue, then it’s a challenge”—were what prompted her to act. “I intentionally never mentioned Heath Mello by name,” she continued, “because I was actually sending a message to the national [Democratic] Party.”
But where, I asked her, does that leave people in Omaha? Is the gut punch to local activists—and to Mello—just collateral damage? After all, Kaine only got the chance to change course because he’d been elected governor. Hogue said that derailing Mello’s candidacy was not her intention—or the likely effect of this dispute. “He seems to have enormous support in Omaha. I think that’s great.”
While we’re on the subject of intentions, David Nir emailed to complain about my attempt to divine his motivation, claiming that his dismissive tweets about Sanders and Ossoff and Daily Kos’ decision to withdraw the group’s endorsement from Mello “were entirely unrelated.” I remain skeptical—but Nir is on firmer ground when he notes that he did actually post an update correcting Mello’s record on the ultrasound bill, which went up before my piece was posted, which made it inaccurate of me to claim that Nir failed to “reconsider”—though he didn’t change his decision.
Finally an eagle-eyed reader, Michael Bushnell, points out it was Republican governor Bob McDonnell who signed Virginia’s mandatory ultrasound bill, not Tim Kaine. Though Kaine had once backed such so-called “informed consent” measures, by the time the Virginia law passed Kaine actually opposed them—and spoke out against it.