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EMILY’s List in the Aftermath

*Editor’s Note: The original version of this story has been updated to include a quote from Jessica Arons of Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank in Washington. *

Ellen Moran began to laugh. This wasn’t a snicker or a snort, but a full-throttled laugh that caused Moran to jerk her head back toward the ceiling as she contemplated the question before her. It was the early afternoon of June 6 and the 42-year-old executive director of EMILY’s List had just been asked whether she believed if the political group could have done anything differently during the presidential run of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, in which the political group played an integral part.

As a reporter you look for the most vivid scene to give a story based around an interview some oomph. But as I scribbled in my notebook, I realized that I had become part of the Clinton-parsing-by-proxy. Over the course of Clinton’s campaign, writers ran out of thesaurus entries looking for ways to describe her laugh. It was ridiculed on "The Daily Show," broken down by pundits on cable television, psycho-analyzed by eminent political reporters. Then all this analysis was itself analyzed over more news cycles — was it due to some latent sexism in the culture, would the media ever have discussed a man in this fashion? Forget her positions on health care or the war or even Sen. Barack Obama. What was up with the laugh?

(Matt Mahurin)
(Matt Mahurin)

But that had now passed and Moran and I were in campaign post-mortem and I am describing her laugh on the eve of Clinton’s final bow from the primary stage. No, she said, she didn’t think that EMILY’s List could have done anything differently in their efforts to elect the first woman to the office of the presidency. But, she conceded, "I think we’re too close to it now."

Moran, wearing a white blouse with printed capri pants gives off motherly vibes but is a political heavyweight with a powerful reach. She’d served on Tom Harkin’s staff and, after initially working for Emily’s List in the early 1990s, wound up at a series of influential positions. One stop was the AFL-CIO, where she not only ran the union’s "Wal-Mart corporate accountability campaign" but voter mobilization efforts in battleground states. In 2004, working with the Democratic National Committee, she oversaw the allocation of $100 million in presidential advertising and direct mail and phone efforts.

And while the openness accentuated by rattan furniture of Moran’s office gave off the feeling of a sunny living room, one could sense defeat looming just beyond her doors. Looking around the rambling offices of EMILY’s List on Connecticut Avenue in Washington, you could still see Hillary Clinton presidential signs hanging, and got the sense that Clinton’s and, by proxy, the PAC’s, narrow defeat still hung over those who worked there.

EMILY’s List — which stands for "Early Money Is Like Yeast" (It makes the dough rise) –was formed more than two decades ago to support pro-choice women candidates. Over the years they’d raised millions for them. They helped, among others, political tyros like Diane Feinstein, Jennifer Granholm and Clinton (during her Senate run) reach their desired end. But Clinton’s presidential run was the largest endeavor the group had undertaken, the most important campaign they’d ever helped. Now, a day before Clinton announced the official suspension of her campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination, Moran and the office were in the aftermath, wondering what would come next and what Clinton’s failed candidacy meant for the future of their organization.

"Is there a lot of disappointment here?" Moran said. "Sure. We don’t like losing. We’re pretty competitive. You don’t go into politics if you’re not."

A loss is never a loss. Just ask the Cincinnati Bengals following Super Bowl XXIII. But For Emily’s List, Clinton’s candidacy might have provided a jumping off point for the group’s future endeavors.

"Ultimately the fact that we had a viable pro-choice woman candidate is a stepping stone for EMILY’s List," said Jessica Arons, director of the Women’s Health and Rights Program at Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank in Washington. "And it only furthers the goal of having a pro-choice woman in the White House."

For those who had never heard of EMILY’s List before Clinton launched her campaign, you sure as hell learned about them during her run. Even before Clinton’s official announcement last year, the group’s higher-ups had begun to meet to discuss strategies on how to allocate their internal resources to the campaign, what efforts would mean for the other campaigns they were working on and how they could best raise money for her.

By the time the Iowa caucuses came around, EMILY’s List had fully landed in Iowa. Moran and others were in direct contact with the campaign and helped raise money. They’d set up an independent expenditure group that did the real groundwork–including setting up a website (www.yougogirl.com) and establishing a relentless direct-mailing and advertising campaign. Many in the organization used their holiday break to campaign for Clinton.

Most prominent among the group was its founder and president Ellen Malcolm, who became a kind of super-surrogate for Clinton, to the ire of some in the Democratic Party, who said her efforts were divisive. Before a debate in Iowa in December, Malcolm held a news conference in which she said that while she recognized Obama as being pro-choice, he had not been fervent enough in defending the cause in either the U.S. Senate or the Illinois State legislature.

Near the end of the campaign, when another group devoted to abortion rights, NARAL Pro-Choice America, came out to endorse Obama, Malcolm lashed back, calling NARAL ”tremendously disrespectful” by not giving Clinton ”the courtesy to finish the final three weeks of the primary process.”

NARAL president Nancy Keenan told The Washington Independent, through a spokesman,"We are confident that the entire progressive community will unite behind Sen. Barack Obama’s campaign. Voters, especially women, will move to Sen. Obama as the contrast between his strong support for a woman’s right to choose and McCain’s 25-year history of anti-choice votes becomes even clearer."

Malcolm was unavailable to comment for this story. But Moran, while declining to comment on the NARAL flap, said of their overall tactics during the campaign, said, "Look, primaries are tough contests and we play to win, to help a candidate win. That’s what we do."

Moran also addressed the issue of sexism which, during the course of the campaign played the role of the gopher chased by Bill Murray in "Caddyshack" — popping up and down, up and down, as the weeks and months went by. One example regularly cited occurred when MSNBC’s Chris Matthews suggested that Clinton had been elected to the Senate because voters felt sorry for her after the Monica Lewinsky scandal. Another was when David Shuster, a correspondent for the same cable network, said of the senator’s daughter, "Doesn’t it seem like Chelsea’s sort of being pimped out in some weird sort of way?"

"It’s clear there were some very low moments of this campaign and there was sexism," Moran said. "There were moments where our members saw it, responded to it and some voters took notice and responded to it. It’s something we take very seriously. We’re in the service of women candidates and we’ve got a role to make sure when we think there’s unfair media coverage to point that out, so that we can talk about it."

However, despite its best efforts, EMILY’s List saw their biggest and best chance to date for the ultimate prize fall short. Now, as with many Clinton supporters, they’ll be throwing their resources behind a man they tried to keep away from the Democratic nomination, while helping women in lower levels get elected.

Karin Johanson, a former EMILY’s List political director who has also served as executive director for the DCCC, talks about this time as a period of necessary reflection. "It’s disappointing," Johanson said. "People in politics are going to be talking about what happened to Hillary Clinton for a long time. I think people are going to be analyzing it from the perspective of what it means for women running for office and I think EMILY’s List will do that."

But Moran says, despite Clinton’s ultimately falling short, much that is positive has come out of this tough primary campaign. "The notion of a woman commander-in-chief isn’t hypothetical anymore," Moran said, "She gave us a vision of what that would be, and she came ever so close. That’s an important threshold for us."

Moran asserts that the political careers of all women will be different after Clinton’s strong race. "As someone who’s been working in politics for 30 years, I’m struck by how fast the assent can happen now," Moran said. "I’m optimistic that many of these women we’ve helped elect and have yet to elect can emerge and be ready. Again, 10 years ago where was Barack Obama? He was just finishing up his freshman term in the legislature. Helllllllllloooooooooooooo! That is profound."

And what of Clinton’s role in the general election?

"This is his decision and he’s got to get this decision right," Moran said when asked if Obama should choose Clinton as a running mate. "And to a degree it’s her decision, if asked, about whether she wants to do this. I believe she will be helpful to this ticket — no matter if she’s on the ticket or not. She got 18 million votes in the primary process and has a serious following of people who care about this a lot. She’s got a critical role to play and she has power of her own to bring to bear so that we elect a Democratic president — and I’m confident she’ll do that."

But for Moran and EMILY"s List the question that caused her to break into laughter will continue to influence how the PAC operates for years to come–hoping that the next time she throws her head back it will be in the simple delight of the thing they most enjoy. Winning.

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