VOL. 132 | NO. 28 | Wednesday, February 8, 2017
Planned Parenthood Vote Draws On Political Divide
By Bill Dries
Shelby County Commissioner Steve Basar looked out at the audience in the commission’s chambers Monday, Feb. 6, and saw something the commission only sees once or twice a year – a standing room-only crowd with every seat taken and most there for a single issue.
“It’s very good to see,” Basar said as the commission prepared to vote on a $115,000 grant to Planned Parenthood Greater Memphis Region for a free condom distribution program.
“I didn’t run for county commission to make this decision today,” he said. “But I am going to make a vote. I’m not going to shirk my duty.”
Basar was one of the five “no” votes against the funding that was approved on a 7-5 party line vote.
The party-line vote is also a rarity in recent years on the 13-member body that has a seven-member Democratic majority. Since 2010, the commission has had either a Democratic member who frequently votes with Republicans or a Republican member who frequently votes with Democrats on critical matters – sometimes both.
But the crowd of several hundred in the chambers, most advocating for the grant funding, was mobilized against the backdrop of the country’s post-presidential election political divide.
Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton carried Shelby County by virtue of the city’s Democratic base. But the Republican base in the county outside the city was a factor in Republican nominee and President Donald Trump carrying Tennessee and taking the state’s 11 electoral votes.
Since Trump took office Jan. 19, younger Democratic activists locally have teamed with veterans organizers around specific issues and not political parties. There are also those new to politics since 2008’s election of Barack Obama in the mix that has put together a series of marches and protests – culminating in the several thousand people in the Memphis Women’s March the day after Trump’s inauguration. It was the largest protest march in the city in several decades.
Among those involved in Monday’s turnout at the commission was London Lamar, active in Young Democrats organizations and now leader of SisterReach, a coalition of groups focused on different causes outside the group.
The coalition is built around the issue of reproductive health.
“It focuses on not only your access to reproductive health such as contraception and abortion,” she said at the formation of the group in January. “But everything that is intersectional that impacts you being able to even make the decision to get the access to contraceptives.”
The coalition includes Black Lives Matter and those advocating for a $15 minimum wage.
“If they don’t have the funds, if they are over-policed, if they are living in crime ridden areas and if Planned Parenthood doesn’t have the resources they need to continue to service these communities impacted, then the whole reproductive rights conversation can’t really come into play,” Lamar said.
Basar described the grant decision as “probably the hardest vote” on his tenure on the commission with constituents in his district about evenly split. He termed is a “lose-lose” proposition.
The grant of federal money that comes to Shelby County through the state of Tennessee was one of four to different agencies for a total of $396,000. The other three grants were approved Monday with no debate and no opposing votes.
One part of the commission’s debate was whether the vote was about abortion.
“The business of Planned Parenthood is legalized murder,” said Don Ware, the first of several citizens to speak before the debate among commissioners and their vote.
“I respect everybody that came up and voiced their opinion and had an opportunity to do that,” Commissioner Eddie Jones said of the comments from Ware and others opponents of the grant in the audience. “In my mind, when you are making comments and you decide this is what I want to say to try to get my point across, it can be really offensive. I’m going to be like the former First Lady. When they go low, I’m going to go high.”
Most Republican commissioners expressing an opinion said there were reasons other than abortion for their opposition.
“I’m not for this outsourcing of government,” Commissioner David Reaves said. He favored having the Shelby County Health Department take on the condom distribution program in-house.
Attorneys for the state had told Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell that the county had to distribute the grants to Planned Parenthood and the other agencies because they had been selected through a request for proposal process.
If the commission didn’t approve the grants as is, state attorneys said the county would lose the grants and possibly other funding. And Planned Parenthood CEO Ashley Coffield said if the commission voted down the grant to her organization, their attorneys would file a lawsuit in Memphis Federal Court.
Commissioner Heidi Shafer quarreled with the legal opinions and said the idea that the commission had no choice “really makes this commission an unwilling rubber stamp for all actions already taken.”
“This body has a responsibility to review and approve all contracts in excess of $50,000,” she said. “That was not the case here.”
But Commissioner Van Turner, who is a volunteer member of the Planned Parenthood board, said abortion was the issue for most of those voting against the grant.
“This is an issue where some commissioners disagree with what Planned Parenthood does as far as abortions. Yet this money has nothing to do with abortion,” he said. “Let’s call it what it is: You don’t like the fact that Planned Parenthood performs abortions. So you don’t want any funding to come from this body to go to support Planned Parenthood. Yet you know this is a life and death situation.”
Luttrell called the issue “divisive” and said the county health department could have carried out the program.
“This is a very critical need we have in this community and I think that kind of overrides much of what we’ve heard today because we have got to do a better job,” he said of preventing the spread of the HIV virus. “I understand and appreciate the concerns about Planned Parenthood, but this is a situation where we have to look at the reality across this entire community.”