SITTING IT OUT

05.04.12

A Major Stumble for Komen: Joe Biden and a Key Congressman Will Skip D.C. Event

The Komen foundation’s biggest race of the year won’t start with a kickoff at Vice President Biden’s home, and a major fundraising congressman withdraws. An exclusive report by Abigail Pesta.

As the Susan G. Komen foundation gears up for its most high-profile event of the year, its Global Race for the Cure in Washington, D.C., Vice President Joe Biden will not be hosting a kickoff barbecue for the annual race, as he and his wife, Jill, have done in previous years, The Daily Beast has learned.

In addition, U.S. Congressman Mike Honda, who formed a team for the race last year that raised more than $10,000—making him the top fundraiser for the event on Capitol Hill—told The Daily Beast that he will not be participating this year, linking the decision to Komen’s move to cut funds to Planned Parenthood earlier this year amid pressure from Catholic bishops.

The Komen foundation quickly reversed its Planned Parenthood decision amid a backlash, but it has struggled since then, with some Komen affiliates around the country reporting declines in participants at spring races and other fundraising events.

A Biden representative cited an unspecified scheduling conflict for the couple's decision not to host the annual kickoff party at their home for the June 2 event.

Rep. Honda’s office was critical of Komen, saying that while the congressman “supports the Susan G. Komen foundation’s vital work,” he also “believes that Komen must act to rebuild trust with all its partners,” according to communications director Jack d’Annibale. “Komen must act to ensure its work benefits all women. Congressman Honda was the first member of Congress to call on Komen to reverse its Planned Parenthood decision, and he will remain vigilant for any attempt to use partisan politics to derail the urgent mission to defeat cancer and protect the health of women everywhere,” d’Annibale said.

The Komen foundation said it remains “very optimistic about the race,” according to Leslie Aun, Komen’s vice president for communications. “The numbers are lower than where we were last year at this time, but typically what happens is that in the days leading up to the race, we close the gap.” Aun, who will be leaving her post at Komen this month to join a D.C. group called Venture Philanthropy Partners, added, “Fewer dollars mean fewer women we serve, and that is really sad. Lots of women in D.C. need the funds Komen provides. This is about the women and our communities.”

At last year’s Washington race, nearly 40,000 people participated, with 45 congressional offices forming teams. The event raised more than $5 million, according to the Komen foundation. Seventy-five percent of funds raised at community races stays in the local community, going to screening for treatment and women, according to Komen. The other 25 percent goes to research.

“Just this week, someone at a local lesbian health organization for women with cancer told me she wished people knew what we do for them,” Aun says. “We’re their largest grantee.” She added, “We hope people continue to support Komen for the right reasons. It is not about politics—it is about breast cancer. To politicize breast cancer is wrong. There are too many women at this moment who are counting on us to help them in their fight. Everything else is noise and nonsense.”

In the 30 years since the Komen foundation was launched, it has raised some $1.9 billion for cancer research. More than 100,000 volunteers work in a nationwide network of affiliates. It was all the vision of Nancy Brinker. A former U.S. ambassador to Hungary, she created the charity after her sister, Susan G. Komen, died of breast cancer in her mid-30s.

In the wake of the Planned Parenthood flap, Komen canceled its annual lobbying day in D.C., at which activists push for government programs, not for Komen programs—raising concerns that the controversy could have wide-reaching effects on women’s health. Separately, Komen’s New York City affiliate postponed two spring fundraisers amid concerns about participation. Affiliates from Florida to Arizona have reported declines in race participants and funds. Dana Curish, the executive director of the Central Indiana affiliate, said her recent race had 27,126 participants, down from 37,450 last year. “Right now our fundraising dollars are also down about 28 percent,” she said, “but fundraising stays open until May 21, so we still have time to change those numbers and are offering incentives.”

Not all affiliates attribute declines to the Planned Parenthood issue. Miriam Ross, the executive director of the Komen affiliate in Southwest Florida, said fundraising was down around 10 percent at her group’s race—to $850,000—but that she believes the downturn was due to seasonal factors. “We live in a tourist area that is dependent on seasonal residents. This year was the warmest winter in decades, and that had an effect on the number of seasonal tourists that typically come down from January to April,” she said. She added, “We had more than 10,000 attendees at the race this year. We have a tremendous amount of support from the local community and over the past 10 years have been able to fund programs totaling $5.7 million. These local grants fund education, screening, and treatment for those people in our community who have nowhere else to turn.”

Aun, the Komen spokeswoman, stressed the importance of support from local communities. “We know people have been upset. We’ve made mistakes, and we’ve apologized,” she said. “We’re trying to move forward in the best way we can. We cannot do that without the support of the local community. Our local community in D.C. is Congress.”