Cecile Richards, Planned Parenthood's Choice Leader

By Darragh Johnson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 25, 2006

At 10 p.m. one night earlier this week, Cecile Richards, brand-new president of Planned Parenthood, rushed out of Union Station and into a car, where she became Cecile Richards, mom. Her husband was driving. He told her to call their daughter. Again.

"She's talked to your mom," he said.

Richards's mother is the formidable former Texas governor, Ann Richards, battling recently diagnosed esophageal cancer. Ann Richards still lives in Austin, but she has been going to Houston for treatments, and Richards knew that the following morning, her "very tough" mother had another appointment there.

Startled, she called her daughter, Lily, a student at Brandeis University, who reported that Ann Richards had advice about Lily's upcoming interview with CBS for a summer internship. "You have to have," the family matriarch insisted, "a new spring suit."

"She's about to leave for M.D. Anderson [Cancer Center]," Cecile Richards says, retelling the story in Planned Parenthood's elegant offices on Massachusetts Avenue NW. "The world's in an apocalyptic frame" -- and yet her mother comes up with a solution: "You've got to have new clothes!"

Cecile Richards told her daughter to settle for a new shirt. And added, consolingly, "Once we get the job, we'll get a new suit."

With that, she retreated right back into what she calls "the South Dakota bubble."

Richards took over Planned Parenthood Feb. 15 and expected some fierce fights, but "not in the first four weeks. I did think there would be a honeymoon period," she says.

In her first week on the job, the Supreme Court agreed to decide if the first federal ban on a method of abortion is constitutional. Two weeks later, South Dakota became the first state to ban nearly all abortions and set up a challenge to Roe v. Wade . Mississippi is on the cusp of enacting a similar law.

A nonprofit organization with an annual budget of $800 million, Planned Parenthood provides reproductive health care and sexual-health information to nearly 5 million women, men and teens each year, but Richards, 48, does not have a background in public health: She is a veteran Democratic political operative with Annie Lennox hair and a steely, strategic core, hired to preserve abortion rights.

"Listen, the reason I took this job is, I feel like we need to go into the 21st century," she said. "Clearly, with some folks in the country, we're going to get there kicking and screaming."

To get the job done, she has been traveling and seeking advice. Thursday she was back in Washington, where she lives with her husband and 15-year-old twins, until they all move to New York this summer. She met with George Washington University students, then with a group of teens at a health clinic in Northeast. She had lunch with a small group of professional women and stay-at-home moms in their thirties and forties. As she rode from place to place, she asked her driver, Ron Evans, for an update on the NCAA tournament so she could talk brackets with her husband.

Her March Madness is South Dakota.

Behind her, Planned Parenthood's Colleen McCabe laughed knowingly. "I walked out of our office this morning to get coffee," she said, "and ran into Tom Daschle" -- the former senator from South Dakota. "It's South Dakota, all the time."

Richards nodded.

And Mississippi is gaining on them: Later, while idling outside the Planned Parenthood clinic on 16th Street NW, waiting for two others to join them, McCabe thumbed her BlackBerry for the status of Mississippi's abortion vote.

"They haven't had the up-or-down vote yet," she said, but it was expected soon, and both anticipate that the state's Republican governor, Haley Barbour, will sign it if it passes.

"Mississippi is a really interesting state," Richards mused, her voice bright and optimistic. "I think there are some real opportunities there."

McCabe stared at her.

"I know you think I'm crazy," Richards continued. "There's a lot of undervoting" among people likely to support abortion rights. And "coming from Texas," she added, she had ideas on how they might use that undervoting to their advantage.

Richards is a longtime labor organizer who directed the Justice for Janitors campaign in Los Angeles, the same campaign Adrien Brody dramatized in the movie "Bread and Roses." A former deputy chief of staff for House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, she founded and directed America Votes, a coalition of more than 30 national organizations that worked to turn out voters in 2004.

"Our adversaries have done us an enormous favor," she says, referring to the "passive healthy majority" of Americans -- especially young Americans -- who believe "this is a decision women should be making, but [that] it's not an issue at risk." Her time in the trenches, however, has taught her that stirring rhetoric means nothing without the votes.

At lunch on Thursday, Richards peppered eight women with questions about where Planned Parenthood should go:

Should they be talking more about abortion? Or should they emphasize the fact that 90 percent of what Planned Parenthood does -- mammograms, pap tests, HIV tests, screening and treatment for STDs, infertility screening and counseling, mental health services and prenatal care -- has nothing to do with abortion? At the luncheon, the women called this "the message struggle."

Dee Dee Myers, former press secretary for President Clinton, spoke first: "How do we preserve people's urgency about choice?"

"I'm surprised to hear that 90 percent of Planned Parenthood's services has nothing to do with abortion," noted another woman. Around the table, others nodded soberly.

"We need to get back to the planned parenthood part of the debate," added someone else.

"Have you all thought about a name change?" asked Anne Dickerson, a former news producer with two small children and the wife of Slate's White House correspondent, John Dickerson.

"Don't change the name, take it back," said Dori Salcido.

Richards shifted the discussion:

"Is this an issue you vote on?" she asked.

"No." "No." "Absolutely." Two women said they didn't know: They had always voted for people who happened to be pro-choice Democrats.

"I think America's tired of the barn burning down," said Julie Eddy, echoing Dickerson's comment that the abortion debate rolls around so often "it feels a bit like crying wolf."

Still, Dickerson noted, "I want to hear that you guys are gonna hold the line on abortion."

Which brought Richards back to one of her signature points: "This is an opportunity for people to think about who's in the governor's office, and who's in the state legislature." Because "for the average person, Congress and the Supreme Court seem very far away."

And she believes, she said repeatedly throughout the day, that "most people think women and their doctors should be making this decision. Regardless of how they feel about this issue, they don't want to be making doctors and women criminals."

By 5 p.m., at the end of the day, Richards found herself hanging out with a group of teens at the Ophelia Egypt Program Center, a refuge funded by Planned Parenthood and housed in an old shoe store in a strip mall at Benning Road and Minnesota Avenue NE.

Many of the kids at the youth center are from two nearby housing projects, Benning Terrace and Langston Terrace, and as a group of girls cut pictures and words from magazines and made collages, Richards knelt beside them and talked. Later, she perched on a couch, her wool plaid blazer a pink spot of preppy between a 16-year-old boy's black North Face and a 15-year-old girl's beige nylon coat. Richards was playing "Madden NFL 06" on the center's PlayStation 2.

"You're right there," the 16-year-old pointed out helpfully, his braids hanging below his skullcap.

"Oh," Richards said, sounding surprised and gripping the controller as her team, the Falcons, lined up against the Redskins. "That's him?"

A few plays later, her quarterback was sacked. She turned apologetically to her partner. "I was trying to go around," she said, sounding abashed. "I knew that wasn't a good idea to go backwards."

Soon, Richards and the girl had decamped for the foosball table, where Richards spent about 10 minutes engrossed in a serious game. There were no cameras. Her entourage was elsewhere in the room. The kids didn't really understand who she was: a woman who oversees 270 employees at the national level and heads up an organization with 120 affiliates and 850 health-care clinics.

As the clock ticked toward 6, and a homeless woman wandered into the center and was given a plate of food, Richards remained engrossed in the foosball table. Her team was losing, badly, 9-1. But Richards kept battling. Moments later, it was 9-2. Then 9-3.

"Okay," she said, still leaning intently over the game, "we'll do one more, then I'm going home to feed my kids."

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