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Voter League comes under fire for role at abortion-rights rally


ANNAPOLIS -- The avowedly non-partisan Maryland League of Women Voters was accused yesterday of crossing the line into partisan politics by participating in a pro-abortion rights event with the Clinton/Gore campaign.

"I think it's outrageous that the League would show up with a Clinton/Gore speaker," said Tom Berriman, press secretary of the Vote kNOw Coalition, an anti-abortion group.

"The League of Women Voters' message today was loud and clear: non-partisan no longer," said Ellen Curro, the Vote kNOw Coalition's president.

The League countered that it supports a woman's right to an abortion without endorsing any candidate or political party.

The incident, however, illustrates the problems that can occur when a group such as the League supports a position on a highly controversial issue on which national Republican and Democratic leaders differ.

The League yesterday joined the Maryland FOR Choice campaign outside the State House to announce a statewide drive to register voters and to encourage them to support a ballot question that, if passed Nov. 3, will keep abortion legal in Maryland.

A League official introduced several speakers, including Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, representing the Clinton campaign, and Vera Hall, chairwoman of the Maryland Democratic Party. Both women urged Marylanders to support Mr. Clinton, the Democratic nominee for president. Several in the crowd of three dozen waved Clinton/Gore placards for television cameras.

Patty Pollard, president of the League of Women Voters of Maryland, said she wished the Democrats had stuck to the abortion rights issue. "I would have preferred it if there were no political signs or mention of candidates," she said.

Sally Grant, chairwoman of the League's Reproductive Choice Committee, acknowledged that the pro-Clinton speeches at the League-organized event could have given the appearance "to some" that the League is supporting Democrats, "but not to us. We take a position that is non-partisan."

In a telephone interview, Becky Cain, national president of the League of Women Voters, said the group's support of various political issues, including abortion rights, does not conflict with its nonpartisan nature.

"We have taken positions for the past 72 years, but we've never taken a position based on who the candidates are," Ms. Cain said. "We never support or oppose a candidate in any way."

The League came out in favor of abortion rights almost 10 years ago, its spokeswomen said.

Opponents of abortion, however, are not satisfied with those explanations. "No matter what its organizers claim, the public reality of displaying Clinton/Gore signs alongside League banners and having the head of the Democratic Party as the keynote speaker screams crass partisan politics," said Ms. Curro of the Vote kNOw Coalition.

The event included one GOP speaker, state Sen. Howard A. Denis of Montgomery County, who represented the Republican Coalition for Choice. He emphasized the "bipartisan" nature of -- the abortion issue and made no mention of President Bush, who opposes abortion.

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