Liberal Groups Trying a Little Tenderness

Posted September 1, 2004 at 5:28pm

A number of nonpartisan groups traditionally aligned more closely with the Democratic Party used the Republican National Convention to bolster their bipartisan credentials and reach out to the GOP.

The National Education Association, Planned Parenthood, the Human Rights Campaign and others hosted receptions, luncheons and star-studded events to fete sympathetic lawmakers and get their message out to the GOP faithful.

“We’re just happy that people are talking about education,” said Denise Cardinal, an NEA spokeswoman. “We’re happy to work with anyone who wants to better public education. It was a very positive experience.”

The NEA stepped up its efforts to woo the GOP at the 2000 convention in Philadelphia.

“We’re just supporting so many more Republicans,” Cardinal said, adding that the NEA so far has endorsed 16 GOP House incumbents and one Senator.

Furthermore, at least 25 GOP convention delegates also are NEA members.

The teachers association began by hosting a Sunday brunch for those delegates and followed up with an afternoon reception co-hosted by the centrist Republican Main Street Partnership. On Monday there was a luncheon honoring at least a dozen NEA-backed House Members, including Reps. Frank LoBiondo (R-N.J.), Jim Leach (R-Iowa) and Judy Biggert (R-Ill.).

“We’re bipartisan,” Cardinal insisted, seeking to dispel the stereotype. “We are not an arm of the Democratic Party; we just want to make schools better.”

Planned Parenthood Action Fund, the political arm of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, also saw the New York convention as a perfect opportunity to reach out to Republicans who support abortion rights.

On Sunday the group honored retiring Rep. Jim Greenwood (R-Pa.), said Gloria Feldt, president of Planned Parenthood.

“He is just always there,” Feldt said of the six-term lawmaker. “He understands the importance of reproductive rights and health care.”

On Monday the group sponsored one of the bigger events of the week when it put on a star-laden variety show dubbed “Stand Up for Choice, Big Tent Extravaganza” at the Beacon Theater on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.

Television starlets, film stars, musicians and comedians ranging from Kathleen Turner to Moby to Lewis Black entertained a crowd of more than 2,000.

“We know the majority of Republicans, like a majority of Americans, believe individual people should make child-bearing decisions, not the government,” Feldt said.

But despite trying to reach out to Republicans, Feldt could not resist taking a swipe at President Bush and the GOP platform, which she called “stridently anti-choice.”

“There is nothing big tent about President Bush’s actions,” she said. “It’s more important than ever that our voices are being heard outside the tent since it won’t be heard inside the tent.”

And Feldt said she was frustrated that the Republican National Committee would not share its delegate list with Planned Parenthood, which prevented the group from inviting convention delegates to its events.

The RNC did not respond to a request for comment by press time Wednesday.

Steven Fisher, a spokesman for the Human Rights Campaign, said his group co-hosted an event with the Log Cabin Republicans and the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund as a way to get its message across to the GOP.

“It’s critical that we try to reach out to fair-minded Members who oppose putting discrimination into the Constitution,” Fisher said.

Delegates, Hill staffers and Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.) attended the Monday night party to honor all Members who oppose a constitutional ban on gay marriage, he said.

Even in this spirit of cooperation, some groups, especially environmentalists, felt they needed to sit this convention out.

The Sierra Club held daily vigils at Ground Zero to draw attention to what its spokesman called a failure on the Bush administration’s part to protect the public health in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

“We’re always trying to engage Republicans, and there are moderate Republicans who are good on the environment,” said David Willett, a Sierra Club spokesman. “But unfortunately the Republican Party platform is very anti-environmental and does not follow the [Republican] tradition of conservation.”