It's Demos vs. Demos on Abortion

Monday's 10-4 vote by the House Judiciary Committee to declare that life begins at conception--a victory for anti-abortion forces--comes as no real surprise. Two powerful legislators made sure it was preordained.

The November election resulted in a net increase in pro-choice legislators. Yet the anti-abortion forces continue to have a lock on the majority of votes in the committee. Committee Chairman Jim Skelly, a Republican, and House Minority Leader Art Hamilton, a Democrat, guarantee that tilt, and the seemingly curious pairing points out that the issue of abortion crosses ideological and partisan lines.

Hamilton, who represents much of south and southwest Phoenix, wasn't always an anti-abortion vote. First elected in 1972, during his first few years in the legislature he voted against efforts to restrict abortions. That changed about a decade ago. Hamilton says he always has opposed abortion on demand but, at least early on, followed what he believes are the wishes of his constituents. Now, he says, he must vote his conscience.

But Hamilton's role in the abortion issue is not limited to his votes on the House floor.

By virtue of their numbers, the Democrats in the House of Representatives last session were allowed to have 6 seats on each 15-member committee. Out of the 24 Democrats in the House, only 7 were considered strong anti-abortion votes. Yet Hamilton, who names the Democratic members of House panels, placed 4 of those 7 on the Judiciary Committee.

Hamilton says that is purely coincidental.
"I do not decide the members of any committee based on their stance on abortion," he says, insisting that, in many cases, he does not know their views on this issue.

This session, with more pro-choice lawmakers elected, Hamilton's selections for the Judiciary Committee were more representative of the pro-choice caucus. But not much. Phillip Hubbard of Tucson and Ben Hanley of Window Rock--the two pro-choice Democrats on the committee last session--will be back. Armando Ruiz, an anti-abortion vote, also is returning to the committee.

Of the three new Democratic members on the panel--all first-termers--only Eleanor Schorr of Tucson is a clear pro-choice vote. Ruben Ortega of Sierra Vista joined Schorr in voting against this bill, saying it was too restrictive. But Ortega says that, as a Catholic, he believes that life begins at conception and he might vote for other anti-abortion measures later in the session. Frank Celaya of Florence voted for the bill.

The situation among the Republicans is much the same, with a higher proportion of anti-abortion legislators on Skelly's Judiciary Committee than in the GOP caucus as a whole. Jim Skelly has always had a "soft veto" on which Republicans serve on his committee, says former House Speaker Joe Lane, and how a lawmaker votes on abortion figures "quite a lot" in how Skelly responds.

In 1986, for example, Mesa voters elected Republican Bill Mundell to the legislature. Mundell is a lawyer and had been a city magistrate, which would give him some insight into the issues that come before the committee that makes and reviews all changes in the state's criminal laws.

Mundell asked to serve on Skelly's committee. He was not chosen.
"I was told, basically, unless I was a sure vote on abortion that I wouldn't get on," Mundell recalls.

Skelly says he does not remember Mundell requesting to be assigned to his committee. Anyway, he says, he already had one attorney on the panel: John King, who, as it happened, was an anti-abortion vote. (As it turned out, when Skelly's anti-abortion bill came to the floor last session, Mundell's pro-choice rhetoric disappeared and he voted for the measure.)

George Weisz, also newly elected in 1986, asked to serve on Skelly's panel. He says his background as a criminal investigator for the state Attorney General's Office made such an assignment logical.

The Phoenix Republican, who quit after one term, says he wasn't asked before the assignments were made how he would vote on abortion. But he was later told that, based on concerns that he would not be an anti-abortion vote, he was not selected for the committee.

Skelly says the issue of how someone votes on abortion is only one factor in his choice for the committee. He also wants to know how they feel about some of his other pet issues, like victims' rights and mandatory sentencing of criminals.

He says that it really doesn't matter whether he can get an anti-abortion bill out of his committee, because he always has the option of bringing it up as a "strike everything" amendment on the House floor. That's what he did last year. But that route requires not only finding a bill whose contents are not really needed but also the blessing of the GOP leadership.

The battles over abortion extend beyond who gets to serve on the House Judiciary Committee and into the heart of Democratic party politics.

Despite a net increase in pro-choice legislators this election, Democratic House members earlier this month re-elected Hamilton as minority leader and Debbie McCune as minority whip. Both are anti-abortion votes. The 26 Democrats replaced Dick Pacheco, the assistant minority leader--an anti-abortion vote--with Jack Brown, yet another abortion foe. And a newly created fourth leadership post went, on a close vote, to Armando Ruiz, still another anti-abortion vote.

This schism between the anti-abortion Democratic leaders and the largely pro- choice caucus has created a stalemate. So, the caucus, rather than force the issue, has determined that there will be no "official" position on the question of abortion. That is supposed to allow each legislator to vote his conscience without reprisal. But some Democrats believe that their leaders should, at times, defer to the wishes of the majority.

The bad feelings in the House Democratic caucus began last session over a measure identical to the one approved Monday in Skelly's committee.

Skelly took his bill to the House floor with promises in his pocket of sufficient votes from Republicans and Democrats for approval. He wound up a few votes short when some supporters were out sick.

So the stage was set for a second vote, giving the pro-choice Democrats yet a second dose of heartburn.

Some of the pro-choice Democrats felt their leaders had fulfilled their commitment to Skelly by voting for the bill the first time. Phoenix Representative Sandra Kennedy says she believes that Hamilton, Pacheco, and McCune should have let Skelly know that, while they wouldn't vote against his bill, they also would not promise to vote for it. House rules require 31 votes for final approval of any measure, no matter how many--or how few--of the 60 representatives are on the floor at the time.

Kennedy said that if Skelly did not have 31 guaranteed votes, the Republican leadership--also not eager to bring this divisive issue to a head--would refuse to bring it up for a second time. But the three Democratic leaders refused to back off.

"This second time around I was really torqued," Kennedy says. "I felt that Art and McCune had a lot to do with the measure coming up again. They could have said, `It has gone to the floor once, so let it die,' but they didn't."

Democrat Bobby Raymond, who represents a west-Phoenix district, says his party's leaders actually helped ensure that the issue would come to the floor.

"I do not believe that our leadership should be providing Jim Skelly with commitments on a laundry list to take a bill to the floor," Raymond says. "Once the bill gets to the floor, they can vote the way they want."

Skelly acknowledges that then-House Speaker Lane said he had to get commitments from the necessary 31 legislators before the anti-abortion bill would be brought to the floor for a vote. That list included Hamilton, Pacheco, and McCune.

Skelly got his second vote. But the measure died on a 30-30 tie when Glendale Republican Sterling Ridge--who had told Skelly he would support the bill--had a change of heart and voted against it. That killed the issue for the session. But it did not ease the bitterness of the pro-choice Democrats.

Hamilton says his job is not to protect fellow Democrats from having to vote on sensitive issues. If that were the case, he says, he would not have used his influence to demand a public vote on the question of whether there should be a state holiday to honor slain civil-rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.

In any case, the House Democrats really didn't give themselves much of an opportunity to make their leadership more representative of the majority stance on the abortion issue. The top three slots in the leadership were uncontested late last year when the Democratic lawmakers met behind closed doors to choose new leaders.

As Hamilton points out, his own anti- abortion views are well known to every House Democrat. "And," he adds, "they continue to re-elect me." The issue apparently isn't important enough to pro- choice Democrats to risk a war with a powerful--and otherwise popular--party leader.