As a Democrat working to rebuild after 2016, and a pro-choice woman, who not only organizes in Louisiana but also lives and votes here, I have to push back on a currently promoted notion that there’s no place for pro-life Democrats in our party. Anyone who advocates for progressive issues in a red state is well aware of how frustrating the work is. Our wins are few and far between, so we do not take them lightly.
Governor John Bel Edwards has benefited the residents of Louisiana, full stop. He has attempted to be the adult in the room and find workable solutions to our economic woes, despite a contingent in the legislature that seems committed to the failed politics of former Governor Bobby Jindal, a 2016 GOP presidential candidate so inconsequential that he didn’t even merit a nickname from Donald Trump.
Edwards accepted Medicaid Expansion through the ACA, which has given more than 417,000 hard working Louisianians access to health care, many for the first time in their lives. 80,000 are already receiving preventative healthcare. Several thousand women have been able to get mammograms. About 100 of those have been diagnosed with breast cancer that they did not know they had, and can now be treated. The numbers are similar with colon cancer screenings, with an additional 2200 having precancerous polyps cut out, preventing future cancers. 6300 have been diagnosed with hypertension and diabetes. With treatment, they can stay in the work force and have a better quality of life. Medicaid Expansion is saving lives right now, in addition to saving $200 million this year in the state general fund. It is on target to save $300 million next year. At a time when fiscal cliffs threaten our state, this is significant.
While Governor Edwards may be an economic populist, he does not ignore the importance of social issues and identity. He has issued an executive order on equality in the workplace for LGBT Louisianians. He aggressively advocated for and signed 10 historic bills towards Criminal Justice Reform. Even in fighting to raise the wage, he acknowledges that 80% of minimum wage workers in Louisiana are women. In a state where Walmart is the top employer, a raise in the wage would give an immediate boost in income to a large number of women. The Governor and the First Lady held the first ever Equal Pay Summit this year, highlighting the fact that Louisiana has the largest gender pay gap in the country. If women are paid a living wage, their options for making their own decisions about life, and affording those decisions, increase.
Although age-appropriate sex education and youth risk behavior survey bills did not pass our legislature this year, both initiatives are supported by our Governor. The advocates for women’s rights that I work with are taking advantage of this ally we have in the Governor’s Office — something we sorely lacked prior to his election.
While I applaud these advancements, Governor Edwards is well aware that he and I differ on access to abortion. He agreed to meet with a fellow pro-choice advocate and me last year, after he supported legislation we opposed. It was the most difficult political meeting I’ve ever had, but I felt I owed him the respect of a face-to-face discussion. I asked him to find ways we can work together to at least help women get birth control and family planning services that decrease the need for abortions. I continue to seek places where we can agree and make progress.
We knew well who Edwards was when he was campaigning. He never hid his devout Catholicism. Anyone who is politically informed in Louisiana is aware that it would be next to impossible to get a pro-choice candidate elected to statewide office, but he espouses a pro-life theory that goes beyond the abortion argument. He believes in supporting life after the child is born, and supporting those in need throughout their whole lives. He walks the walk of his favorite Bible passage, Matthew 25.
Democrats are the Big Tent Party, and if there are people of good intention and integrity who believe in 90% of the same things we do, we should do our best to make them feel like they have a home with us. Let me be very clear here, I do not believe abortion is murder. However, what I have found is that if you do, no economic argument is going to persuade you that murder is acceptable. Louisiana is a pro-life state, so the question becomes, how do we move the ball forward for the women who need our help today?
What we currently lack is a reproductive rights message that speaks to the majority of Louisianians. It is difficult to find what will move voters on your issue if you do not understand them. For those who have money to contribute to this state, and an interest in advancing this cause, I recommend an investment in polling voters outside our major cities about the nuances of their views on abortion and women’s health. Data could instruct us on the commonality to be found beyond the false dichotomy of pro-life versus pro-choice. Data could prove to legislators that their constituents support sex education. Data could identify flippable districts.
I’m part of a group of women who has actively been pushing the DNC to highlight more Democratic women leaders and to support pro-choice candidates. However, I’m also a Louisianian and I caution national Democrats not to write off the entire South. We as a party cannot afford to do that. Further, the women and children of our region don’t have the luxury of yet another purity test that prevents progress toward addressing their most pressing needs.
For many reasons, not the least of which was the protection of the rights established in Roe v. Wade, I worked relentlessly last year to elect the presidential candidate endorsed by NOW, Planned Parenthood, and the Independent Women’s Organization of New Orleans. I organize on a range of progressive issues, and the results of that election leave me concerned for so many people. There is much work to be done, and there is a lot of progress we can make right here at home with the governor we have.
Lynda Woolard is President of the Independent Women’s Organization, a Democratic women’s group in New Orleans.