Kathy Dahlkemper is not a professional politician. She spent the last dozen years working with her husband running their Erie, PA landscaping business. She raised their five children (now adults). She and her husband led Catholic-based marriage enrichment seminars. Her only political experience before running for Congress in 2008 was spearheading the Erie Arboretum. Imagine your first senior-level office job was at 50 years old, and it was as a Member of Congress. Then imagine in your first term in Congress, you lose both your parents to cancer within weeks of each other. And you become a grandmother for the first time.
Oh, and you become a central figure in both the health care reform debate and the Republican effort to take back the House. And one of the first Democrats reported to be thrown overboard.
Kathy Dahlkemper (PA-3) has a target on her back. And by target, I mean nearly $2 million has been spent by her opponent, the NRCC and outside sources with undisclosed contributors. One group targeting Dahlkemper even says politicians should be "thanking China" for our prosperity, yet Dahlkemper's been accused of everything from supporting Pelosi over seniors, to "selling out," to even being soft on cancer. And while both the DCCC and AFSCME are still invested, the perception is Dahlkemper has been cut loose. (And perception is reality.)
Most of the charges in the ads are untrue, of course. Kathy has been fighting against Chinese currency manipulation. She opposed the bailout. She voted against her party on cap and trade. She broke with her party on guns.
But no hit stings more than those accusing her of supporting federal funding for abortion. Dahlkemper is personally, truly, pro-life. She grew up in a large Catholic household. And as a young woman she found herself unmarried and pregnant. Instead of having an abortion, she married. But as her marriage turned abusive, she left her first husband, went on food stamps, went back to college, started a career as a dietician, and supported her son on her own. When she met Dan Dahlkemper, he adopted Aron, and they had four more children. When you see them together, now nearly thirty years later, it's no wonder they lead marriage enrichment seminars. We should all be so lucky. (Dan, by the way, is the first male president of the Congressional Spouses Club.)
I know this because, in full disclosure, I'm her pollster and campaign consultant, and have been since her 2008 primary campaign. In further disclosure, I'm pro-choice personally, donate to pro-choice causes, but I have also worked with pro-life candidates. Back in 2008, I would want to test questions about her pro-life position. Kathy would resist. "I'm not running for Congress to talk about abortion. That's just part of my life. I'm running because I'm upset with the direction of the country."
Unfortunately, whether she liked it or not, in this election, abortion emerged as a main theme. In the health care reform bill, Dahlkemper contributed one of the major new reforms--making it easier to keep younger adults on their parents' insurance. As the only dietician in Congress, she also fought for better coverage of obesity and wellness treatment. But as the national health care debate also became focused on abortion, Dahlkemper took center stage. In the end, feeling confident no federal funds would be used for abortion, she voted for reform.
Pro-choice Democratic women candidates in tough races this year have the backup of EMILY's List. (Disclosure: I've donated to EMILY's List, they have repeatedly been a client, and I count many staff and alumnae as friends.) Yet many pro-life groups preferred to play politics than strongly stand up for a pro-life Democratic woman. The Susan B. Anthony List, supposedly focused on pro-life women, has been endorsing male candidates, while attacking Dahlkemper on television. Americans United for Life has also run an attack ad, apparently uninterested in uniting with any Democrats.
And there is no strong group supporting pro-life Democratic women. The most recent press release on the Democrats for Life website is from July, and only men serve on the Advisory Board. On the left, some bloggers have attacked Dahlkemper as an "anti-choice fanatic," or, more charitably, an "anti-abortion conservative." Never mind that her district is disproportionately pro-life and Catholic, or that Dahlkemper is more to the left on labor and LGBT issues.
No longer resisting the subject, Dahlkemper has fought back by telling her personal story about abortion direct to camera. The ad is unique. Yet hardly any DC political outlet covered it. Both Dahlkemper's detractors, and the press, have greatly oversimplified her.
At least the district is paying attention. The Erie Times-News endorsed Dahlkemper, calling her "overwhelmingly superior," than her opponent, who "didn't offer any ideas" and has been described elsewhere as "more comfortable reminiscing about football championships than discussing economic policy."
Dahlkemper is not an abortion crusader, or partisan rubber-stamp. She is what she says she is: a moderate, a mother, a grandmother, and small businesswoman. Someone who lived by her Catholic faith, when it was difficult, not just when it was easy. Never fully accepted by her party, but who has been fighting for her party valiantly. She is part of our big tent, and we should fight in kind on her behalf. Pro-life groups have done themselves a disservice by attacking someone who personally embodies their positions. Maybe there isn't always room in DC politics as usual for someone like Kathy Dahlkemper, but that's what makes her such a good fit for her district.
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