Supreme War Looms

Liberals Line Up $5.5 Million to Battle Potential High Court Pick

Posted June 10, 2003 at 6:36pm

With the inaugural Supreme Court battle of the 21st century unofficially under way, abortion-rights activists have stockpiled a multimillion-dollar war chest, positioning themselves to be on air within days — or hours — of a nomination to the highest court in the land.

Expecting a vacancy on the Supreme Court, nine abortion-rights groups have formed a 501(c)(3) off-shoot devoted specifically to judicial issues and initially seeded the new group with a $5.5 million down payment, according to lead participants, including NARAL Pro-Choice America and the Planned Parenthood Federation of America.

At the same time, groups on the right, most prominently the Committee for Justice, are aggressively raising money for a counter-campaign that has the tacit blessing of President Bush. On June 27 first nephew George P. Bush will headline a small-dollar fundraiser in Washington for the Committee for Justice, designed with an eye toward generating support for the expected Supreme Court nomination battle among young conservative activists.

This comes on the heels of an April fundraiser in Houston headlined by former President George H.W. Bush, which netted the Committee for Justice a reported $250,000, and a February event at the home of C. Boyden Gray, the committee’s founder, headlined by Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) and Karen Hughes, the president’s closest communications adviser.

Meanwhile, longtime veterans of the liberal coalition on judicial advocacy, led by the Alliance for Justice and People for the American Way, are furiously researching the records of potential nominees and raising funds for a multimedia campaign that will likely be similar in tone to the epic struggles of the late 1980s and early 1990s but markedly different in terms of rapid-response technology.

All of the political commotion could be for naught, should none of the nine justices decide to retire when the current term expires at the end of the month. But with an aging bench and a nine-year span since the last retirement, the outside groups have decided to leave nothing to chance.

“We refuse to be the generation that won and lost the battle for reproductive rights,” said Gloria Feldt, president of Planned Parenthood.

“I worry about the work we’re doing to get ready, but we can’t afford to not be ready,” added Kate Michelman, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America.

Michelman decided not to wait for a vacancy to occur, and her group this week launched an ad campaign designed to generate more supporters across the country, with one strategist putting the ad buy at $3 million. While the current ads don’t mention the court, future ads will.

In addition to the NARAL-specific ads, Michelman and eight of her allies in the reproductive rights community formed their own joint non-profit with the specific eye toward mounting opposition to a Supreme Court nomination solely on the issue of abortion rights. Officially called the Joint Emergency Campaign, the group refers to itself as the “G-9.”

Feldt said the G-9 was initially formed about 18 months ago with an eye toward a potential Supreme Court vacancy, one that didn’t immediately materialize, so some of the initial $5.5 million was spent on advocacy regarding controversial circuit court nominations of the past 16 months. “It gave us the opportunity to highlight the rest of the federal bench,” Feldt said.

The fund has been replenished, according to liberal strategists, and abortion-rights advocates expect the G-9 to be able to mount a nearly $5 million media campaign once a vacancy occurs.

The idea is to mount a quick, broad strike at whoever the nominee is, with the abortion-rights groups hitting the television airwaves and groups like the Alliance for Justice and People for the American Way providing a massive, research-driven campaign to shape the mainstream media’s portrayal of the nominee.

“Our goal is to be ready when the announcement is made, so we’ve been collecting information all along,” said Nan Aaron, president of the Alliance for Justice.

Gray, the White House counsel under the first President Bush, said his committee would take a more measured response in terms of a nomination announcement, vowing a vigorous defense of the nominee but suggesting that taking to the airwaves immediately could be foolhardy.

“We can turn it around pretty quickly,” he said, but added, “There will be time before the first Judiciary Committee vote. I think it’s somewhat risky to try to define the candidate before the hearings. You could be wasting your money.”

Gray repeatedly declined to say how much he had raised and what his goals were. “Do we have enough money? We need more and we are continuing to raise money as we speak,” he said.

Each of the potential nominees to replace any of the sitting justices, those names most often mentioned in the media, is met with open disdain by the liberal coalition leaders, particularly White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales.

Often portrayed by the mainstream media as a potentially moderate justice, Gonzales is pilloried by liberals such as Michelman and Aaron, who contend he has operated a highly partisan office that has promoted very conservative judicial nominees.

“That office has been exceptionally controversial,” said People for the American Way President Ralph Neas.

Neas and Aaron operate as a sort of nerve center for the liberal groups in the nomination fights, with two decades of experience in the issue. The steering committee of their liberal coalition meets weekly, usually in the K Street offices of People for the American Way or the Alliance for Justice office overlooking Dupont Circle.

In addition, the coalition has formed four task forces that also meet weekly, focusing on research, grassroots efforts, lobbying and communication strategies.

And the groups say they need to be better prepared, noting how much has changed since the 1987 and 1991 fights over rejected nominee Robert Bork and now-Justice Clarence Thomas, respectively. Back then, there was no e-mail in widespread use, talk radio was just starting to emerge as a force and there was only one 24-hour national cable news channel.

“Now, you have to be able to respond immediately, you have to be able to get in the first news cycle,” said Neas.

GOP aides and strategists suggested that the conservatives’ biggest weapon would be talk radio, particularly the show run by James Dobson, the founder of Focus on the Family, a Colorado-based Christian organization.

In addition, the Bush administration is likely to focus on a trio of media-savvy surrogates to speak on the nominee’s behalf on the cable outlets, according to one senior GOP aide. Those would likely be Gray and two former Republican attorneys general, Dick Thornburgh and Ed Meese.

Three other conservative organizations will play critical roles as well. The Family Research Council is known among conservatives to operate one of the best e-mail lists on the right, enabling instant communications to the base, and the Concerned Women for America is known for its vast membership list. Meanwhile, the Free Congress Foundation has operated a judicial monitoring project longer than most of the groups on the right.

These conservative groups have been holding their own meetings, almost weekly, with a “core group” of about a dozen organizations at the table, according to a conservative strategist.

Fundraising among conservatives for the Supreme Court battle has so far been like “drinking from a stream,” the strategist said, noting that once there is a vacancy, “We’re going to be drinking from a fire hydrant.”

Conservatives often complain that the liberal coalition is better funded and better organized on the issue of judicial nominations, but Neas said one study of resources after the Thomas fight showed a neutral bout. “The money and the troops matched up pretty well,” he said.

Regardless, the presidency of George W. Bush has been good business for the liberal groups, although they contend they would gladly trade in the extra resources for a Democratic president.

Neas, president of his group since 2000, has seen annual 30 percent to 40 percent gains in his budget, now pushing the $15 million mark. He spent the last week in May in California on a fundraising trek with the group’s founder, television producer Norman Lear.

He has expanded his work force from 60 to 90 people, including a half-dozen lawyers, 20 national field coordinators and about eight communications employees in the K Street office. Aaron has up to 10 researchers in her office, including lawyers and law school students.

NARAL now has offices in 27 states, with 750,000 people on their e-mail distribution list. Planned Parenthood, which operates nearly 900 health centers nationwide, has made a very aggressive political turn, increasing their spending on political advocacy five-fold in the past two years, according to Feldt.

In addition, Planned Parenthood went from five field coordinators in its national office to 26 in the past three years.