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EMILY’s List at 20: Many Happy Returns

They were all there Monday — dozens of powerful Democratic women, together on one stage.

As much as it was a celebration, it also was a flexing of muscle.

EMILY’s List, the organization dedicated to electing Democratic, pro-abortion-rights women to federal, state and local offices, held its 20th anniversary gala in a huge ballroom at the Washington Hilton. Many of the women the organization has helped elect — a roster that includes 61 House Members, 11 Senators and eight governors — were on that stage, in front of many of the leading male Democratic officeholders, thinkers, operatives and money people.

Not that there was any doubt that EMILY’s List has been a major player in Democratic politics — indeed, in American politics — for years. The group is now one of the financial pillars of the Democratic Party, along with organized labor, trial lawyers and the George Soroses of the world. It operates the largest political action committee in the country and boasts 100,000 donors.

“It’s one of the questions you’re asked when you’re dialing for dollars: Is EMILY’s List behind you?” said Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), in one of the videotaped tributes played at the luncheon Monday.

Ever since someone coined the phrase “Gender Gap” early on in Ronald Reagan’s presidency — a political scientist? a pollster? a savvy Democratic woman? — the Democrats had been looking for ways to harness their edge with female voters into real political might. EMILY’s List helped lead the way, adding financial muscle to the raw numerical advantage.

Whether the sharp increase in the number of women holding political office in the past two decades would have happened as swiftly, or as neatly, without EMILY’s List is debatable. The leaders of EMILY’s List are happy to take credit, though, and on Monday, at least, most of the Democratic elite were willing to give it.

“The EMILY’s List staff gets up each and every day to solve whatever problem the campaign may have,” said Rep. Gwen Moore (D-Wis.), who credited the group with her own Democratic primary victory over a wealthy, male opponent last year.

In the 2004 election cycle alone, EMILY’s List doled out $10.7 million directly to candidates and spent another $33 million on an array of ancillary political programs. Perhaps the most intriguing of its efforts is the Political Opportunity Program, which helps elect women to lower offices and, in essence, builds a farm team for future Congressional races.

“EMILY’s List now has a mom and a POP,” quipped Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), whose own rise parallels that of EMILY’s List. In 1986, after holding seats in the Baltimore City Council and the U.S. House, Mikulski became the first Democratic woman elected to the Senate in her own right.

EMILY’s List has become such a player that it’s hard to believe it started a generation ago in Ellen Malcolm’s basement, at a gathering of 25 friends. Malcolm, EMILY’s List’s founding mother — the mom Mikulski was referring to — was a veteran of the National Women’s Political Caucus and Common Cause. She recalled “the salad-filled rooms” of the organization’s early meetings. (“EMILY,” of course, is not a person but an abbreviation for Early Money is Like Yeast — an explanation that journalists no longer feel compelled to mention.)

As if to buttress the point about women now understanding the importance of money in politics, perhaps 90 percent of the sponsors and benefactors who helped pay for Monday’s anniversary luncheon were women.

EMILY’s List has even spawned an imitator on the GOP side — the WISH List, a group dedicated to electing Republican women who support abortion rights. (For those keeping track, “WISH” stands for Women in the Senate and the House.)

“When the WISH List was formed in 1992, we patterned ourselves after EMILY’s List,” said WISH List President Pat Carpenter. “We have a great deal of admiration for them and their success. We all need to do better when it comes to electing more women.”

But despite its influence today, EMILY’s List isn’t always in sync with the Democratic establishment — and at times provides party leaders with no shortage of tsuris.

Just this year, EMILY’s List tried desperately to rally Democrats behind former Pennsylvania state Treasurer Barbara Hafer (D) in the upcoming Keystone State Senate race, even as Democratic leaders in Pennsylvania and Washington, D.C., clearly preferred the current treasurer, Bob Casey Jr. (D), the son of a popular former governor — and an opponent of abortion rights. Hafer, after just a few days in the contest, withdrew in favor of Casey; the leaders of EMILY’s List, at that point, could only grin and bear it.

It isn’t the first time EMILY’s List’s absolutism on abortion has provided awkward moments. In a 48-page media guide it published in conjunction with its anniversary, the organization includes Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.) as one of the women it helped elect, first to the House, then to the Senate. Yet, EMILY’s List pointedly did not endorse Lincoln for re-election in 2004, even though she was thought to be vulnerable early in the cycle, because she had voted for legislation banning late-term abortions, which some call “partial-birth” abortions.

If Lincoln was one of the 1,000 or so people at EMILY’s List’s gala on Monday, Roll Call did not see her.

EMILY’s List may not have a perfect track record, and it doesn’t always pick winners. But then, who does?

Still, Malcolm made it only too clear that EMILY’s List wants Democratic bosses to pay even closer attention to the organization’s priorities — and its tactics.

“It is our entrepreneurial spirit, I believe, that will back the Democrats back in power in this country,” she said.

It may be an offer the Democrats cannot refuse.

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