The stories Ilyse Hogue tells are not the kind you hear from other bosses in the Democratic Party.
Like the time she was a Greenpeace activist and lived on a bus. Or when, as a leader at MoveOn.org, she realized she knew more about the Obama health plan than the lawmakers she was pressuring.
Or the moment she cried as she prepared to take the stage at the 2016 Democratic National Convention and tell the world she had had an abortion.
Sitting in a midtown Manhattan coffee house, a dozen devoted fans leaning close over a table littered with muffin crumbs, the president of NARAL Pro-Choice America recounted how she was getting ready to deliver her groundbreaking speech when the tears began. It wasn’t due to nerves.
“I had this moment of extraordinary panic that I had chosen to wear a red dress,” Hogue said. “And I’m like, ‘It’s like a giant scarlet letter!’”
Everyone at the table laughed. But Hogue was making a serious point. She believes people who are reticent about abortion, most of all Democratic leaders, are letting their opponents win.
That is, in fact, what most of her stories are about. They are tales she uses to demonstrate a firmly held belief that the Democratic Party is doing it wrong.
“In some ways, we’re the biggest obstacle in our own pathway to success,” Hogue told her coffee-house crowd, summing up an argument she’s made in countless op-eds and interviews. “By buying into abortion stigma, by not talking about it, by not grounding it in common values, by not having the conversation that needs to be had, we’re letting them off the hook.”
For the 48-year-old, this point of view comes naturally. She has spent a lifetime in liberal activism, taking on radical projects that might seem far-fetched to some but are at the heart of her mission to change how the nation functions.
To the Democratic leaders who have faced her wrath, these issues aren’t so easy. But more than ever before, they are being forced to listen. A party reeling from last year’s electoral catastrophe has been transformed by a surge of energy from the activist left, electrified by Donald Trump’s inauguration and embodied by the million-person Women’s March the day after he entered the White House.
That movement has guaranteed Hogue a level of influence previously denied to liberal activists. And it has imbued her with a power she eagerly taps, clashing with Democratic leaders who have frequently and for decades backed down under her pressure.
“You couldn’t assume before that a Democratic Party leader had really been at the barricades before being in the halls of power,” said Anna Galland, an old colleague of Hogue’s and a current top official at MoveOn.org. “Ilyse spent her life building power within social movements, and she has brought those movements with her into the halls of power.”
To the women at this informal NARAL meeting in New York, Hogue’s ascendance is an unalloyed good. They thanked her profusely for coming to speak with them, one admitting to being a “fangirl.”
Other Democratic leaders, especially those trying to win races in red states, aren’t so sure.
THE MOST RADICAL PERSON IN THE ROOM
Hogue’s career in activism is as varied as it is long. What started as environmental advocacy — she worked at Greenpeace from 1998 to 2000 and the Rainforest Action Network from 2000 to 2006 — morphed into a five-year stint at MoveOn.org, where she led campaigns on health care and financial regulation reform. Then came work in liberal media advocacy at Media Matters and a Super PAC pushing for campaign finance reform.
By the time she took over NARAL in 2013, she had enlisted in almost every liberal cause except for abortion rights. She’d been arrested, saying she was put in jail (and later exonerated) during the infamous “Battle of Seattle” protests in 1999 when she worked for Greenpeace.
“When I talked to people, I’m usually the most radical person in the room,” said Angelo Caursone, president of Media Matters. “I don’t feel like that when I talk to Ilyse.”
Hogue is a registered Democrat, but she never worked inside the party or held office.
She offers a handful of reasons she was drawn to activism. (She didn’t have talent in music or art, for one.) But the most compelling is her religious and cultural background, growing up in a Jewish family in North Dallas.
“My folks were definitely shaped by being born in the shadow of World War II and the Holocaust, and my grandfather was in the armed forces in World War II,” she said in an interview. “And it was a big part of our conversation. Knowing that history and how it affected my family and my people from a young age, I think it always called into question for me, ‘Which side will you be on?’”
Hogue mentions her Texas upbringing a lot, usually to explain just how aware she is that many people don’t see politics her way.
That might explain why so many of her old colleagues, when asked to describe Hogue, first call her “strategic.” Hogue is deeply committed to her cause, they say, but is just as aware that good intentions don’t cause change.
One old colleague of Hogue’s pointed to a campaign she conducted at Rainforest Action Network to persuade Citigroup to disinvest from projects the group considered environmentally destructive. The environmentalists weren’t getting anywhere until Hogue bought ads to run on a station in New York City, during the company’s annual shareholder’s meeting.
The ad showed celebrities cutting up the bank’s credit cards.
“That ad had aired once or maybe twice that first morning that we bought space when we got a call from Citigroup,” Hogue said in a 2005 video produced by Rainforest Action Network about the campaign. “And they said, ‘Uncle. Pull the ad; we’ll sit down and start drafting policy with you.’”
Perhaps it’s not a surprise then that an activist who took on corporate behemoths would have no qualms taking on the Democratic Party’s powerful elite.
TAKING ON THE POWER PLAYERS
Hogue is frustrated with these leaders, including liberal icon Bernie Sanders and his perceived squishiness on anything other than his favorite topic — economic justice. When the former presidential candidate talked on the campaign trail about giving families paid leave so that moms — not parents — could stay home with their kids, it set her off.
“Look, he’s my grandpa,” Hogue said. “There were things I couldn’t get my grandpa to change before he died even though I know on the basic values he was with us. But I do think there is a higher bar for folks who are out there saying that they’re charting the course.”
One showdown with Democratic leaders wasn’t enough for Hogue this year.
By spring, the NARAL chief had already led a charge that helped keep Neil Gorsuch from receiving 60 votes in the Senate, persuading a vast majority of Senate Democrats (including some in red states) to offer no quarter to a Supreme Court justice she viewed as antithetical to her values.
Then came the two-front fight that drew the attention of the entire Democratic Party.
Hogue in April tore into new DNC Chairman Tom Perez and Sanders for showing support for Heath Mello, a mayoral candidate in Omaha who had a history of legislating against abortion rights. And in July, when the chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, Ben Ray Lujan, said abortion rights would not be a “litmus test” for candidate recruitment, Hogue unleashed her palpable fury.
“Ignoring women’s fundamental freedoms and equality to win elections is both an ethically and politically bankrupt strategy,” she tweeted.
Party leaders were stunned at the ferocity of her words.
For many Democratic strategists and operatives, abortion remains a sensitive subject that should be approached by candidates with great care and nuance. And Democratic leaders, desperate for a path back to relevance in Washington, are latching onto a level of policy ambiguity that they think might help them attract voters beyond their base.
“They are … telegraphing a message that they are making an exception to throw their base constituency unnecessarily under the bus,” she said, “when my political experience tells me that the best pathway forward is to fight the good fight. Look for candidates in every single district that uphold Democratic Party values.”
Access to abortion, Hogue believes, is one of those core party values. She is so confident that Democrats possess such a huge political advantage on the issue that she thinks candidates of all types, from all areas of the country, could run on it.
Other Democrats are skeptical, to say the least. Many Democratic operatives share the deeply embedded belief that the party retook control of the House majority in 2006 because then-DCCC Chairman Rahm Emanuel recruited culturally conservative candidates to run in conservative districts.
To them, it’s a strategy the party should employ in 2018, when Democrats are once again hopeful about retaking the House majority.
“The larger goal, from [Hogue’s] perspective, is taking back the House,” said Jason Altmire, a candidate Emmanuel recruited in 2006 who ran and won his right-leaning western Pennsylvania district. “And that simply isn’t possible if you relegate the party to supporting candidates who are out of step with the districts they represent.”
Democratic strategists say Hogue’s view of abortion politics is, at best, a simplified version of reality. America might be pro-choice, they say, but their support comes with plenty of caveats: A Gallup poll from June found only a slight plurality of voters, 49 percent, identified as “pro-choice,” and a majority of them, 50 percent, think abortion should be legal only under certain circumstances.
A debate about a 20-week abortion ban, which polls show draws a majority of support, will have a different dynamic than arguing over the existence of Roe v. Wade.
Other Democrats resent what they regard as an academic debate being foisted upon the party at a time when it’s desperate to find victories against Trump and the congressional GOP. House Democratic strategists, for instance, say Hogue’s attack was misdirected because, in reality, all of the party’s top contenders support abortion rights anyway.
But mostly, these Democrats are less worried about what Hogue says (many say she’s just doing her job) than the fact that Democratic leaders seem so eager to bend to her will.
After Hogue lambasted Perez publicly, for example, he reversed course and said support for abortion rights was “non-negotiable.”
Mello, the mayoral candidate, lost his race in a disappointing result for the party. The Nebraska Democratic Party Chairwoman Jane Kleeb doesn’t blame the controversy for the defeat — but she says it contributed.
More worryingly, she said, was the long-term damage it did to Democratic voters who identify as pro-life and told her they weren’t sure if they were welcome inside the party anymore.
“I can’t tell you the number of phone calls I got from pro-life Democrats who called exasperated and disappointed that the chairman of the Democratic Party would take the side of an activist group,” Kleeb said. “That’s fundamentally not right.”
THE LIMITS OF IDEOLOGICAL PURITY
It would be a mistake to say that Hogue, for all the shots she takes at fellow Democrats, is simply a trouble-maker.
She does the things party leaders are expected to do, like this month’s bus tour organized by Save My Care, a consortium of liberal groups that banded together to protests the GOP’s plan to repeal Obamacare. She gave a speech, granted a local interview and even dutifully recorded (and re-recorded) soundbites the tour would later use in a video. She stayed on script, not discussing the need for single-payer health care, the holy grail of the liberal agenda.
Indeed, most Democrats like her. Members of Hillary Clinton’s campaign say she was a great surrogate for the presidential candidate. One prominent centrist Democrat, after seeing Hogue speak at an event, said she would be “pretty much be willing to follow her anywhere.”
She certainly has the ear of some of the party’s most prominent leaders, including presidential candidates.
“Ilyse is as smart and as tough as they come, and without a doubt is one of the most effective advocates I’ve ever seen in my political career,” said Kirsten Gillibrand, a Democratic senator from New York who is widely considered a potential presidential contender in 2020.
“When she raises her voice, people listen to her, they follow her, and they are inspired to raise their own voices too,” Gillibrand said. “And at this particular moment, when women’s rights are under near-constant attack from the president and Congress, I can’t think of anyone better suited to lead the fight to defend women’s rights in our country.”
Hogue also isn’t as intransigent as she might seem. She doesn’t think Senate Democratic incumbents, who sometimes legislate against abortion rights, such as Bob Casey or Joe Manchin, should be cut off from support, calling such an approach a “negotiation non-starter.”
She also wouldn’t say what, in fact, would happen if Democrats did end up with a handful of candidates next year who oppose abortion rights – but could also swing the majority to the party with victories.
“If at the end of the cycle you have candidates who fall short, which you will on every single issue …then you deal with it at the time,” Hogue said.
Still though, when she’s in New York, her message is clear.
“Now is the time to double down on our principles, and not think about whether we are asking for too much,” she said. “Absolutely not. People are desperate for principled leadership right now. People believe in investing on the values and not giving up.”
“That is the kind of fight we look to take on.”