During the 2018 midterms, the New Jersey Republican State Committee sent a mailer to residents of the Fourth Congressional District imploring them not to believe the “smear campaign” against Chris Smith’s record on women’s rights. It featured many of Smith’s favorite deflections and deceptions about his record, and is worth keeping in mind as he will inevitably reach for the same playbook in 2020.
Prominently displayed in the mailer are Smith’s efforts on sex trafficking. Smith has done admirable work for trafficking survivors, but there’s a catch. If Smith had his way, a pregnant sex trafficking survivor in the US would be forced to carry her rapist’s child, even if she was underage.
Smith and his wife Marie are closely associated with Priests for Life, an extreme anti-abortion group that has been disavowed by the Catholic church for financial misdeeds and inappropriate behavior. Nonetheless, Smith has heaped praise upon the group’s leader, Frank Pavone, and Marie is prominently displayed on their website. (Priests for Life also funds Marie’s Parliamentary Network for Critical Issues via Gospel of Life ministries. For an excellent breakdown, see here.)
Priests for Life is against all abortion, even if the pregnancy is a result of rape. Smith claims he doesn’t believe this, and has supported the Hyde Amendment which bars federal funding for abortion with an exception for instances of rape. Are we to assume that he disagrees with an organization that funds his wife’s charity, that employs his wife, and which he chose to praise from the House floor?
We don’t have to assume. In the 99th Congress (1985-86) Smith introduced two amendments to House Resolution 3067 to ban federal funding for abortion even in instances of rape. In 1991, he said of children conceived in rape that “they too, should be protected.” In 2010 and 2011, he tried to ban federal funding for abortion except in cases of “forcible rape.” This meant that if a woman was not beaten, or if the rape was statutory rape, she would be required to carry her rapist’s child. (For a breakdown of Smith and “forcible rape,” see here.)
So if Smith had his way in 1985, the same sex trafficking survivors he now seeks to use a shield for his reputation would have been forced to bear their rapist’s child. That didn’t work, so he tried to make survivors prove a rape “real” by being beaten, and to ignore statutory rape/age of consent laws by requiring underage girls to bear the consequences of statutory rape through pregnancy. Fortunately, that didn’t work either. Smith did help sex trafficking survivors, but he also worked really hard to amplify the power of rapists over survivors.
Smith’s mailer also claims his law reauthorized funds for women’s shelters, domestic violence grants, resources to fight violent crime against women on campus, and the National Domestic Violence hotline. That’s only because one of the reauthorizations for the Violence Against Women Act was combined with Smith’s Trafficking Victims Protection Act. Most of these provisions have existed since the original VAWA was enacted in 1994, and likely would have been renewed with or without Smith.
About that Violence Against Women Act…Smith’s mailer proudly proclaims he has voted over 40 times to fund and/or expand it. He did, except when he didn’t.
The Senate added protections for LGBTQ Americans to the VAWA in 2012. Smith and Republicans objected and proposed their own alternative. That alternative bill failed the same day the Senate version passed the House.
Smith voted against the Senate bill. It is the GOP alternative, without LGBTQ protections, which Smith praises on his website for that renewal cycle. Same day, different bill. Sneaky.
Even Cathy McMorris Rogers, sponsor of the GOP stunt, voted for the Senate bill. But Smith couldn’t, because it acknowledged LGBTQ people as human beings with human rights.
The 2019 VAWA included a provision barring people with domestic violence convictions from obtaining firearms. Abused women are five times more likely to be killed if their abuser owns a firearm, and domestic assaults involving a firearm are twelve times more likely to result in murder.
Once again, the GOP proposed a bill without these protections, and we can expect Smith to parade this around as proof of his “support.”
Smith can’t hide behind his vote for either GOP alternative. When he voted against the VAWA, he was unequivocally stating that the bill should not become law. Smith had no guarantee the other party would bail him out and pass the VAWA, and irresponsibly put the VAWA at risk. Smith was willing to sacrifice all the programs he tries to take credit for in this mailer - services for survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault, and stalking. He risked provisions in the VAWA that prevent states from charging survivors for rape kits and allow women who flee domestic violence to obtain protection orders across state lines without having to return home to danger. The entire VAWA was expendable if it meant protecting LGBTQ Americans.
Smith’s mailer also describes his efforts to support equal pay legislation. He has, except the one time he didn’t. I honestly have no idea why. Additionally, the mailer notes his support as cosponsor for the Family Medical Leave Act. He did, but the FMLA didn’t cover LGBTQ families when it was passed in 1993. A final rule on that wasn’t issued by the Department of Labor until 2015. Fortunately, the Supreme Court has settled the issue. I wonder where Smith came down on LGBTQ families being covered by FMLA before marriage equality was the law of the land.
Of course, when discussing Smith’s record in terms of women and employment, one cannot ignore the many times he has supported or authored legislation that would allow employers to deny women birth control coverage, fire women who use birth control, or fire anyone for being LGBTQ. Nor the numerous times he has claimed that abortions are physically and psychologiaclly harmful to women, or his efforts to classify birth control as an “abortifacient” and therefore ban it. None of that made it into the mailer.
In many ways, the mailer is a perfect summation of Smith’s career, and offers a preview of the playbook he will return to as he is confronted in 2020. Yes, there are genuinely good deeds done. But no matter how worthy the cause, if there is any intersection with contraception, abortion, or LGBT Americans, Smith drops it on the spot.
Some might ask why this matters. So he voted against the VAWA once, but he always supported it, big deal. So he tried to ban all abortion even in rape, then tried to use “forcible rape” as the standard, but relented in future bills. Why the fuss?
It matters because it offers a window into Smith’s thinking. His first effort is usually his most extreme and reflects what he truly believes.
This is also how Smith survives: relent where he must, use the good that is in his bills, overstate the rest, and hide from anyone who might ask questions. It’s easy to hide, because Smith never holds town halls and the local press never asks Smith the most crucial question: why? Like everyone else, they shrug when they see that he backed off a little, or that he does nice things for the elderly.
Why did you try to ban abortion even in cases of rape? Do you agree with the “rape is an act of God” crowd? Why did you try to establish “forcible rape” as a legal standard? Do you think women need to be beaten for rape to be “real”? Are statutory rape survivors “real’ or did they give consent? Why were you willing to risk all that the VAWA does once it might have helped LGBTQ Americans?
Why is important because the answers would tell us who Smith is. He is both things: the nice guy who authored admirable legislation and the cutthroat extremist willing to sacrifice anything and punish anyone in his anti-abortion/reproductive rights/LGBTQ crusade. Shouldn’t voters know to what degree Smith is each before they make a decision? Without Smith’s why, and with no “I’ve changed my mind” or “I made a mistake,” we are left to assume Smith still desires the most extreme version of his positions. He just couldn’t get away with it.
And that means voters have no idea if he would try again.