Why Is Bernie Sanders Supporting Heath Mello?

The Democratic Party is working to rebuild and redefine its messaging after its devastating losses in the presidency, the House, and the Senate. Despite his own loss in the Democratic presidential primary, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders is at the forefront of this effort. And his method for doing so involves major compromise, as the independent has opted to openly stump for an anti-abortion mayoral candidate who's also a Democrat as part of a "50-state strategy." Despite knowing exactly who Heath Mello is and understanding his past stance on abortion rights, Sanders campaigned for him in Omaha last week as part of nationwide tour to elect Democrats to local offices — indicating, essentially, that he views women's right to choose as negotiable or as worth compromising for partisan politics.

Sanders, whose own record on abortion rights is strong, cemented his unequivocal support for Mello's Omaha mayoral bid at the "Come Together, Fight Back, Vote Democrats" national tour Thursday. According to The Omaha World-Herald, he stressed the importance of "putting together a strong grass-roots coalition" and advocated for policy promoting tenets that were hallmarks of his campaign such as expanded access to health care, paid family leave, free college tuition, and economic inequality.

Conspicuously absent, of course, was a defense of women's right to access the safe medical procedure that empowers them to decide when and whether to become parents — a right that's already under siege across the country.

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Perhaps that's because drawing attention to reproductive freedom wouldn't exactly mesh with Mello's own demonstrated opinion on the subject. As a Nebraska state legislator in 2009, the now-37-year-old signed a bill to mandate that medical providers offer women the chance to have ultrasounds before getting abortions, CNN reported. So, when Sanders decided to back Mello as part of his strategy to nurture Democratic candidates who could grow into the future of the party, the backlash was swift. NARAL Pro-Choice President Ilyse Hogue said in a statement following the event:

If Democrats think the path forward following the 2016 election is to support candidates who substitute their own judgement and ideology for that of their female constituents, they have learned all the wrong lessons and are bound to lose. ... Abortion access is not a ‘single issue’ or a 'social issue.' It is a proxy for women to have control over our lives, our family's lives, our economic well-being, our dignity, and human rights.

But Sanders defended his decision to overlook Mello's record on abortion in a subsequent appearance on CBS's Face the Nation Sunday. He said that Mello's Republican opponent, incumbent Jean Stothert, is aggressively anti-abortion. His priority, it seems, is to unite the party as much as possible to thwart the Republican agenda. It's about unity, he told host John Dickerson:

If you have a rally in which you have the labor movement and the environmentalists and Native-Americans and the African-American community and the Latino community coming together saying, "We want this guy to become our next mayor.'" Should I reject going there to Omaha? I don’t think so.

Representatives for Sanders did not immediately respond to Romper's request for comment.

(Also, despite his past and the fact that he is Catholic, Mello said in a recent statement that he "would never do anything to restrict access to reproductive health care," as mayor.)

Still, Sanders' willingness to disregard Mello's past as an opponent of reproductive justice is disheartening — especially because he has shown that there are issues, such as economic justice, that he has been steadfastly devoted to and unwilling to compromise. Why should a woman's right to choose be treated as nonessential?

Of course, it's unlikely that Mello would have the ability or the opportunity as mayor to affect abortion policy, as that debate tends to rage at a state and federal level. But it's telling that, somehow, Sanders is OK with laying down the torch in the fight to defend this basic human right for women in favor of what he sees as the larger goal.

An ascension to mayor of Omaha could help to set Mello up to run for higher office. Do Democrats really want to help to launch an opponent of abortion rights into Congress or beyond?