During the March primary election season, Windy City Times sat down with Terry Cosgrove, the openly gay man who has served as President & CEO of Personal PAC for more than 13 years. P-PAC is one of the most effective grassroots political organizations in the nation, having elected major pro-choice leaders, many of them who also became staunch supporters of gay-rights legislation.
As the Nov. 5 elections come quickly upon us, Windy City Times sat down with Cosgrove to dissect P-PAC's strategy to elect pro-choice candidates to county and state offices next month.
Windy City Times: Let's start with the March primary elections, and some of Personal PAC's success stories.
TC: First, Joan Patricia Murphy winning her Democratic primary in Cook County District 6; she is also endorsed by NOW and is also fine on gay rights. She beat an anti-choice, anti-gay ... person in the primary. That was a great election result. It's a fairly safe Democratic seat. Forest Claypool was a huge success in the Democratic primary (District 12). It was a wonderful victory beating [incumbent] Teddy Lechowitz, who had such a horrible record on choice both in the Illinois General Assembly and as a County Commissioner. Everyone told me Claypool didn't have a chance. No one said we could beat Cal Skinner or Penny Pullen either [but we did]. Personal PAC spent a lot of money and it was a grassroots campaign. We did what we do best and we identified every single pro-choice voter in Claypool's district. We sent several pieces of targeted direct mail to get out the vote. On Friday night, before the election, I sent out 1,400 personal letters of my own begging people to support Forest.
WCT: That was the weirdest campaign because they told us Lechowitz was the campaign manager and he was running it out of his house.
TC: Forest won by a few hundred votes--it was close and we spent well over $10,000. It might have been $15,000 or $20,000 on our calls and mail. I think we spent more than anyone in the race. People like Irving Harris contributed significantly. Forest has a shining future on the County board. He's pro-choice. For us the issue is abortions being performed at Cook County Hospital. With the new hospital, that is the No. 1 priority in the state and in the county-expanding abortion services to meet the need of poor, young and rural women. It is the group that has been tragically denied by the so-called restrictions. We need to right those wrongs.
WCT: That's why Joan Murphy was backed. What other races are you working on for Cook County?
TC: Totally. Those were the two big races, but we had others. We had 12 out of 17 commissioners that are solidly with us and it could be as high as 13 or 14. Many people want the County to meet the the reproductive needs of poor women. But we also recognize that Cook County Hospital really is treated like an emergency clinic. People come through there with no healthcare. It's an emergency room. We respect that it is a critical healthcare facility and also know that they have an obligation to provide poor women with medical care they need, and reproductive healthcare.
Spend a day at Family Planning Associates and you see women walk in with color TVs and their food stamps desperate for help. It's so horrible. ... People have no idea what the two-tier healthcare system is about when it comes to reproductive healthcare. I became aware of this in the 1980s when I was working in Champaign-Urbana when the Hyde Amendment kicked into effect. I was working at the Tenant Union. I was the volunteer administrator for the Emergency Abortion Loan Fund, which was a fund we set up to make loans to poor women. We raised money and we gave it away. I noticed that some of the same poor women who were being evicted for not paying all their rent were also the same women begging for loans, desperate to get an abortion. One woman with two kids was 42 years old with high blood pressure and diabetes. Her doctor told her her chances of having a stroke or dying from the pregnancy were very high. She was so frightened of leaving her two children motherless and homeless. And solely because it is easy to use poor women as political footballs by those who want to make all abortions illegal, Illinois will not pay for poor women's abortions. The situation with the women scared of leaving her two children motherless happened frequently.
People don't realize that so many women slip into prostitution and drugs. Being terrified by being forced to carry a pregnancy against their will and better judgement destroys many women's lives.
Back to Cook County hospital, in the 13 years I have been at Personal PAC, it is probably the most important thing I have ever done. We must do the same thing on the state level with restoring Medicaid funding. We have a particular responsiblity in Illinois because we harbor [U.S. Rep.] Henry Hyde, author of the legislation that has caused countless women so much misery.
The hottest race this November is Democrat Brian McPartlin against Republican incumbent Carl Hansen. Brian is spending the money, doing it right. The district is new. The suburbs are changing. It's looking like a good year for Democrats. Carl is in his 70s. Brian is pro-choice. I think he has been endorsed by NOW. Hansen is out of step when it comes to suburban Republican women.
... I don't think Carl has ever been a supporter of gay rights. Carl is a pretty right-wing Republican. ...
WCT: Joan Murphy won in 6th ...
TC: This is her second time out and we were the only ones that backed her last time. She called me and said, "Terry, the three groups I value most backed me this time--NOW, the Sierra Club and Personal PAC." And she pulled it out. It was really amazing. She's a very hard worker. I am sure she is going to be great on the board.
WCT: How about Elizabeth Gorman for 17th?
TC: She's a right winger.
WCT: Any County-wide races we should watch?
TC: Cook County Board President John Stroger ... he's pro-choice, he's fine. Treasurer Maria Pappas is pro-choice.
WCT: Let's talk statewide candidates.
TC: For governor, Rod Blagojevich is our candidate. He is 100% pro-choice. Jim Ryan must be defeated. This is the highest priority for us. We are doing tons of work--mail, phones, e-mail. What people need to understand ... if Bush gets another Supreme Court appointment [Roe v. Wade is gone]. When Roe is overturned--I don't even say if I say WHEN--it goes back to 50 states, and there isn't a state in the midwest other than Illinois that has a prayer to keep abortion legal. The General Assemblies in every state around us are horrible. Missouri's horrible. Iowa's horrible. Wisconsin used to be progressive but is horrible. Indiana, of course, is horrible. Every state that touches Illinois. Just to illustrate: we are the only state in the midwest that doesn't have 24-hour waiting periods, we don't have misinformed consent, which requires a doctor to read state-mandated political propaganda to women as so-called medical information. It is horrible out there. We are not even the best. We don't provide funding for poor women. ... We have a law on the books that says when Roe is overturned, Illinois reverts back to its policy prior to Jan. 22, 1973.
Jim Ryan is against abortion even in cases of rape and incest.
WCT: What is the relationship between someone that is pro-choice and someone who is pro-gay? Can you be anti-choice and
TC: There have been a few people. I wanted to stand up and say to the gay community, nearly all the people that Personal PAC has elected have ended up being pro-gay rights. But Personal PAC's only agenda is reproductive rights. Let's take a look at the facts. Rosemary Mulligan. Mark Beaubien, who was our candidate for Al Salvi's seat in the most conservative district in the state.
Beaubien goes on to be a sponsor of the gay-rights bill, 100% pro-choice. [Our candidate] Rosemary Kutz, who beat right-winger Cal Skinner in the Republican primary, goes to Springfield and casts the 60th vote [for gay rights]. We lost six years ago to Cal Skinner. We came back and trounced him. ... I would say the momentum has definitely shifted. I think the gay-rights agenda has made so much more headway. Twenty years ago I said the fight for gay rights will be won long before the issue of legal abortion is settled. like it is in nearly all other Western democracies. People thought I was crazy when I said that, and I believe it is still true.
I have been involved with trying to pass gay-rights legislation since 1974. At that time we had maybe 18 votes in the Illinois House.
That was when we had three-member districts and there were 177 House members. The only legislator we had outside the
Chicago area that voted for gay rights was Helen Satherthwaite from Urbana. I was the first person to ever approach her about it.
Bill Kelly and John Chester told me to go lobby her. I walk in to her office with a few other people and we introduce ourselves. I had all this testimony--articles, reports, the usual. We were in suits and ties. And Helen says to us, "I sponsored that bill yesterday I believe." We were not prepared for this answer. She asked what else she could do for us. ... I went on to be her campaign manager in a very tough election after that. And her opponent in 1982 made a big public deal about her supporting gay rights and me being a gay man. It was pretty intense, but we won with about 60% of the vote in a race we were supposed to lose. In 1994, when the Republicans took over, Rosemary Mulligan (who was elected with Personal PAC backing) became spokesperson of the House Human Services Appropriations Committee. She was the critical vote that doubled the AIDS budget in the state. And that was just a footnote to having a moderate Republican who would listen. She called me and said there's a vote to double the AIDS budget--I really feel I should do this. And it was done, of course, with a lot of hard work from [AIDS Foundation of Chicago].
WCT: So the work of Personal PAC has ramifications for the gay-rights bill?
TC: If you go down the roll call, I guess there are 14, 15, 16 Republicans who voted for it. Oddly enough, it was mostly
pro-choice Republican women. There are just not those 15, 16 votes on the Democratic side to make up for it. This is the
argument I always make with partisan people. I can look at the make up of the Illinois House and Senate and there aren't
pro-choice Democratic votes in the House and there are not 30 Democratic votes in Senate. There are not that many Republican votes either. Let's do the math here. If you don't have the votes on one side of the aisle, where are we going to get them? We've got to get them from both sides of the aisle then. No important issue in this country is ever settled--women getting the right to vote, civil rights, you name it--unless it has wide bipartisan support. That is our challenge and that is our goal.
WCT: What about Blagojevich? Were there times that you worked with him?
TC: I have been so impressed with Rod from the get go. His very first term in Springfield as a state rep ... we were desperately trying to defeat a parental notice bill and needed help on lobbying legislators. We knew we were down to one or two votes. I get this call from Rod and he says, "Terry, I understand you have a target list of people. Would you fax it down to me?" And I did. And he said, "And mark on the list who the people are that need to be talked to." I am in Springfield the next day and there is a tap on the window and it is Rod. I had never met the man. He has the list and he said, "I talked to this person and this person and this person ... this is what you need to do here." He had the whole thing laid out and then asked what else did I need him to do. I have to tell you, in the twenty-something years I have done this work, rarely have we gotten that kind of help. He never asked to be thanked and he never expected anything in return. And he did it because he knew it was the right thing to do. I will always respect him for that.
WCT: For a lot of people, he comes off as this career politician. They claim he does things for the vote.
TC: I have never seen a single indication of that. [Personal PAC has] a very strenuous interview process for all statewide candidates. We have 18 people in the room and they grill the candidates. It's lawyers and it's our entire board. I don't think you would have found a single person in that interview process that said he did not come through in flying colors. There's people who get it and there are people who don't. My sense with Rod is that he totally gets it. He understands the ramification of the issue, every nuance of it. He has a 100 percent voting record. There are certain people in Springfield that you don't have to lobby because you know they are with you. He's been one of those people. We can count on him for help.
WCT: What role do you think Personal PAC is going to play in the November elections?
TC: A very big one. We are going to focus on suburban women who vote in off-year elections and who are pro-choice. We are going to spend tons of money and activate the largest grassroots effort in the state on his behalf. We have the opportunity here to take the greatest step forward on behalf of abortion rights on Nov. 5. We plan on taking full opportunity of that.
WCT: Other state candidates ...
TC: Attorney General: Joe Birkett is 100% anti-choice and, like Ryan, Birkett opposes abortion even cases of rape and incest. Lisa Madigan is 100% pro-choice.
WCT: What about Democrat Tom Dart's campaign for State Treasurer against incumbent Republican Judy Baar Topinka? He
really only picked up his visibility in the gay community very recently.
TC: He didn't have any primary opposition, and Rod did. The rule of thumb is that if you don't have primary opposition you save your money and resources until the general election. I don't know what's going on in his campaign. Hopefully, he will do something about Topinka's horrible record on choice, gay and lesbian issues.
WCT: She is totally at ease in saying she is pro-choice and pro-gay now. [Topinka has an anti-choice voting record as state senator, while state Rep. Dart is 100% pro-choice. Topinka, since becoming Treasurer, has made outreach to the gay community, attending events and helping to secure loans for the gay community Center on Halsted.]
TC: I see nothing in writing from her [she has not responded to Personal PAC's questionnaire]. We really care about this race for two reasons. Tom is part of the future of the Democratic Party in the State. Judy is part of the future of the Republican Party. We do not need another person in the position of running for governor, which she will be the presumptive nominee in four years, who is anti-choice. She and [U.S. Sen.] Fitzgerald will be the two remaining statewide elected Republicans if she wins this race. We need moderate Republicans stepping forward which I think we will see more of after Nov. 5.
WCT: Did you ever see a case where someone who is anti-choice ever really truly changed?
TC: Oh yes. We have bent over backwards to get her to answer our candidate questionnaire and it would be perfect because this would be her opportunity to say "My record was that in the '80s and '90s and now this is who Judy Baar Topinka is." We have not gotten the questionnaire back. The only thing we have left to go on is her record. I have gotten perfect questionnaires this year from people who have not voted perfectly in the past. And now I am confident they will because they have seen the light. We have worked very hard to educate people and will always take the time to explain why legal abortion is sound public policy, in addition to preventing the horrible health consequences of illegal abortion. Many people are surprised to find out that 43% of all adult women in the U.S. will have at least one abortion by age 45. This is not a "single issue," this is a big deal for millions of people.
Bottom line, it is a health issue and when people see that, it's clearer why being pro-choice makes so much sense.
WCT: Kris Cohn is just a blip on the screen running against incumbent Democrat Jesse White?
TC: Jesse is going to win. Cohn truly doesn't get it. She has called me in the last few days to tell me how disappointed she is that we didn't endorse her. She said she was pro-choice. I said "Kris, look at your questionnaire. You checked 'No' to every question."
WCT: State Senate? State House?
TC: Susan Garrett against Kathy Parker on the North Shore [29th Senate District] is very important. Garrett is 100% pro-choice and Kathy Parker is not. The other really important race is Dan McCullum in Champaign [52nd Senate District]. Dan is the former mayor of Champaign. He is 100% pro-choice running against Republican Rick Winkel, who is an anti-choice and anti-gay representative who is running for Senate under the new map. We have done a lot of grassroots work in Champaign-Urbana. A lot of voter registration with a full-time coordinator hired by Personal PAC in August. This could decide the pro-choice/anti-choice make-up of the Senate, not to mention getting rid of [Republican leader Pate] anti-abortion Phillip. It is also a four-year term.
In the House, in Champaign [103rd District], Naomi Jakobsson--she is very involved with gay rights at her church; she is running against Tom Berns, anti-choice, anti-gay. This would be a great pick up for us. House District 57 is a really important one. Elaine Nekritz vs. Mary Childers--who Penny Pullen [is backing], trying to make a beach head or a comeback in Des Plaines. Defeating Childers is critical as the last thing we need is giving Penny Pullen another foot in the door. If Elaine wins, she and I are going to ride our bikes to Springfield to raise money for choice, maybe the environment. Pro-choice Kathy Ryg's race in the 59th, a new district in Vernon Hills. I don't know much about her opponent because he won't return our questionnaire. Rosemary Mulligan and Beth Coulson are two Republican incumbents we want to see returned, even though both of their opponents are 100% pro-choice. Both of them are extraordinary supporters of not only choice but gay rights. The Antioch race is important because Bob Churchill [62nd District] is trying to make a comeback and is a total right winger. It's a long shot, but Judy Armstrong is 100% pro-choice.
WCT: What is the impact on gay rights?
TC: I took a long view of this. We were all asked to support [anti-gay Democratic candidate for governor] Glenn Poshard four years ago. The defeat of Glenn Poshard was one of the best things that ever happened. It sent a clear message to the Democratic Party: Don't give us these right-wing nuts, they won't fly. Then we get George Ryan for governor, and he ends up vetoing an anti-abortion bill and supporting [gay rights] more strongly than many statewide elected officials. Again, I always tell people, there is not a single issue that has mattered that hasn't had broad bipartisan support to win. Until the issue of choice has strong roots in the Democratic and Republican Party, it will not succeed. Finally, after 13 years heading Personal PAC, after all this hard work, we hope to make some incredible strides in this election. The momentum is in the right direction. We are moving the boulder up the mountain.
Personal PAC's Awards Luncheon is Wed., Oct. 23, noon. Jane Fonda receives Personal PAC's Lifetime Achievement Award.
Call (312) 422-0005.