crossed off

Why did pro-choice advocates reject this Latina abortion rights pioneer?

Getty Images

Two years before seeking her party’s nomination to run for a House seat in Nevada’s 4th congressional district, State Assemblywoman Lucy Flores was catapulted into the national spotlight for her brave decision to discuss her abortion on the floor of the Nevada State Assembly.

“At 16, I got an abortion,” Flores told the Assembly in a 2013 speech defending a sex education bill. “I don’t regret it. I don’t regret it because I am here making a difference, at least in my mind, for many other young ladies and letting them know that there are options and they can do things to not be in the situation I was in.”

After the speech, Flores became a national pro-choice icon. She was profiled by several major national news outlets and appeared as a guest on cable news shows, all of which lead to her earning a reputation as a rising star in the Democratic Party. As a nationally-recognized figure in the movement for reproductive justice, she also endured a barrage of death threats and hate mail from pro-life zealots.

During the 2016 Democratic primary race for Nevada’s 4th district, however, the national pro-choice group EMILY’s List declined to endorse Flores. Instead, EMILY’s List endorsed one of Flores’s opponents for the Democrats’ nomination to run for the House of Representatives.

“It was just incredibly—It was heartbreaking,” Flores said during a recent interview for Fusion’s “The Woman Card,” a special examining the role of women in the 2016 election. “The fact that they didn’t feel like that was worth investing in, that a voice like that wasn’t worth investing in.”

EMILY’s List, which describes itself as an organization committed to electing more pro-choice Democratic women to national, state and local office, backed Flores in her previous state assembly races in 2010 and 2012. When Flores mounted a bid for lieutenant governor of Nevada in 2014, EMILY’s List gave her another full-throated endorsement, calling her an “inspiring community leader” who “has not shied away from sharing her personal experiences growing up in order to highlight the real impact that legislation can have on the lives of Nevadans.”

But in 2016, Flores got an unexpected phone call from the pro-choice group. “It was very short and it was very brief,” Flores told Fusion. “And it was just to say, ‘Just want to let you know in advance we are going with your opponent.’ I didn’t ask why. I frankly I was so shocked that I didn’t even know what to say.” The group had decided to endorse Susie Lee, a former political consultant who had never held elected office. Despite their emphasis on reproductive justice, the organization’s endorsement page for Lee did not include any references to choice or abortion. The page has since been taken down.

The decision was also perplexing given that, just days before endorsing Lee, who is white, EMILY’s List had announced a brand new initiative to try and increase the number of Latinas in elected office. After all, restrictive abortion laws—from the Hyde Amendment to extended waiting periods—disproportionately harm women of color.

The irony was not lost on Flores. “We can’t let any organization get away with having one stated mission, but then [in] application having it be completely different,” she told Fusion.

“Isn’t EMILY’s List supposed to elect pro-choice women?”

Others in the community felt the same way. Alida Garcia, a prominent Latina political strategist and organizer, criticized the decision in a public Facebook post. “Isn’t EMILY’s List supposed to elect pro-choice women?” Garcia wrote. “So I guess Lucy’s unwavering commitment & actual record of fighting for reproductive rights, which by the way actually included putting her life & career as a young woman of color in danger by testifying publicly about her own abortion just doesn’t matter to EMILY’s List.”

Garcia chalked up the defection to “white privilege.” “White privilege is talking about diversity when it’s convenient but not showing up for diversity,” she wrote. “At a bare minimum, EMILY’s List should not endorse in this contested primary.”

So why did EMILY’s List abandon Flores after all those years of support? For many of her supporters, the answer seemed clear: Flores’s support of Bernie Sanders in the Democratic presidential primary.

EMILY’s List had predictably endorsed Hillary Clinton in the Democratic presidential primary. Clinton’s candidacy embodied the organization’s longstanding mandate elevate pro-choice progressive women to the highest offices in American government. However, some of Sanders supporters believe that EMILY’s list was punishing women down ballot who had chosen to support Sanders over Clinton.

In a fundraising email for Flores, Sanders himself levied that very accusation against EMILY’s List. After explaining how EMILY’s List had previously supported Flores, Sanders wrote, “Then Lucy Flores endorsed our political revolution before the Nevada caucus, and everything changed. EMILY’s List decided to endorse a different person in Lucy’s House race this time around. So I want to support Lucy like she’s supported us, because we stand together.”

EMILY’s List, in a statement to Fusion, categorically denied punishing any Sanders endorsers. “There is simply no merit to the claim that any of our decisions are based on who our candidates endorse—in fact, several our candidates supported Bernie Sanders during the primary,” said Vanessa Cardenas, the group’s strategic communications director.

In April, Lucinda Guinn, vice president of campaigns for EMILY’s List, told the Las Vegas Review Journal, “Susie is clearly the strongest candidate in this race—she currently has over half a million dollars more in her campaign account than Lucy, who hasn’t built an operation capable of communicating with voters this time around.”

EMILY’s List, which only endorses women, has endorsed several other candidates who were Sanders supporters. But those candidates, according to review by Fusion of EMILY’s List endorsements for non-incumbents in statewide and congressional races, did not face primary challenges from other Democratic pro-choice female candidates. One of the Sanders supporters endorsed by EMILY’s List faced several men and a non-Democratic Party candidate in her primary; the other two faced male primary challengers.

The Democratic nomination for Nevada’s 4th congressional district ended up going to a male contender, state Senator Ruben Kihuen. While EMILY’s List’s claimed Lee was the stronger of the two women candidates in the race, she ended up finishing in 3rd place behind Flores, who came closest to beating Kihuen.

EMILY’s List told Fusion that they stand by their decision to endorse Lee over Flores. “We weigh each race individually and we often have long-term relationships with candidates over various election cycles,” Cardenas, the communications director, said.

Flores couldn’t help but feel spurned by the ordeal. “I never played by the rules,” she said, reflecting on the race. “And, let’s be honest, that hurt me.”

The Woman Card,” a special examining the role women played in the 2016 election, premieres across FUSION’s digital platforms on November 4 with a one-hour special broadcast on FUSION Network, Facebook Live and Periscope Sunday, November 6 @ 9PM