A growing list of Texas pro-choice activists and donors are pressuring the campaign arm of Planned Parenthood to skip out on endorsing Republican state lawmaker Sarah Davis as she seeks re-election in Houston’s House District 134.
Davis is the only pro-choice Republican in the Texas Legislature and has received the endorsement of Planned Parenthood Texas Votes the past two election cycles. She is facing Ann Johnson, a Democrat and former chief prosecutor for human trafficking in Harris County promising to strengthen reproductive rights in the state.
Planned Parenthood Texas Votes lobbies politically on behalf of the major affiliates of Planned Parenthood in Texas. It also contributes to campaigns through digital advertising and canvassing, according to Texas Ethics Commission filings. The nonpartisan campaign arm — which operates independently of Planned Parenthood clinics in the state — has endorsed more than a dozen candidates and incumbents this year but has yet to back Davis.
Sherry Merfish, an influential pro-choice Democratic activist and major donor from Houston who previously worked for the pro-women PAC EMILY’s List for 16 years, recently began circulating a petition asking Planned Parenthood Texas Votes to not endorse Davis this year.
“Sarah Davis may have met the minimum standards of what it means to be ‘pro-choice,’ voting against harmful abortion restrictions and fighting to marginally expand access to health care for women, but the rest of her record stands completely at odds with the cause of reproductive justice and the purported mission of Planned Parenthood,” reads the petition, signed by more than 400 people including many Houston area activists and donors for Planned Parenthood.
Merfish fears an endorsement for Davis would cast doubt on Johnson and her campaign’s goals for reproductive rights. She also takes issue with the rest of Davis’ voting record in the Texas House.
“You can’t view reproductive justice in a silo,” Merfish told the Signal. “You can’t just look at someone’s votes on choice. While that is, of course, the threshold issue, we now are compelled because of the air we breathe, to look at how our representatives vote on issues that affect the very population they represent.”
She stressed the fact that Democrats are only nine seats away from a majority in the Texas House and that an extra reliable Democrat vote would be essential for the looming battle over redistricting.
In a statement to the Signal, Planned Parenthood Texas Votes Executive Director Dyana Limon-Mercado told the Signal reproductive rights and health should not be a partisan issue.
“We respect and trust the position and leaders of other progressive organizations in their efforts to best advance their mission and represent their constituents and members, just as we do for Planned Parenthood patients and health centers,” Limon-Mercado said.
“The PPTV Board of Directors vetted and interviewed both Rep. Sarah Davis and Democratic-challenger Ann Johnson for HD 134,” Limon-Mercado said. “As of this story, the board has not publicly announced an endorsement in the race for HD 134.”
First elected in 2010, Davis built her reputation as a moderate Republican through her votes on women’s health, LGBTQ rights, and vaccines. Most recently, she was the only Republican to oppose Senate Bill 22, a law banning state and county governments from partnering with healthcare providers that offer abortion — the most anti-abortion piece of legislation to successfully come out of the 2019 Texas Legislature.
Despite her unique record in her own party on those issues, Davis has voted with Republicans on banning sanctuary cities, redistricting, and loosening firearm restrictions. Davis has also frequently missed important votes that could be seen as too controversial or disruptive for the balancing act she maintains to win over voters in her affluent district. She took second place in the Texas Legislature for most excused absences, missing a total of 625 votes in 2019, according to Reform Austin. Among those missed votes, the infamous ‘Save Chick-fil-A’ bill, a bill decriminalizing cannabis possession, a bill to give pipeline protestors felony jail time, and a bill to allow guns in places of worship.
In 2017, Gov. Greg Abbott endorsed Davis’ primary opponent and spent $223,000 in a failed bid to oust her. Two years later, he reversed course and backed Davis for re-election, a clear sign Republicans know that House District 134, which voted in favor of Beto O’Rourke over Sen. Ted Cruz by a 21 percentage point margin in 2018 (more than any other Texas House district in the state) is trending rapidly toward Democrats.
Peggie Kohnert, a Houston pro-choice activist heavily involved in the reproductive justice movement, is one of two board members for Planned Parenthood Gulf Coast to sign onto Merfish’s petition. Kohnert is circulating a similar petition criticizing Davis’ record and urging Planned Parenthood Texas Votes to back Johnson.
Editor’s Note: Planned Parenthood Gulf Coast is a separate entity from Planned Parenthood Texas Votes, and does not issue political endorsements.
“When I go to national meetings for Planned Parenthood because I’m a big donor and I’m on the Gulf Coast board, at every meeting they talk about intersection work, like working with gay organizations, Black Lives Matter or immigration groups,” Kohnert said. “They talk about all that at every national meeting I have been to. I feel like Planned Parenthood Texas Votes is ignoring that intersectionality.”
Kohnert said she has previously voted for Davis but sees no reason the campaign arm of Planned Parenthood should see the race as a single-issue contest since there are two pro-choice candidates.
Her daughter, Vail Kohnert-Yount, a pro-choice activist who also co-chaired this year’s Roe v. Wade luncheon and signed the petition, echoed those thoughts.
“I’ve been a patient of Planned Parenthood, I’ve donated to Planned Parenthood. I really, really believe in the work that they do,” Kohnert-Yount said.
She said Davis’ record goes against everything she’s learned Planned Parenthood stands for.
“When I go to a Planned Parenthood fundraiser, or a happy hour or something, it’s all about intersectionality and understanding that reproductive justice isn’t just about abortion rights,” Kohnert-Yount said. “It’s about the full spectrum of social justice.”
Photo: Hourick/Wikimedia Commons
Fernando covers Texas politics and government at the Texas Signal. Before joining the Signal, Fernando spent two years at the Houston Chronicle and previously interned at Houston’s NPR station News 88.7. He is a graduate of the University of Houston, Jack J. Valenti School of Communication, and enjoys reading, highlighting things, and arguing on social media. You can follow him on Twitter at @fernramirez93 or email at firstname.lastname@example.org