POLITICS
04/20/2017 01:41 pm ET Updated Apr 21, 2017

Omaha Mayoral Candidate Under Fire For Anti-Choice Past Vows To Protect Reproductive Rights

“While my faith guides my personal views, as mayor I would never do anything to restrict access to reproductive health care."
Heath Mello/Facebook

The Democratic candidate for mayor of Omaha, Nebraska, told The Huffington Post on Thursday that if elected, he would never do anything to restrict access to reproductive health care.”

The statement comes as Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and the Democratic National Committee are under fire for embracing Heath Mello, who is trying to unseat the Republican mayor of Omaha and has previously pushed through anti-choice legislation.

Mello co-sponsored a bill in 2009 requiring women to be informed that they could see an ultrasound before having an abortion, a move that national groups appeared to be unaware of until just now. Rewire reports further:

Mello is a sponsor of the final version of a 20-week abortion ban approved by the governor in 2010, and cast anti-choice votes in favor of requiring physicians to be physically present for an abortion in order to impede access to telemedicine abortion care, and a law banning insurance plans in the state from covering abortions. He was endorsed in 2010 by anti-choice group Nebraska Right to Life.

The primary has already passed, so there is no longer the opportunity to back a competing Democrat.

Daily Kos, a liberal website that has led fundraising efforts for lesser-known Democrats buoyed by the backlash to President Donald Trump, endorsed the former Democratic state senator last week. Thousands of dollars quickly poured into his campaign coffers as progressive activists homed in on the May 9 election as the latest opportunity to poke Trump in the eye.

But the publication pulled its endorsement just a week later, after learning about Mello’s opposition to abortion rights.

“We were particularly surprised to learn [Mello is anti-abortion rights] because Mello had earned a 100 percent approval rating from Planned Parenthood of Nebraska in 2015,” Daily Kos political director David Nir wrote in a post explaining the decision. “However, as soon as we learned this information, we withdrew our endorsement, because this legislation clearly runs contrary to Daily Kos’ deepest values, including our support for women’s reproductive rights and our staunch opposition to laws that in any way impede women’s access to reproductive health care.” 

The actions today by the DNC to embrace and support a candidate for office who will strip women — one of the most critical constituencies for the party — of our basic rights and freedom is not only disappointing, it is politically stupid. NARAL Pro-Choice America President Ilyse Hogue

NARAL Pro-Choice America President Ilyse Hogue went after Mello on Wednesday, before the Kos decision, and slammed the DNC for adding him to its cross-country “Come Together, Fight Back” voter engagement tour.

“The actions today by the DNC to embrace and support a candidate for office who will strip women — one of the most critical constituencies for the party — of our basic rights and freedom is not only disappointing, it is politically stupid,” Hogue said in a statement.

Prior to Daily Kos’ announcement, Mello’s campaign pointed to his support for Planned Parenthood, Medicaid and the Affordable Care Act when asked about his message for pro-choice progressive voters in the city. And he does not pretend to be a dyed-in-the-wool leftist, noting that he enjoys the backing of both Sanders and centrists like former Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), for whom Mello once worked.

“In his most recent term in the legislature, Heath Mello voted 100% with Planned Parenthood Voters of Nebraska,” Mello campaign manager Paige Hutchinson said in a statement. “Heath also supported fighting sex trafficking, reproductive health care for sexual assault survivors, expanding funding for family planning services, expanding Medicaid for low-income working adults, and providing universal prenatal care for all women. He has fought against the repeal of the Affordable Care Act and fought against defunding Planned Parenthood.”

PPVN, the political arm of the family-planning organization, pushed back on the claim that it gave Heath Mello a 100 percent rating. The group’s scorecard from 2011 shows Mello “voting against Planned Parenthood’s position on three votes ― all abortion related.” 

“Planned Parenthood Voters of Nebraska has never endorsed Heath Mello for public office nor has Planned Parenthood Voters of Nebraska given Heath Mello a 100% rating, as some media outlets have erroneously reported,” the group said in a statement.

“Heath Mello has introduced and supported anti-choice legislation during his time at the Nebraska Unicameral, and Planned Parenthood Voters of Nebraska strongly opposed him when he took such actions,” the statement continues. “Over the course of Heath Mello’s campaign for Omaha Mayor he has said loud and clear he supports Planned Parenthood and wants to protect the work we do. Although he has not started that conversation with us, our door is always open and we welcome the opportunity to start a productive dialogue on how Heath Mello can help us promote and protect access to women’s health care in Nebraska.” 

Mello confirmed in his statement that he is personally opposed to abortion rights in general. “While my faith guides my personal views, as Mayor I would never do anything to restrict access to reproductive health care,” he said in a statement.

It’s unclear if that distinction will help him regain the support of groups that have moved against him. It aligns with the position of some Democrats like Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), who have expressed personal opposition to abortion rights but have promised not to legislate based on those views. Mello, however, has already legislated based on those views and is now pledging not to do so again. 

Mello is challenging the Republican incumbent Jean Stothert, who received just two percentage points more than him in an April 4 nonpartisan jungle primary. Stothert opposes abortion rights.

That close race drew the attention of national progressives, not least because Hillary Clinton defeated Trump in Omaha, 51 to 43 percent.

Yet Mello’s turn of fortunes with grassroots liberals may ultimately have little impact on his electoral chances next month. One the one hand, he apparently hopes to channel the energy of Democrats and other voters upset by Trump’s policies, emphasizing his support for the Affordable Care Act and being welcoming to refugees and other immigrants.

At the same time, he is mostly campaigning on bread-and-butter municipal issues like filling potholes, improving housing affordability, making Omaha more walkable and attracting development to the city. 

The biggest threat to women’s reproductive rights is the relentless Republican attacks on women’s health care, including legal, accessible abortion services. DNC Chair Tom Perez

What’s more, the national Democratic Party continues to embrace Mello. Sanders and Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), deputy chair of the DNC, are due to speak at a rally for Mello and other Nebraska Democratic candidates on Thursday evening.

Nebraska Democratic Party Chair Jane Kleeb, who sits on the board of Our Revolution and backed Sanders during the primary, told the Wall Street Journal on Wednesday that Mello’s abortion views were not disqualifying.

“Voters know he’s pro-life but we have a lot of pro-life Democrats in our state,” Kleeb said. “It’s not the single issue people vote on anymore.”

DNC Chair Tom Perez also defended the party’s support for Mello in a statement Thursday.

“Our job at the DNC is to help Democrats who have garnered support from voters in their community cross the finish line and win ― from school board to Senate,” Perez said. “The biggest threat to women’s reproductive rights is the relentless Republican attacks on women’s health care, including legal, accessible abortion services. And I won’t let anyone get in the way of our fight to protect a woman’s right to choose.”

This article has been updated with comment from Planned Parenthood Voters of Nebraska.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this story stated the Omaha mayoral election would be May 5. In fact, it is May 9.

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