Let me begin by saying that I feel bad for Kay Bailey Hutchison.
It couldn’t have been easy to carve out a niche for herself in the Republican boys’ club. Or to slowly climb the rungs of power, ever-conscious of Poise, Dignity and Self-Possession, only to watch Sarah Palin become her party’s first female vice presidential nominee. (Honestly, how would you like to be passed up for a promotion in favor of Palin?) Not to mention the prospect of losing a gubernatorial primary to an unpopular incumbent whose strategy seems to be acting as much like a certifiable lunatic as possible without being committed to the Rusk County Sanitarium. I mean, zut alors, as they say in Port Arthur. Won’t somebody give a sucker an even break?
Having said that, Hutchison does leave something to be desired. OK: She leaves a lot to be desired, and never more so than on the issue of reproductive choice. I’ve been researching Hutchison’s position on choice, and I have to admit that, at first, I was a trifle confused: How could a politician who describes herself as pro-choice consistently vote for measures restricting reproductive freedom?
Wait: You did know that Hutchison has always identified as pro-choice, didn’t you? If not, it’s understandable. I wasn’t aware of it myself until Muffie Moroney, one of Houston’s most admirable Democratic activists, told me a story. In 1989, when Hutchison ran against Nikki Van Hightower for state treasurer, fundraisers held a luncheon for Hutchison in a private room at Brennan’s, one of the Bayou City’s most elegant eateries. The guests included some of Houston’s most accomplished and progressive professional women. Many were inclined to support the liberal Van Hightower, and the purpose of the luncheon was to convince them that Hutchison was the more viable candidate. Though Moroney had known and liked Hutchison since their days as girls at Camp Longhorn, she hadn’t yet determined to back her campaign. That afternoon, however, she found herself swayed.
“Ann Richards was leaving the state treasurer’s office in order to run for governor, and Kay encouraged us to see her as running with Ann. She said that on the cars of professional women throughout Dallas, her bumper stickers were placed beside Ann’s.” Politicians didn’t come any more pro-choice than Richards. (The ex-governor’s daughter, Cecile, now heads the Planned Parenthood Federation of America.)
After Hutchison’s speech, guests asked questions. Moroney recalled standing and saying, “I need to know your position on Roe v. Wade and choice.” To which Hutchison replied, according to Moroney, “I am totally pro-choice, and I support Roe v. Wade.” On this basis, many of the women present offered Hutchison their support—to their subsequent regret.
“Later, when I saw the way she voted in the Senate, I felt like I’d been stabbed in the back,” Moroney said. “Apparently, Kay’s definition of pro-choice is very different from mine. She seems to feel that you can, in principle, support reproductive freedom while working to pass laws prohibiting that freedom. And to me, that’s like saying a person has the right to walk, and then shackling them.”
Now, I myself have said certain things I haven’t quite meant after spending a few heavenly hours at Brennan’s. So, on the theory that people who dine in glass bistros oughtn’t throw stones, I figured I’d do a little digging before casting aspersions Hutchison’s way. After hearing Moroney’s story, I swam into the history of the senator’s voting record on choice.
It’s pretty simple, folks. According to that excellent political information source, Project Vote Smart, from 1993 (the year Hutchison came to the Senate) through 2008 Hutchison cast two votes (out of 24 significant abortion measures) that could vaguely be described as pro-choice. Though both votes, in 1994 and 2000, were important, they were also political no-brainers, enforcing penalties against violent protests in front of abortion clinics—an issue that arguably has as much to do with domestic terrorism as with women’s right to choose. On every other piece of important legislation, Hutchison has voted with the anti-choice lobby. As recently as this December, she voted for the failed Nelson-Hatch-Casey Amendment to the health care bill. The amendment would have taken away millions of women’s abortion coverage.
I’m not the only one who’s found Hutchison’s record consistent. So have advocacy groups on both sides of the issue. From 1993 to 1996, Planned Parenthood graded Hutchison a dismal 13 percent out of a possible 100. In 2008, the group gave her 7. In 1996 and 2008, NARAL, the national pro-choice organization, gave her 0 percent ratings. Meanwhile, the National Right to Life Committee awarded her a perfect 100 percent in 1997, a more-than-respectable 85 in 2007-08, and a special “lifetime rating” of 94.
But here’s the twist: Hutchison has continued to say she’s pro-choice. And she’s made some nominal efforts to back up the claim. In October 2003, after voting to ban so-called “partial-birth” abortions, Hutchison turned around and voted for a non-binding (and thus ceremonial) resolution stating that Roe v. Wade “secures an important constitutional right” and should not be overturned. (In 1999, by contrast, she voted against an almost identical non-binding resolution supporting Roe v. Wade.) In June 2004, Hutchison reaffirmed her pro-choice stance, telling reporters at the Republican state convention, “My position is, I think there can be an ability for a woman, until viability, to make a choice.”
Since 2004, with visions of the governorship dancing in her head, Hutchison’s rhetoric on the issue has veered rightward and become more consistent with her voting record. During her first Senate campaign, Hutchison had accepted a $34,500 contribution from The WISH List, which supports pro-choice Republican women candidates. She even joined The WISH List’s advisory board. But in 2005, when she first considered challenging Gov. Rick Perry, the Star-Telegram reported that she had been mysteriously removed from The WISH List board and dropped from its roster of endorsed candidates.
In her current challenge to Perry, Hutchison’s campaign has emphasized her anti-abortion record. “Kay Bailey Hutchison has a … solid record working to protect the rights of the unborn and promoting a culture of life,” Hutchison spokeswoman Jennifer Baker told Jay Root of the Associated Press in October. “There is not a single piece of pro-life legislation that has been passed by the Texas Legislature that she would not have signed.”
Who knows what lies at the root of Hutchison’s drift into the anti-abortion camp? Maybe, back in those Arcadian late-’80s days, when she was first launching herself into statewide politics, Hutchison foresaw a political future for pro-choice Republicans in Texas. Maybe she really thought, in the pearly light of Brennan’s, that all she’d have to do was hitch her wagon to Ann Richards’ star and her political path would be golden. Then, realizing her mistake during the right-wing backlash of the early ’90s, she began tailoring her politics to suit the zeitgeist.
For her sake, I hope so. It’s somehow less pitiful to believe that Hutchison’s an unprincipled will-o’-the-wisp attempting to cover all sides of a hot-button issue than to think she has compromised a belief system for ambition’s sake. Either way, the outcome has been pitiful enough. I mean, think how heartbreaking it would be to start off imagining yourself as Ann Richards’ junior partner, only to end up playing Margaret Dumont to Rick Perry’s Groucho. Lord, what a grim trajectory.
Oh, dear. I find that I’m back where I started, feeling sorry for poor ole Kay, when I’m sure she doesn’t deserve it. Regardless, her stance on abortion now seems self-explanatory. Kay Bailey Hutchison is solidly in favor of reproductive freedom, except when she’s called on to support it. She’s reliably pro-life in everything but name. She’s adamantly opposed to federal funding of a procedure she considers a fundamental right. And she’s busily “promoting a culture of life.”
It’s what you call “broad-minded,” people. And they say Texas politics is confusing!
East Texas native Robert Leleux, author of The Memoirs of a Beautiful Boy, lives and writes in New York City, where he is working on an oral history of Sissy Farenthold. His column will run in this space in every other Observer issue. Ruth Pennebaker’s column debuts in the next issue.