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Jeffrey Campagna Headshot

For Komen To Survive, Brinker Family Must Give Up Control

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The son of a breast cancer survivor, I appreciate the work of Susan G. Komen for the Cure, whose volunteers have raised $2 billion to fight the disease. This has been possible because of the public's trust that Komen puts women's health above politics. When the board voted to defund Planned Parenthood based on a partisan Congressional investigation, and when CEO Nancy Brinker subsequently defended the decision with specious rationalizations, they destroyed that trust, revealing failures of corporate governance that make it impossible for Komen to survive with the current leadership. That's why I started a petition at Change.org calling for Brinker and the entire board to resign.

Over the last two weeks, attention focused on Sr. VP of Policy Karen Handel's leading role in defunding Planned Parenthood. Her resignation was a victory. But Handel was only a symptom. The real problem at Komen is the board and CEO that hired her in the first place. The public expects Komen's leadership to fight for women's health without discrimination or partisanship. But only a board dominated by conservative Republicans willing to put their politics before the organization's mission with utter impunity could have hired a woman like Handel.

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By now it's well known that Handel ran for governor of Georgia on a platform that included defunding Planned Parenthood. Less reported but equally appalling, the board hired Handel knowing she strongly advocated denying domestic partner benefits, including health insurance benefits, to same-sex couples. One might argue LGBT issues have nothing to do with breast cancer. But only a board without respect for the health of uninsured lesbians could have overlooked Handel's views on this matter. Someone who would campaign for office promising to deny any woman access to healthcare has no business being considered for a policy position at a women's health charity. But more importantly, a board that would hire such a person has no business running Komen.

Moreover, as Brinker told Andrea Mitchell, the decision to defund Planned Parenthood was not Handel's; it was the board's. Handel may have exaggerated pressure from pro-life groups to convince the board that the Planned Parenthood relationship was a fatal liability. She may have concocted the story that the cut-off was a matter of new grant-making criteria unrelated to a political agenda. But a board that hired someone with Handel's opinions would only take her recommendations at face value if it hired her to advance its own agenda. In fact, The Atlantic quotes one source inside Komen who said, "The rule was created to give the board of directors the excuse to stop the funding of Planned Parenthood... If they hadn't come up with this particular rule, they would have come up with something else in order to separate themselves from Planned Parenthood."

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The board would have you believe they are non-partisan group that was duped. Board member John D. Rafelli, a lobbyist described as a Democrat (whose donations in some years have gone 25 percent to Republicans), assumed blame for Handel's plan saying that as the only lobbyist on the board, he should have anticipated the political fallout. Rafaelli's statement reads as a transparent effort to give fellow board members the cover of political naïveté and to buffer the anger of the left by saying it is a Democrat who is to blame for the crisis of trust. It doesn't pass the smell test.

Far from being politically naïve, the nine-member Komen board is dominated by major Republican fundraisers who have raised hundreds of thousands dollars for pro-life, anti-gay candidates. Nancy Brinker, Ambassador to Hungary under President Bush, and her son Eric, also a board member, are major Republican donors. Linda Law is a Regent of the Republican National Committee, having raised over $250,000. Linda Custard is a Dallas socialite who, with Laura Bush, is a trustee of Southern Methodist University (future home of the George W. Bush Presidential Library). Connie O'Neill, an SMU graduate, sits on the school finance committee in Highland Park, Texas, which Mother Jones named "the most enthusiastically conservative zip code in the country." While the partisan leanings of the other four board members are unknown, their silence makes them as guilty of bending to partisanship.

Moreover, Brinker has been relying on right-wing strategists to guide Komen for months, if not years. Think Progress reports that last fall she hired former Bush Press Secretary Ari Fleischer, a vocal Planned Parenthood critic, to advise the organization on its search for a new communications team and that he grilled candidates on how they would deal with the Planned Parenthood issue.

None of this is to say that Republicans can't lead organizations in a fair and non-partisan way. It's just clear that these particular Republicans haven't and that they can't be trusted to do so in the future.

Some people argue Komen is a private charity that has the right to make grants and define policies as it sees fit. Such people, in misstating what Komen is, pinpoint its main problem. Komen's leadership runs the organization as if it were a private family foundation subject to Brinker family governance in perpetuity. But Komen is not funded by Brinker's billions and does not belong to her family. It is a public charity, funded by volunteers, accountable to the public it purports to serve. If Brinker were not related to the organization's namesake, if the board were truly independent rather than a group of friends and family from Dallas and the Republican Party, she would have been forced out a week ago.

Susan G. Komen for the Cure has important work to do. The 120 affiliate chapters, the millions of men and women who have run in their races, and the people Komen serves deserve leadership they can trust to put politics aside and put healthcare first. They will not have it so long as Brinker and the current board remain in place. It is time for them all to resign and time for the public to demand it.

Please sign the petition at Change.org.

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