S4:E3 - Sara Tabatabaie
4:38PM Aug 29, 2022
Welcome to Louisiana Lefty, a podcast about politics and community in Louisiana, where we make the case that the health of the state requires a strong progressive movement fueled by the critical work of organizing on the ground. Our goal is to democratize information, demystify party politics, and empower you to join the mission. Because victory for Louisiana requires you.
I'm your host, Lynda Woolard. On this episode, I speak with Sarah Tabatabaie, chief political officer and communications director for #VOTEPROCHOICE. As the name suggests, #VOTEPROCHOICE is dedicated to putting people in office who are firmly pro-choice, as is 80% of our country. But they understand that this work needs to be done at a local level, electing pro-choice candidates up and down the ballot.
This year, they've partnered with Crooked Media's Vote Save America, focusing on voter registration in nine critical states for the mission. The game plan includes working with our friends at Civitech on a data driven campaign to register more pro-choice and young voters via mail and digital outreach. It's a complete program, which ensures that each person who registers through them receives a comprehensive pro-choice voter guide for their district. This is just the beginning of what they understand will be a long term strategy. But it's impressive. It's where we start. And it's worth checking out.
Sarah Tabatabai,e! Thank you so much for joining me on Louisiana Lefty.
Thank you for having me.
You are the chief political officer and communications director of #VOTEPROCHOICE. I usually start each episode with how I met my guest. But we're just meeting today for the first time. Your folks reached out to me about joining the podcast. Are you actively seeking local media to get your message out to grassroots audience in every state? Or how are you targeting folks?
Oh, absolutely. We're reaching out, essentially, everywhere we can. But so much of what we're doing is based on the community level is in local or state level politics. And so it's really important that, you know, our strategy in where we go to talk about that reflects that.
Well, before we speak more about #VOTEPROCHOICE, I'm interested in you, Sarah. What got you initially interested in politics?
Sure, you know, I don't know if it's so much that I got involved with politics, or if it's that politics got involved with me. I am the daughter of an immigrant from the Middle East. And so, you know, from a super young age, I was brought into quote, unquote, political conversations, whether I started them or not. And so then it became my responsibility to really educate myself about what that means to be the daughter of an immigrant, what it means to be Middle Eastern, how my intersecting identities affect policy, and how I operate in my communities. And then, you know, 10 years ago or so, I decided to end a pregnancy. And that was, I can't think of very many other choices that have been more impactful on my life, to be honest. And now 10 years later, I'm here in a world without the protections of Roe v. Wade. I'm about six months pregnant by choice now. And it's just, it's a wild time. But yeah, I think being involved in politics was sort of inevitable for me.
Congratulations on your future new addition.
What are some of the political highlights of your career so far?
Sure. You know, I started my career always really interested in human rights, sort of what it means to be human and what we are all deserving of. There are certain rights that I just don't believe that one needs to earn, food or health care. I had an internship in college with Amnesty International that just totally changed my life. And I started my career, honestly, working with a group that was super involved in Obama's election campaign, and that was really impactful for me to be so inspired by someone I had never seen in leadership before. And while I worked with that group, I also worked with Rock the Vote, where I ended up working in-house with them for many years. I was the digital director of Rock the Vote, and specifically worked on voting rights. And so I was there when the Roberts Court dismantled the Voting Rights Act. And I'd have to say now working in reproductive freedom, there are a lot of parallels to the fight that we're facing when it comes to voting rights and the fight we're facing when it comes to reproductive freedom. So yeah, I've I've been in this space for a while sort of ebbing and flowing. But that's how that's how we're here today.
Well, I did want to bring up again, before we get too far into #VOTEPROCHOICE, I did want to bring up a couple of Louisiana stories that are very related to the work you're doing. The first one being - everybody's heard of this - a Louisiana hospital denied an abortion to a woman who's carrying a fetus that has a condition where it's developing without a skull. They denied her an abortion, the baby would not be able to survive. So they're trying to require her to carry it to term for it to only be born and die. And this is a woman who wanted a baby. So there seems to be little regard to the fact that this woman is suffering and there would be a requirement of the baby to suffer once it's born. She also visited a pregnancy crisis center, that the only option they offered her was how to bury her child once it died. She has now retained legal advocate Ben Crump. But currently, in order for her to actually terminate this unviable pregnancy, she'd have to make a 1300 mile round trip to get to the closest place where she could do that.
I cannot imagine how traumatic this experience is for that patient. And the reality is, it's been, you know, about two months since we've seen Roe v. Wade overturned, and these are the stories that we are seeing across the country. These laws are written specifically to scare patients away from seeking care. And then for those patients who do seek care, like the patient you've just described, her providers are being threatened with criminalization, jail time, penalties, losing their license to practice. Our health care providers are reporting that they're feeling like their hands are being tied behind their backs. And so this is the world that we are in right now. But it's also why it's so important that we focus on local and community leaders who can affect this. And so that's why at #VOTEPROCHOICE we're currently running a campaign called Care is Not Criminal, specifically related to this example, where we need pro-choice elected prosecutors, sheriffs, judges, who will make sure that doctors do not end up in handcuffs for providing health care, because that's really what this is.
That leads me to the second Louisiana story coming out right now, because we've elected in New Orleans, a DA and a sheriff who have said they won't prosecute, they won't criminalize abortion. We've also had a city council who's passed a resolution asking officials not to enforce the state's abortion ban, which doesn't include exemptions for incest or rape. In the meantime, the state of Louisiana bond commission is now withholding approval of $39 million of flood control funds from New Orleans because they don't like the City Council's resolution. And that bond commission is led by our Attorney General Jeff Landry and Secretary of State Kyle Arwin. So, to your point, these local elected offices are important, but they all interconnect.
Absolutely, I mean, that's exactly what I was just going to say. Attorney General Jeff Landry is one of the most extreme anti-choice elected officials in the country. And so, yes, what he's doing is essentially punishing the leaders of New Orleans for not doing what he wants. And I will say these leaders in New Orleans, they're doing what people are doing across the country. And that is saying, regardless of what the state law is, you may not use city resources to enforce these bans. That's perfectly reasonable for a municipality to decide. We see it in Austin in Dayton, and cities in from Pennsylvania to Arizona. This is happening across the country. And so what's happening in New Orleans is a perfect example of really where this fight is happening now, and it's in our communities, and it's between these state and local elected officials.
Well, I wrote a piece for the Bayou Brief, which is a local publication, after the Alito draft leaked, that had an action plan for pro-choice folks in our state this year for the midterms. And I advocated for investing our time and money in expanding the majority in the US Senate. I identified nine specific states with potential 'hold seats' or 'flip seats.' And the goal there is to codify Roe through the Women's Health Protection Act, and also necessarily reforming the filibuster, and probably necessarily reforming the Supreme Court. And that's largely because our legislative races aren't until next year, and our federal races this year are unlikely to change party affiliation. But your org, which was started in 2016, promotes itself as being at the forefront to elect bold, pro-choice down ballot candidates in every state.
So talk to me a little bit about that. You said on your website that there are 108,293 seats on the ballot this year. Louisiana does have some school board races, and some chief of police and judges on our ballots. So tell me a little bit more about what y'all are doing.
Absolutely. Specifically, #VOTEPROCHOICE was created in order to prepare for a world without Roe v. Wade. And the laws that got to the Supreme Court, that ultimately ended our federal protections, those laws started at state and local levels. And so while it is so important that we invest in senate races, congressional races, like you said, codifying abortion protections, whether it's through the Women's Health Protection Act, or other avenues, we also need to focus on down ballot races.
And I think, up to this point, there's really been a lack of investment in pro-choice Democratic races in our communities. And so every elected official has a role to play when it comes to accessible reproductive care. You talked about the case of a patient who's being denied an abortion where her fetus is not compatible with life. And, you know, she talks about her experience at a crisis pregnancy center. Those crisis pregnancy centers, in most places outnumber the number of actual clinics. Those crisis pregnancy centers also receive funding from the government. And it's people like our commissioners who can decide how much funding those places receive. So up and down the ballot, not just US Senate, not just governor, but leaders up and down the ballot have a responsibility to meet this moment. And that means doing everything that they can to make this a place where reproductive health care is an accessible right for people.
So you mentioned Care is Not Criminal. Is that still a partnership with Crooked Media?
Yes, with the Vote Save America campaign of Crooked Media. We are working together to register and turn out pro-choice voters in key areas in order to focus from the top to the bottom of the ballot. And so, you know, I think just today on social media, we were talking together about this work, about how much opportunity there is. Really, any state can be the next Kansas if we invest properly. And what we saw in Kansas was amazing. 70% of newly registered voters since Roe v. Wade was overturned were women. And among those newly registered voters, Democrats had an eight point advantage. This is in Kansas. So it's important that we not only educate voters who are already in the practice of going to the polls, but that we bring new people with us. Because there's a shared understanding of what's at stake.
Were you involved in the Kansas referendum at all?
Yes, Kansas is a priority state of ours. The referendum was tough because it was put on a primary ballot on purpose, with the goal of they're not being as much turnout. But, you know, huge props to organizations in Kansas. Whether it was, you know, political groups or health care groups, folks on the ground in Kansas worked really hard. And people really knew what was at stake. And so that was amazing to see what so many of us knew was possible. But it was just very nice to see the reality reflected, which is, there is no state that is an anti choice state. There are only states that have voter restrictions, gerrymandered districts, or barriers to being able to be heard at the ballot box.
I mean, even the polling in Louisiana, we've always been thought of a very, quote, unquote, to use their terminology, a pro-life state. That was always the reputation here. But even our recent polling is showing, while Republicans haven't really moved on the issue, Democrats very much have started to swing towards choice.
Yeah, I think that's something we've been told over so many years, that this is a very polarizing issue or like, don't talk about abortion, it's a third rail issue. The reality is, many of us have our own private ideas and feelings about the circumstances when we may or may not choose abortion. But almost all of us agree that choice should be between the patient and their healthcare provider and not determined by some politician that you've never met.
Are y'all predominantly working in a messaging and communication space? Or do you actually recruit and train organizers? What sort of work are y'all doing?
Sure. So at #VOTEPROCHOICE, we do a number of things. One is we recruit, endorse, and support candidates who are running for office. So we have a program where we specifically coach candidates, a lot of them are first time candidates, women of color, folks who may historically be disenfranchised by traditional party structures. So we have a full team that's dedicated to supporting candidates running for office. And we also work to educate voters. So we build an incredibly comprehensive voter guide, which has recommendations up and down the ballot, where we'll tell you, not just who's the pro-choice candidate running for governor, but who's your pro choice, dog catcher, comptroller, judge. All of those offices that that appear on the ballot, we will make recommendations. So we work directly with voters there, in addition to registering but also educating and turning out voters.
And I want to point out that often I hear in some of these hyperlocal races where we maybe have candidates who are anti-choice - Republican or Democratic candidates who are anti- choice - and folks say, "Well, that office doesn't have anything to do with that issue, so why should we worry if they're anti-choice or not?" But I want people to understand that that's how you build a bench of candidates. You're giving somebody an entry into elected office. They may be, the next office they run for, be running for something where choice is really important.
Absolutely. 100%. Also, let's say your city council, for example, may be participating in zoning laws that directly affect clinics. There are a lot of decisions that are made by elected officials that do impact our access to reproductive freedom that we don't typically think about when we think about this issue. But I think you're exactly right. This is how we build a bench. You know, our local elected leaders today are national leaders tomorrow. And it's really important that how we vote reflects our values so that we're playing a long term strategy when it comes to building a representative class of elected officials.
And you've mentioned school board races specifically on your website. What's your interest in the school board races?
Well, school boards a lot of time affect curriculum, affect whether or not contraceptives are available to students, particularly high school students. They affect whether there's inclusive materials for different gender identities, sexual orientations. And, you know, we see a huge intersection in attacks on trans people, LGBTQ people, those the same politicians who write those pieces of legislation, also author anti-choice pieces of legislation. It's all a coordinated attack on on body autonomy. And so it's important to have school board members who understand what it means to champion science-based accurate learning.
I love that. We need that here for sure. What do you want folks in Louisiana to know about your group? Or how would you like to see them engage with y'all? What can we do to help your mission, and in turn, have your mission help us here in Louisiana?
I love that question. First, I'll say to folks in Louisiana, especially pro-choice folks in Louisiana, like, we see you and hear you and you have so much power. And so whether it's signing up for a voter guide, so that you're able to vote for pro-choice, elected officials - at voteprochoice.us, you'll be able to sign up for a voter guide - or it's just signing up to learn more about how to support candidates or to get action alerts in your area. All of that makes a huge difference. Because, you know, like we talked about, there is no quote unquote, anti-choice state, there just isn't. People in this country believe that the government should not make health care decisions for them, specifically when it comes to reproductive health care. So yeah, just joining us, not just this November, but sort of joining us in the reality that, look, it took them 50 years to undo Roe v. Wade. This is going to take us a little while. But we see results when we keep engaging over and over again, we keep turning out, keep talking to our people. That's important. And it's just a lot easier to do it when we do it together.
Well, and I'm thinking now from how you've answered that, your CEO, Heidi Sieck, has said that the Democratic Party abdicated their responsibility on the issue of abortion to a few feminist organizations like NARAL, Planned Parenthood, Feminist Majority. And I thought this statistic was interesting. While there's an 80%, pro-choice majority in America, she suggested that those feminist groups were only speaking to voters on the left, who prioritized abortion as their number one mobilizing issue, which is only about 20% of our voters. So that is kind of how we ended up here in a way, where we were really only mobilizing a small portion in this particular space, a small portion of our voters and really fully informing them on that issue. So you're kind of offering people a way to bring everybody to the table and say this needs to be one of those main issues we focus on year after year.
100% I mean, Planned Parenthood and NARAL and some of these other groups, they are so important. We partner directly with them. They do incredible work. But the reality is, they have been left to solve this issue alone. And we do the same thing when we call this a women's issue. It is not just women who are affected by reproductive freedom. Men, people with marginalized gender identities, women, girls, children, boys, all of us are affected by access to reproductive freedom. And the reality is, this is a foundational issue. It's an economic issue. It's gender justice. It's racial justice. So many things that are important to us intersect with the ability to decide to grow or not to grow a family.
You've been critical of President Biden for not doing more on this. In addition to what you'd like him to do now, God forbid, if we end up with the same senate after November, what would you like to see happen?
Yeah, I mean, the reality is, I am not a Joe Biden groupie, I am a Joe Biden voter. And so I feel totally comfortable being critical when I don't think he's doing enough.
And the reality is, this decision leaked well in advance of the decision coming down. There was a lot of time to prepare. And so while we saw steps from the president to challenge what was happening after Roe v. Wade was overturned, first of all, we should have seen them on day one, and second of all, we are not seeing the same level of creativity, of fight. You mentioned the leaders in New Orleans going toe to toe with state government officials. They are fighting for the people of New Orleans. We need to see that same fight reflected in Washington. And so whether that's declaring a public health emergency, a primetime address to talk to people about this, creative uses of federal land, resources, we just need to see this administration representing the fact that Americans do not want to live in a world without reproductive freedom. And so, yes, I appreciate what the President has done. I think he needs to do more. And to the point of Congress, there is so much that Congress could be doing starting with codifying reproductive rights through the Women's Health Protection Act. And so I am excited to celebrate so much of what this administration has done, so much of what this Congress has done for the American people, but they have not done enough for reproductive freedom.
I mentioned at the beginning that your folks reached out to me to come on the podcast. It was actually Emma from New Deal Strategies who reached out and made the first contact. So I went and looked at their website, too, and I loved their opening sentence, in all caps, bold type: "We don't need to just elect more Democrats. We need to elect better Democrats."
And I think it's really important in Louisiana to think that way. When I worked for the state party, many years ago now, but our communications director at the time, Kirstin Alvanitakis, told us when she first came in, "First, we elect more Democrats, then we elect better Democrats." And outside of our cities in Louisiana, we're failing at even the first part of that mission. So it seems to me that we need to be building a bench that tackles both parts of that mission at the same time.
Yes, yes. I mean, this reminds me of an analogy that Senator Warnock used when he was talking about voting rights, which is you have to put out the fire and you have to rebuild the firehouse. Reproductive freedom is on fire. We need to send more pro-choice Democrats into the halls of power everywhere. And we need to build the firehouse, we need to build the infrastructure to elect better Democrats. And, you know, the best way to get the Democratic Party to do what you want them to do is you become part of the Democratic Party. So we just need people to engage, vote, run for office, go to town meetings, because it's a lot easier to push for what we want when we're part of the conversation.
People need to become part of party leadership, if they want changes in the party. I want to see young people coming in to the party. I mean, they could swing every election if they engaged, right? So that, to me, seems to be a top priority.
Oh, yeah. And I'll say, too, young people are overwhelmingly pro-choice. I mean, we see a huge amount of engagement from young people. And so it's really just making sure like, we engage with them back and we're meeting them where they are. So I totally agree. I mean, when I think about things that give me hope in a moment that feels really difficult, for sure one of those things is seeing young leaders, you know, 19, 20, 21 year olds coming out and and really pushing this country in the direction that we want it to go in.
Tell me your website, address one more time.
Okay, so I'll make sure I have that in the Episode Notes. And I'll put all your social media links in there as well, for anyone that wants to connect with you. Is the website the best way for folks to plug into what you're doing?
Yes, I think so - voteprochoice.us. And follow us on social media. I mean, that's always a great first step into learning about what we're doing. And signing up to receive action alerts or voter guides ahead of November is also super important.
I just signed up for your action alerts today. And I did check out the voter guide section. You've got local impact reports that are really thorough, latest abortion rights news, ways to take action, and then a pro-choice shop. I always like swag, so it's good to be able to find things like that. So it's an excellent website, I highly recommend folks go and check it out.
What have I not asked you that I should have asked you about your organization?
I think it's important that we really meet this moment. Because this moment really requires an 'all of the above' approach, requires that we we look into our communities and we understand who our elected officials are in our communities and who our elected officials are in Washington. And so for every person that turns out to vote for a statewide office, we want to make sure that same person feels really comfortable filling out their ballot, all the way, including with judges and elected prosecutors. Because, you know, we started this conversation talking about how much our opponents fundraise and how much they invest in judges. And we really need to do the same. Because they've made their plans very clear. And so it's really up to us to make sure we're responding in a way that does right by the American people.
And that was on a video we did that's on Facebook and YouTube for anyone that wants to see us talking about that. We did a little pre-interview interview. I think it's really important what you're doing about the down ballot clarification of what candidates are and who they stand for. Because I used to do a whole lot of voter registration. I used to go do voter registration of young people. And they often would say, "Well, you're telling us we need to vote on all these elections. We don't know the difference between the judicial candidates," right? So there is not a great amount of spaces for people to go learn information like that. So that's a valuable resource that you're offering.
Yeah, 100%. I mean, this is literally my day job. And it's not easy to vote for some of these races. It's just not. Some of that is by design, but we're doing our best, you know, to fill in those gaps.
Well, thank you. Let me ask you the last three questions I ask a version of every episode. What do you see as the biggest obstacle for codifying Roe or women's health care, making sure we live in a country where there is actual choice for pregnant people?
You know, I think we, we talked about this a little bit, but I'll say there are people all over the country who are thinking, "Oh my oh my gosh, Roe v. Wade is overturned, what do we do to get it back?" And we're not getting Roe v Wade back. They spent 50 years on a strategy to overturn Roe v Wade. And so we have to be ready to invest time and money into this. There are many things we can do to make that happen faster. But right now we're not doing everything that could be done. That's Democrats in Washington, that's state legislatures across the country. And so step one is, we have to push back on the idea that this is a polarizing issue. It's just not. And so when we are ready to talk about this issue with our friends, with our families, it becomes very obvious that there is a consensus. And so we need a government to reflect that.
What's our biggest opportunity to get that pro-choice America?
Well, the biggest opportunity is that we have the numbers. I mean, this is a pro-choice country. And so we do have the power that we need. We just need to invest that power in key areas over long periods. I mean, this is not a problem that we're going to solve in the next six weeks. But we will get there faster if we work together and we're strategic and we organize.
I agree with all of that. I love all of that. Sara, who's your favorite superhero?
Oh, admittedly, I have a pretty average amount of knowledge about superheroes. But I guess maybe Shuri from Black Panther. She's just so well rounded. She's just like a very cool dork. And I think that's like my dream, to embody exactly everything that she that she stands for.
What a great answer. Sara, thank you so much for joining me today. I really appreciate y'all reaching out. I really appreciate the work you're doing. And I hope Louisiana, folks will connect to you so that we can get more of your mission accomplished here in this state.
Yes, yes. Thank you so much.
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