News & Politics

Progressive Candidate Darcy Burner: How I Became the Target of a Right-Wing Smear Campaign

After giving a speech about the politics of abortion, Burner became the target of a dishonest campaign cooked up by conservative bloggers.

Darcy Burner, who is running for Congress in Washington State's first district, has become somewhat of a star in liberal politics for the way she speaks her mind – she’s a full-throated, unapologetic progressive, not a wishy-washy, corporate-friendly Democrat.

After giving a powerful speech about the politics of abortion, Burner has recently become the target of a smear campaign cooked up by conservative bloggers and pushed into the mainstream media (perhaps with a little bit of help from her wealthy, more “centrist” primary opponent's staff).

Burner appeared on this week's AlterNet Radio Hour to help sort out the fact from the fiction. Below is a lightly edited transcript of the discussion. (You can listen to the whole show here, and learn more about Burner's campaign here.)

Joshua Holland: Darcy, you are now embroiled in one of those made-up nontroversies that the right cooks up to attack progressives. Let’s get the lingo straight. Would you characterize it as a flap or a brouhaha? Or maybe an imbroglio?

Darcy Burner: I have been characterizing it as a kerfuffle.

JH: I was leaning toward flap, but I’m not in Washington state so I don’t know how the politicsare.

DB: I’m sure any of those words would work fine.

JH: So take us through this. Last week, we broadcast from Netroots Nation, the annual gathering of left-of-center writers and politicos, but I got in on Friday and I missed your keynote. Everyone said that it was extremely powerful. Then I saw this headline in the Seattle Post-Intelligenceron a story written by Joel Connelly, “Standup and Give a Hand for Abortion? Is Darcy Burner Gutsy or Gauche?” This seems pretty similar to another headline that was on a notably stupid right-wing blog a day earlier. What’s going on here, Darcy? What did you actually say?

DB: In my keynote I was talking about how we go on offense in the "war on women." That was the topic of the conversation. I was talking about the different forms of power that we can apply to the problem.

One of them is cultural power. What stories do people have in their heads about issues? It turns out that one in three American women will have an abortion at some time in her life, but it is an issue that is kept so much in the closet that most people have no idea that their sisters, mothers, daughter or their friends have had abortions. The LGBT movement has done this amazing job of using the idea of coming out of the closet to change the stories in people’s heads about who it is that the right wing is demonizing when they condemn gay marriage. We’ve seen tremendous progress on that issue by helping people understand that these are their friends, neighbors and loved ones who are being talked about.

So I had suggested that one thing we could do to go on offense would be for women to come out of the closet about having had abortions. And I asked women who were comfortable standing up to do so -- to indicate that they were one of the people who had an abortion. A bunch of women -- somewhere around 150 women in the room -- stood up and I said, “Now all of you who are willing to stand with these women and every woman like them please join them.” At which point roughly all of the 2,000 people in the room stood with those women who had been courageous enough to stand up first.

It was at that point that the applause happened – it was for the courage of those women. I talked later to some of the women who had stood, and they said it was the first time in their lives they had felt like they weren’t completely isolated on this issue -- that there was a community of people who loved them and who would support them. It made a great difference.

JH: So you weren’t celebrating abortion. You were applauding these women’s courage in standing up in the face of the social stigma the religious right has attached to what is basically a modern medical procedure.

DB: That’s exactly right. There is this level of shame that is imposed around the issue of abortion which makes it impossible for women to talk to anyone about the experiences they’ve had. Whether it’s an easy decision or a difficult decision it shouldn’t be the case that women are isolated and not allowed to talk to anyone about whatever decision they make.

JH: Now what I find interesting about all of this is that, first of all, the video of your talk is easy to find on the internet and there is simply no way any honest person could watch that video and conclude that you were, “celebrating abortion.” But here we have this conservative spin which seems to have infiltrated reports by the supposedly neutral, mainstream media. Do you think Joel Connelly of the Seattle PI was simply lazy in repeating this spin, or was he willfully spinning the story himself? I know I’m asking you for speculation, but I wonder what your take on that is.

DB: I think there are two things going on. I think that Joel is very uncomfortable with abortion, and that has come through in previous columns of his. He thinks women should be ashamed. They should hide and not be allowed to talk about this. He and I obviously disagree on that.

The other thing that’s going on is I’m in a contested primary and the PR person who works for one of my opponents has been actively out talking to press, claiming to them that I demanded that everyone cheer for abortion. So the people who haven’t watched the video, who just take him at his word, print such things.

JH: Now, we’ve seen these kinds of made-up stories time and time again. Did you not have some inkling that this would be the narrative that conservatives would embrace when you were sitting down to write your address? It seems somewhat predictable that they would make this precise argument.

DB: It’s true that when I was chatting about what I should say with some of my friends, that was one of the issues we discussed – that the right would take this moment out of context. I was pretty careful in terms of trying to make it a safe space for the women who stood up. I was trying to make it clear that what was being discussed here was their courage in coming out. Of course the right wing makes things up. It is what they do. I think it’s high time we had more people in Washington DC who are willing to tell the truth. The truth is that one in three American women have had abortions, but most people don’t know that.

JH: My grandmother is in her 90s and she is not a big fan of abortion, but she is very strongly pro=choice. The funny thing is she simply can’t grasp why this is a political issue in the first place. She can’t get her head around that. She always says this an issue between a woman or a couple and a doctor.

DB: Your grandmother is completely correct.

JH: Her opinion is very common in other countries. We see abortion as such a hot-button issue here that it’s hard to remember that it’s very much a settled issue in much of Western Europe and Canada. It’s interesting that a small group of religious conservatives have managed to stigmatize this issue for so many people.

DB: A big part of the problem is that most Americans don’t understand how many women this affects. They don’t understand what the underlying stories are. When I was pregnant with my son I had a conversation with my doctor in which he told me that there was a very good chance that if I continued the pregnancy I wouldn’t survive it. My husband and I talked very seriously about what the options were. We made a decision -- I made a decision -- that I was willing to take the risks that were involved in that pregnancy. But there’s no politician in the world who has the right to make that decision for me or any other woman. That I think is the kind of story that needs to be told.

JH: Darcy, we’re talking about changing the narrative. I want to get your take on another angle here. I learned a really interesting fact recently. Apparently it takes both a woman and a man to conceive. Did you know that?

DB: Really?

JH: It’s true. I swear it. And I find myself a bit conflicted about the way we talk about reproductive health issues. On the one hand I’m a good pro-choice dude -- I believe women should have agency over their own bodies. I think the choice of when to have a child and with whom is ultimately hers. But I also worry that by calling abortion -- and other debates over reproductive health -- so-called “women’s issues,” we consign them to a ghetto of sorts. I don’t really think they are women’s issues. I see them more as human rights issues. Where do you come down on that?

DB: I think you’re completely right that they’re human rights issues. They’re human rights issues that do affect men as well as women. If I had died during my pregnancy that would have had an enormous impact on my husband, not just on me. He was prepared to support a decision to terminate the pregnancy because he cared about whether I lived or died. All over the world there are men and women who are affected by this. I think the more widely we recognize that, the better.

JH: I’m going to come out here and publicly acknowledge that without access to safe, legal abortion my own life would have taken a very different course. I would have children that would have been born when I was way too young and immature to raise them. I would have had children with women who weren’t ready and in relationships that weren’t terribly mature. I’d like to think that I would have done "the right thing," but that might not be true. Perhaps I would have freaked out and run away. Even if I had done the right thing, I probably wouldn’t have gotten through college. I would probably be working some very low-skilled job, and I’m very grateful we were able to get together and make a choice not to have babies when we were basically just babies ourselves. I think it’s important that people understand exactly what you’re saying. This is not just something that affects women.

DB: It isn’t. I think it would be helpful if folks understood that no form of birth control is perfect and none of us use them perfectly. This is an issue that could impact absolutely anyone.

JH: Before I let you go I want to talk a little bit about the race. You’re running in Washington state’s newly minted First District. How is the race going?

DB: It’s going really well. All of the polls have shown me substantially ahead of my primary competitors. The ballots for the primary drop in about a month and have to be turned in by August 7. The Republican who is running in this race is very, very far to the right. He actually thinks that pregnancies should never be allowed to be terminated, even for the health or life of the mother. Apparently if one has an complicated pregnancy, that should be a death sentence in his world. I think this is an issue of human rights, and the rights of women to make decisions about their own bodies rather than some politician like John Koster, is incredibly important. 

Joshua Holland is an editor and senior writer at AlterNet. He is the author of The 15 Biggest Lies About the Economy: And Everything else the Right Doesn't Want You to Know About Taxes, Jobs and Corporate America. Drop him an email or follow him on Twitter.