The Democratic candidate for mayor of Omaha, who’s set to appear at a rally Thursday night with Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), said earlier in the day that his personal views against abortion would not lead to antiabortion policies at City Hall.
“While my faith guides my personal views, as mayor I would never do anything to restrict access to reproductive health care,” Heath Mello said in a statement Thursday morning.
An interview The Washington Post had scheduled with Mello was canceled due to the candidate’s campaign schedule.
That statement came after NARAL Pro-Choice America had condemned Sanders and Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez for endorsing Mello and intending to campaign with him. NARAL’s president, Ilyse Hogue, called the campaign stop “politically stupid”; Daily Kos, the progressive site that had been crowdsourcing donations for a series of campaigns in red states, pulled its endorsement of Mello after admitting it was unaware of his views about abortion.
Mello, a 37-year-old state senator who has out-fundraised Omaha’s incumbent Republican mayor ahead of the May 9 election, has been highly touted by local Democrats. They lost the mayoralty in 2013, one in a string of defeats that had seen the party wiped out in Nebraska’s major elected offices; in 2016, they lost the Omaha-based 2nd Congressional District.
Nebraska Democrats scheduled Thursday’s rally in Omaha to boost Mello and local activists, and after booking Sanders, they distributed close to 7,000 tickets.
In interviews with the Wall Street Journal and The Post, Sanders and Perez, who are touring together to promote local candidates, said Mello is a case study in how the party needs to elect candidates who sometimes diverge from the national platform.
“If he were running in the People’s Republic of Takoma Park, the voters might do it differently,” Perez, a former Montgomery County Council member in Maryland and a past U.S. secretary of labor, said in an interview from Kentucky, the second stop on his speaking tour with Sanders. “If we have a one-size-fits-all requirement for every Democrat who seeks office, that’s a formula for a filibuster-proof majorities in the Senate; that’s a formula for failure in many areas of this country.
“In order to execute a 50-state strategy, we need to understand what’s going on in all 50 states, and attract candidates who are consistent with their messages but perhaps not on 100 percent of the issues,” Perez said. “If you demand fealty on every single issue, then it’s a challenge.”
Sanders used some of the same framing to explain why Mello deserved progressive votes and support. “I am 100 percent pro-choice, but not every candidate out there has my views 100 percent of the time,” he said. “To have it 95 percent of the time, it makes sense to support him. If this fellow wins in Nebraska, that would be a shot across the bow — that in a state like Nebraska, a progressive Democrat can win. That will give the folks in more conservative states [the idea] that maybe they can run and win as well.”
Comments like those raised the ire of NARAL, which like most national progressive groups had taken no position on the Mello race. On Wednesday, when Sanders’s comments were printed in the Wall Street Journal, NARAL’s Hogue asked how Democrats could back a candidate who had supported a bill introducing transvaginal ultrasounds for pregnant women, a goal of antiabortion groups.
“The actions today by the DNC to embrace and support a candidate for office who will strip women — one of the most critical constituencies for the party — of our basic rights and freedom is not only disappointing, it is politically stupid,” she said. “Today’s action makes this so-called ‘fight back tour’ look more like a throw-back tour for women and our rights.”
In an interview, Nebraska Democratic Party Chairwoman Jane Kleeb said that Mello had been wildly misrepresented. The 2009 ultrasound bill, she explained, had been a compromise. Republicans began the legislative session with a bill that would have required ultrasounds for pregnant women, to make sure they saw what their fetuses looked like before they could consider abortion.
“Tony Fulton had the votes to pass the more restrictive bill,” said Kleeb, referring to the main Republican sponsor. “The bill that Heath negotiated, and the bill that passed, says a woman can have the option of seeing the ultrasound.”
Kleeb, who backed Sanders for president in 2016 and won the state party’s chairmanship that year, said she was disappointed to see the Mello rally spiral into a battle between interest groups. The event would feature a speech from a Dreamer who’d thank Mello for his immigration policy work; it would clear up attacks on Mello for backing the Keystone XL pipeline, pointing out that he favored limits on eminent domain and a liability fund paid for by energy companies.
“Heath was one of the very few people, even when it was controversial, to stand up for Dreamers,” said Kleeb. “He is pro-life. A lot of Dems are pro-life. That is a reality that I share. I was pro-life until 2004 — I mean, my mom was president of Broward County Right to Life. Does that mean that I’m not a Democrat, that I’m not a progressive?”
That tension has simmered inside the Democratic Party since last year. NARAL’s Hogue, a member of the DNC’s platform committee, helped insert language that put the party on record against the Hyde and Helms amendments, which every Congress now passes to block any federal funds paying for abortions. The change briefly flummoxed Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), the party’s 2016 vice presidential nominee, who had run and won statewide with moderate abortion views.
And in Virginia, where Sanders has endorsed former representative Tom Perriello for governor, NARAL has backed Perriello’s opponent on the grounds that the former congressman supported the Stupak Amendment, language that would have restricted funding from the Affordable Care Act along the same lines as Hyde.
In an interview, Hogue said that Mello’s statement did not end questions about his abortion record.
“It’s easy to say you’re not going to do anything new when you’ve already done everything you can,” she said. “One politically expedient statement doesn’t erase a very clear track record. He literally sponsored and co-sponsored these bills. Nebraska led the country on some of the worst anti-choice legislation, and Heath was part of that.”