Planned Parenthood makes rare $20,000 intervention in primary battle between Denver Democrats

A Planned Parenthood group is spending an unusual amount in the Democratic primary between Emily Sirota and Ashley Wheeland.
7 min. read
An image of a mailer funded by Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains Action Fund. (Courtesy PPRMAF)

Emily Sirota is calling foul after the political action arm of Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains spent about $20,000 to support her opponent in a Democratic primary election.

Planned Parenthood Votes Colorado spent the money early in June to send out mailers supporting Ashley Wheeland in the south Denver primary, according to financial reports.

Sirota says that Planned Parenthood leadership may be punishing her because she has supported the group's workers in their fight to unionize.

"All I can say is that this is unprecedented," Sirota told Denverite.

"Not only is it unprecedented for Planned Parenthood to be endorsing in a Democratic primary where there are two pro-choice candidates, but it’s not only an endorsement — it’s a very large sum of money that’s being spent."

Representatives of the Planned Parenthood political group said that they were simply supporting Wheeland because she would be the most effective on reproductive rights -- she is a former employe of PPRM -- and they deny that it's "unprecedented."

Either way, it's an unusual move for the organization. Planned Parenthood Votes Colorado has previously spent nearly all of its money during general elections. Since 2010, the committee has never spent more than $700 in the month of June, according to state records.

An image of a mailer funded by Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains Action Fund. (Courtesy PPRMAF)
Really quickly: What's this all about?

Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains operates clinics in Colorado, New Mexico and Nevada. In 2017, workers at a cluster of 14 of PPRM's Colorado clinics voted to join the SEIU Local 105, a union.

PPRM appealed to the federal National Labor Relations Board, arguing that the union should have to include all of its clinics across three states. NLRB commissioners sided with Planned Parenthood in an initial proceeding, allowing it to proceed to the full NLRB, as The Intercept reported.

PPRM said that it respected its workers, but wanted "to allow all our employees the opportunity to make this important decision for themselves," as Colorado Politics reported. But some workers saw it as a stonewalling tactic to shut down the union.

It has become an issue for Democratic candidates. Jared Polis and Cary Kennedy, who are candidates for governor, both made statements in support of workers, as Rewire reported, while dozens of local legislators also issued a letter.

Down in House District 9, Emily Sirota has asked Planned Parenthood to drop its appeal and let the clinics unionize. "I am the candidate in this race explicitly calling for Planned Parenthood executives to stop working with the Trump administration in an effort to bust Planned Parenthood workers’ union," she recently wrote on Facebook. She has been talking about the issue since at least May 15; Planned Parenthood endorsed Wheeland on May 22.

On the other hand, Wheeland said that she stands with workers, too.

"I was clear to (the endorsement committee) that I support collective bargaining and unionizing," Wheeland told Denverite. "For me, it’s that the two parties should work together and come to an agreement. I believe that there should be collective bargaining, and it would be helpful. I hope the two parties will work it out."

But Sirota contends that Wheeland hasn't taken a strong enough stand and hasn't specifically called on PPRM to withdraw its appeal of the legal fight.

So, that sets the stage for the big spending.

Local Planned Parenthood leaders say that they're supporting Wheeland because they know her, not because they like her labor stance.

Sarah Taylor-Nanista, executive director of the PPRM Action Fund, pointed out that candidate Wheeland was the policy and political director of Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains until recently. The organization is supporting her because its leadership knows she's an "absolute champion of reproductive health in the community."

"I think there would be a lot more questions if we weren’t stepping up for (Wheeland)," Taylor-Nanista said. But the group doesn't have any concerns or disagreements with Sirota, she said, and would support Sirota in the general election.

Meanwhile, Wheeland said that she had no advance knowledge of the spending. "To me, it comes down to, I have a record of working for reproductive rights and health care," she said.

It was a rare intervention.

The group has supported several other primary candidates over the years in New Mexico, Taylor-Nanista said, but that has been far less common in Colorado.

The group's other recent endorsement in a contested Democratic primary went to Jessie Danielson in 2014, who previously was the political director of NARAL Pro-Choice Colorado, according to Taylor-Nanista. The endorsement came with about $700 in support just before primary day, according to state records.

"We thought we should consider exceptions for absolute champions of reproductive health in the community," Taylor-Nanista said.

Though it was a smaller sum of money, Taylor-Nanista said that support established a precedent for endorsing Wheeland. And it may become more common for the group to make choices between Democratic candidates, she said.

"... We’re going to find ourselves in this position more and more as more women step up and as more pro-choice women step up," she said. "I think it’s an embarrassment of riches."

Another Planned Parenthood spokesman pointed out that the political action group recently endorsed four other Democratic women, too, but none of the others are in contested elections.

The action fund also has spent about $25,000 in primaries in New Mexico this year, according to Jack Teter, the group's Colorado Political Director. That figure could not immediately be confirmed through New Mexico financial reports.

The political group spent about $465,000 in Colorado in 2016 and $734,000 in 2014, according to state records.

State records do not show independent expenditures from any group on Sirota's behalf during this primary. But Sirota's campaign does hold a significant fundraising advantage, having collected about $104,000 in contributions this year, while Wheeland has reported about $42,000.

"I do not have deep pockets," Wheeland said. "I have people who believe in me. ... I'm running because I care about my state and community."

Sirota said that she was frustrated "that that amount of money is being spent in a race where there is two pro-choice candidates," Sirota said. "We have a lot of anti-choice candidates coming in the general election."

Where do they stand on the issue?

Wheeland says that she's an attorney with a track record of fighting for reproductive rights. "If you have a champion, you have someone you know can jump in that will really fight for policies," she said. "... I think as a health care policy expert I have had more nuanced positions."

She specifically said that she would like to review the state's sex education curricula, "so more of our young people have the information they need."

She also cited her work to enshrine in state law some of the protections of the Affordable Care Act, which currently says that insurance providers can't charge a co-pay on women's health services.

"The fear is that the Trump administration through rulemaking will remove it at any time," she said. And she points to a long list of endorsements, including former U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar, Sen. Irene Aguilar Rep. Leslie Herod.

Sirota said that she remains a devoted supporter of Planned Parenthood. If elected, she wants Colorado to use more of its state funding to push for an expansion of reproductive health and abortion services access.

"I'd love to see the legislature in the position of playing offense instead of defense," she said. She has endorsements from figures including U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, U.S. Rep. Ed Perlmutter and former Colorado Rep. Karen Middleton, the current director of NARAL Pro-Choice Colorado.

And both candidates have pledged to support the other in the general election.

Meanwhile, candidates Angel Christine Saunders and Bob Lane are competing in the Republican primary. Lane's website does not mention reproductive rights. Saunders doesn't appear to have a website.

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