RALEIGH — After weeks of complaints from pro-choice advocates about partisan ties between Republicans on the Wake County Board of Commissioners and a pro-life state legislator, Wake County Democratic Party Chairman Jack Nichols has joined forces with liberal commissioners to reinstate coverage for elective abortions in the county’s employee health insurance plan.
Nichols, who also works as an attorney for Planned Parenthood Health Systems in Raleigh, drafted a resolution (PDF download) that commissioners will vote up or down at Monday’s commission meeting. The resolution would reverse a decision by county administrators in February to nix taxpayer-funded elective abortion coverage from their standard health insurance package out of concern that it ran afoul of a 1981 state Supreme Court ruling.
“As you and I discussed, attached is a resolution for you to present at the agenda meeting tomorrow,” Nichols wrote in an e-mail dated March 9 to Commissioner Stan Norwalk, a Democrat. Nichols said he would discuss the resolution with three other county commissioners, all of whom are also Democrats.
Elective abortions are those considered unnecessary for medical reasons, such as to save the life of the mother or in cases or rape or incest. A number of local governments — including the Town of Apex and Cumberland County — have already removed the coverage.
Nichols could not be reached at his office late Thursday, and a call to the Wake Democratic Party headquarters was not returned. In an e-mail, Nichols said he was driving to Asheboro for a client meeting Friday and was “really, really busy.”
Norwalk confirmed by telephone that Nichols drafted the resolution. E-mail correspondence shows that before giving his OK, Norwalk removed a section that reprimanded County Attorney Scott Warren for advising commissioners that continuing to fund elective abortions opened the county to a lawsuit.
Keeping the abortion coverage in the plan actually saves taxpayer dollars, Norwalk said, since bringing a child to term “would cost 10 times as much.” He also said the other side is playing politics with the issue.
“It’s absolutely political. This wouldn’t be brought up if it weren’t an election year,” he said.
But Commissioner Paul Coble, a Republican, said that Norwalk and his allies are valuing Nichols’ legal advice above the advice of the county attorney.
“What this resolution says is that we should ignore the advice of our own attorney and take the advice of the attorney working for the organization [Planned Parenthood] that stands to benefit the most from it,” he said.
Since commissioners voted Feb. 15 to let stand the decision by county staff, pro-choice groups have intensified their criticism of ties between Republican county commissioners and Paul “Skip” Stam, the Republican House minority leader and a pro-life supporter.
Stam has encouraged local governments to nix the elective abortion coverage or face a potential lawsuit. Tony Gurley, Republican chairman of the Wake County commissioners, first raised the issue before county staff eliminated the benefits administratively.
Norwalk took exception to that relationship, going so far as to give out Stam’s General Assembly phone number for citizens to complain.
In an op-ed column published Thursday in The Carrboro Citizen, Planned Parenthood spokeswoman Paige Johnson called efforts to remove the coverage “a political conspiracy” and pointed out that Stam “was behind the alarming move.”
Nichols, though, has many partisan connections. In addition to serving as chairman of the Wake Democratic Party, Nichols was a Wake County commissioner from 1990 to 1994, and he’s filed to run again this year as a Democrat against Coble.
He was a principle founder of Planned Parenthood Health Systems in Raleigh, and remains the “principle attorney to this day,” according to the group’s Web site.
Nichols’ counterpart, Wake County GOP Chairman Claude Pope, said that Nichols was making the issue a partisan one.
“All along it’s been a legal issue, not a partisan issue, but now Nichols is using it for political reasons,” Pope said.
David N. Bass is an associate editor of Carolina Journal.