The Magazine

NON-PARTISANSHIP AS A PARTISAN WEAPON

Mar 4, 1996, Vol. 1, No. 24 • By ERIC FELTEN
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Becky Cain, president of the League of Women Voters, doesn't like labels. " We don't characterize people by labels," she says. "I think that's part of the problem of taking the issues and saying if you're one way or another, you are therefore in this category." Known primarily as the sponsor of candidate debates in elections around the country, the League of Women Voters carefully cultivates its image as the non-partisan arbiter of good government and civic participation. How closely does the League guard its reputation for non- partisanship? Last year Democrats in the California state assembly offered a resolution praising the "non-partisan" League on the 75th anniversary of its founding. Republicans were more than happy to agree to bestow the honor -- just so long as the word "non-partisan" was dropped from the resolution. The suggestion was not well received: The ensuing row quickly descended into a parliamentary freeflor-all. Then-speaker Willie Brown withdrew the resolution rather than let the term "non-partisan" be stripped.


The Republicans had a point. The League frequently pops up in places you would not expect to see an organization that uses "non-partisan" as a mantra. Take the Emergency Campaign to Protect America's Children, Parents and Families. As the budget battle crested in December, Marian Wright Edelman -- president of the Children's Defense Fund and den mother of the liberal pack -- formed a coalition of organizations dedicated to thwarting any budget deal. The Emergency Campaign ran advertisements, organized a barrage of calls and letters to lawmakers, and staged a candlelight vigil at the Capitol. "It is unjust to destroy vital laws investing in our children," proclaimed Mrs. Edelman, announcing the campaign. "It is morally indefensible for some to claim that this destruction of our children's safety net is being carried out to "protect" them." Joining Mrs. Edelman's crusade was a veritable A-list of liberal activist groups -- and the League of Women Voters of the United States. The League was in the thick of the most partisan fight Washington has seen in decades.


"Non-partisan" does not mean "non-political," Cain is quick to point out. " Issues have never been partisan to us," she says. "There are several ways to get people involved in the process. We do think that advocating for your position is valid." But, says Cain, the League does not operate the way other lobbies do: Unlike groups that start with a point of view and sign up the like-minded, the League educates its members by giving them pro-and-con materials explaining the issues of the day, and then lets them decide the group's agenda.


That is not to say that the grass-roots membership of the League was polled on whether to join the Emergency Campaign. No, becoming part of the coalition was an executive decision. Nor was this the only such decision made in recent years by the national leadership of the League. Lawyers from the League took the lead in litigation challenging congressional term-limits laws in Arkansas and Washington state, In poll after poll, some 75 percent of the American public supports term limits. It is the rare issue that cuts across all ports term limits. IT is the rare issue that cuts across all of the normal demographic divides: Regardless of gender, race, income, or region, some three-fourths of those polled reliably voice their support for term limits. How is it, then, that an organization ostensibly committed to acting on its members' druthers came up with a term-limits agenda so at odds with general grass-roots sentiment? Was the League able to convince -- or rather, educate - - its members about the evils of term limits before asking them to reach consensus? Hardly. According to Robin Seaborn, who served on the national board of the League of Women Voters from 1990 to 1994, the attack on term limits was executed not only without the consensus of League members, but over their objections as well. "There was no consensus process on term limits, " Seaborn says. "The local League chapters did not even know that the League was behind the legal challenges." As soon as members found out, "there was a lot of backlash."


"To us, it's a basic good-government concern," Cain says, defending her end run around the membership. "Even if this is a very popular issue," she lectures, term limits are "not the legal way to handle it."