Sen. Sherrod Brown knows which side his omelet is hot-sauced on.
After a fundraiser in the parking lot of the Cleveland restaurant Moxie, Brown, Ohio’s senior senator, pulled Planned Parenthood chief Cecile Richards aside to thank her for headlining—and to seek her blessing. He had been asked to participate in an event sponsored by Susan G. Komen for the Cure—the breast cancer foundation that publicly brawled with Planned Parenthood earlier this year when it threatened to defund the organization before backing down—and wanted to know how Richards would feel about his joining the event before responding.
“We support. We march,” said the 55-year-old Richards, in patent heels and a candy-red dress—later, she’ll humorously lament to staffers, “I’ve been wearing this dress for like five days in a row”—standing over the senator.
For Richards, it’s been a long and winding journey to get here. Since joining Planned Parenthood in 2006, she’s revitalized the organization while serving as both its public face and its actual head.
“I get chills thinking, wow, what would we do if we didn’t have someone like her leading this important organization at the most critical time in its history?” says author, reproductive-rights advocate, and consultant Christina Page. “Cecile feels like a whole different level and quality of leadership. [Planned Parenthood] is not only a political organization and nonprofit, but a billion-dollar company. We finally have somebody who brings that level of savvy and professionalism. Cecile chooses her battles. She’s very focused.”
Richards, the daughter of that state’s former governor Ann Richards, is in a position to give marching orders, and tonight she’ll be speaking at the Democratic National Convention, where plenty of her family’s history has been shared over the years. Her mother gave the keynote address in 1988, and Richards spoke briefly two decades later, celebrating Planned Parenthood’s second-ever endorsement of a presidential candidate, Barack Obama.
This year, Richards intends to go bolder judging from her conversations with staff about it on the bus. She aims to draw a picture for a national audience of what an America without Planned Parenthood would look like. “If you want to see what a Romney presidency might be like, look at Texas,” says Richards, referring to the system that was rated “worst in the nation” under Republican Gov. Rick Perry in a federal study this year, and where women seeking an abortion are required to undergo a vaginal ultrasound.
I’d met Richards the day before the Brown fundraiser, at the Westin that was once Columbus Ohio’s Great Southern Fireproof Hotel, an old redbrick building on the outskirts of downtown. She’d come to join the group’s Women Are Watching bus tour, which had staff members crisscrossing swing states for rallies, along with stops at both conventions—to protest outside in Tampa and to deliver Richards to the podium in Charlotte.
At breakfast, she slicks a vegetarian pepper omelet in a chevron of Tabasco as we have breakfast, an appropriate meal for a woman atop an organization endlessly putting out political fires, and sometimes lighting them. We have a shoe moment in the lobby—agreeing that comfortable and stylish is an impossible combination, and share information about each others’ kicks before getting down to business.
We split then reunite at a rally near the short north arts district, where anti-abortion activists greet her as “Cecile Hitler,” but she doesn’t appear to notice. Pulitzer Prize–winning columnist Connie Schultz and wife to Brown takes the podium and excites the crowd with the line “it’s not what they call you, but what you answer to.”
Richards may run and structure the organization with the discipline of a heavyweight CEO, but in her interactions with her staff in Ohio she comes off as interested, funny, and at ease. A marathon runner who calls herself cheap when it comes to food, Richards says she drags family and friends to trek from her Central Park West apartment to score homemade tortillas at a divey outpost in Queens. It’s no idle boast: her daughter Hannah and her friend Patti both tell me later about the schlep to the eats.
On the bus, she keys in on personal details. “Where’s the wedding?” she asks the newly engaged press officer. To the security officer, the only man for miles donning a suit, “Ed, what’s with the tie? It’s Saturday.” Someone mentions supporters are bringing hand-knitted uteruses to rallies. “Is this a cottage industry in Ohio?” Richards wants to know.
She is unafraid of appearing imperfect, a quality that resonates with her young admirers and staff who gush as if she’s a rock star when she’s not around. Richards whips out her iPhone, snug in its trademark Obama for America case, for a quick password-resetting tutorial from a young woman on her staff. “Let’s be candid, I’m not a genius when it comes to this thing,” she tells us.
“A woman on her feet with a spear in her hand,” is what Aisha Tyler, host of CBS’s The Talk and a Planned Parenthood Board of Advocates member, calls Richards. The eldest of four, Richards says she was a first child “in the good and the bad” ways. After graduating Brown University, she organized low-income workers in Texas, California, and Louisiana for 15 years, shaping her belief that “the only things you get are the things you fight for, and when you don’t get everything, you live to fight another day.”
Other jobs that paved the way for Richards’s post at Planned Parenthood included influential roles with the Turner Foundation and America Votes. She helped elect her mother, and even founded an organization to combat the religious right’s usurping of Texas’s schools and legislatures.
In an uncharacteristic turn, Richards served as Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s deputy chief of staff for a year in 2002. Asked about Richards’s time on her staff, Pelosi called her former aide a “tenacious organizer” and “an expert at both inside maneuvering and outside mobilization, skills she gleaned on Capitol Hill and perfected at Planned Parenthood,”
But in a statement to The Daily Beast, Richards, who’s worked closely with Pelosi since leaving her staff, remembers the job as her biggest professional fail. “Most people in my position had been on the Hill for 30 years,” she says. “I learned so much from her. I realized I really had no business in the job.” Instead she would go on to set the agenda herself for politicians to follow.
Richards, her husband Kirk Adams, and their three children moved from Austin to Washington to New York over two decades for Richards’s career, which landed her in 2006 at the helm of Planned Parenthood at what veteran activists called a critical juncture for the “choice movement.” In her first weeks on the job, South Dakota’s governor signed into law the country’s first state-legislated abortion ban and conservative justice Samuel Alito was appointed to the Supreme Court. Months later her mother succumbed to esophageal cancer, leaving Richards without her chief adviser and best friend.
“She was tough in every way,” Richards says of her mother. “She was a fighter, and she expected me to be one too.”
Many who know Richards from reproductive-rights work describe her as “gorgeous” and “articulate,” and wouldn’t have been surprised had she become a press staple and public persona minutes after taking the helm. “She could have walked into Planned Parenthood and spent all her time in the media. To her credit, she rolled up her sleeves merging and cutting what needed to be cut and raising money in a climate where money was very hard to find,” said Frances Kissling, a former president of both the National Abortion Federation and Catholics for a Free Choice. She also credited Richards with modernizing Planned Parenthood centers themselves, an unglamorous but essential job given that one in five women will visit a center in her lifetime.
At the same time, Richards—“glamorous, but not a glamourpuss,” according to Kissling—oversaw the consolidation and message streamlining of the individual, personalized websites of many of Planned Parenthood’s more than 800 health centers and some 80 affiliates the year she arrived.
“The organization is united in the way it was once franchised. Now it’s like we’re in this together, we need to be on message together,’” Page said.
Richards lobbied the Obama administration and thrust Planned Parenthood to the center of the debate over health-care reform. “I’m like a broken record on this,” Richards says of her assertion that contraception and women’s general health services—comprising 97 percent of what Planned Parenthood does—need to be the organization’s central message rather than abortion policy. The Affordable Care Act, passed in 2010, delivered several benefits for women, including preventive care and ending the categorization of pregnancy as a “preexisting condition,” but what Richards trumpets and can take some credit for is comprehensive insurance coverage of women’s birth control. Some activists and smaller reproductive-rights organizations charged that the advancing of birth control came at the cost of insurance coverage for abortion. ACA codified the Hyde amendment, which prohibits federal monies, or public-private partnerships, like the exchanges now being set up by states per the act. Many in the choice movement faulted Planned Parenthood, the nation’s largest abortion provider, with this defeat, but Richards sees it differently.
“We were fought to a draw on the Affordable Care act. We weren’t going to go backwards. But there are things like the Hyde amendment that didn’t get fixed,” she says.
Still, birth control, which Richards says is the most-used prescription drug, taken by 99 percent of women, will certainly be a large part of Richards’s legacy with Planned Parenthood.
With much of the grunt work of rebuilding the organization done, Richards has finally been assuming more of the media rock-star status that had long been expected of her. She has been more visible this year than at any other time during her tenure, penning a flurry of op-eds, nailing a Daily Show appearance, and being quoted left and right.
“She has that quality leaders have who make you feel like you’re the only person in the room,” says Tyler.
“When she was thrust into the limelight by Komen, attacks on Planned Parenthood, and Mitt Romney, all of those things raised her visibility,” said Kissling. “Jobs like hers are representational. She rose to the occasion. She’s now seen as this courageous person.”
Many who know Richards say her way with young people, and the next generation of Planned Parenthood users and supporters, makes her leadership unique. “She has a way of connecting with that generation. She speaks their language,” said longtime friend Patti Everitt, whose son is the same age as Richards’s college-senior twins.
Perhaps part of why Richards can talk to 20-somethings is that she has three of her own, one of whom spent the summer organizing and another who is a spokeswoman for former Virginia governor and now senate candidate Tim Kaine. Richards brings up her kids repeatedly during discussions of birth control and why it matters.
She says that women in her mother’s generation complain that “young people don’t understand and they don’t appreciate what we did for them and I say, ‘well of course they don’t. That’s not their reality. They have to understand this in their own way. That’s what happened with birth control.’”
Even as Democrats have given up ground on abortion, with the Hyde amendment and as states have restricted access to the procedure, party members in this election year have rallied around Planned Parenthood—an irony not lost on abortion-rights activists and leaders who accuse the party of backing away from the issue ever since the Clinton administration.
“My mother always told me people do things for their own reasons. They don’t do things for your reasons,” Richards says.
“Thank God for Cecile Richards,” says Page, who credits Richards’s discipline with making Planned Parenthood the reproductive-rights movement’s most indispensable ally.
“When you see who is quoted in newspaper stories, who is framing the issue, who understands the stakes, and who is the most prominent organization on this issue, all roads lead to Planned Parenthood,” says Page.