PROFILE: Cope puts a new face on a variety of political issues

Beth Cope learned about gender politics on her family's Virginia farm. Kimberly Krautter discovers how the principal of Talking Heads Media used those lessons to take abortion off the third rail in Georgia.

Beth Cope learned about gender politics on her family's Virginia farm. Kimberly Krautter discovers how the principal of Talking Heads Media used those lessons to take abortion off the third rail in Georgia.

On a crystal-clear Atlanta evening last August, as the sun set over Centennial Olympic Park, some high-powered folks gathered in the lobby of the nearby Children's Art Museum. Sipping chardonnay and nibbling cheese, they buzzed and schmoozed, gripped and grinned. The state's top Democratic officials, legislators, lobbyists, and political reporters were there. In the center of this general assembly of Georgia's most powerful leaders stood a fresh-faced woman representing a block of 75,000 pro-choice voters. Beth Cope was stepping down after more than six years as executive director of NARAL (National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League) Pro-Choice Georgia to start her own communications and public affairs agency. She is credited with getting notoriously conservative Georgia legislators to vote to protect abortion rights. Across the nation, very few issues are as divisive as a woman's right to reproductive freedom. Most politicians - especially those in the Bible Belt - steer a wide path around it. For those on the front lines, it's a constant battle. Cope was spoiling for that fight since her childhood. As a very young girl, Cope became acutely aware of gender inequality when her divorced mother had difficulty providing for the family because, at that time (just 25 years ago), unmarried women were not issued credit cards and needed co-signatories for bank loans. To make ends meet, the family moved in with her grandparents, strict Southern Baptists living in the heart of Virginia's farm country. Cope was expected to do chores inside and outside the house - the men weren't expected to pull double duty. Her frustration led to an outspokenness that was frowned upon. "One day I told my grandfather I wasn't going to be the maid in the house and a hand on the farm, too," says Cope. "Let's just say there was hell to pay for that." By the eighth grade, her mom remarried and the family moved to Chattanooga, TN. During high school, she saw a lot of unplanned adolescent pregnancies. She says she also saw how the girls were forced out of school, while the boys who impregnated them remained to achieve stardom on the football field and later in the business community. As Cope pursued her bachelor's degree in political science, she began volunteering with Planned Parenthood and NARAL. As she neared graduation, Cope attended a NARAL grassroots training session and had an epiphany. "I knew then that the only thing I wanted to do was be an executive director of a NARAL affiliate," she says. By the time she achieved that goal, the cause of feminism had changed. Cope realized she had to change perceptions among her own age group that feminists are a bunch of shrill, bra-burning dinosaurs. "I wanted to make the organization young and hip," Cope explains, "not your mother's pro-choice group." She set about recruiting board members from young professional, legal, and political groups. "That's the constant challenge to any advocacy group, to bring fresh faces and ideas," says Nan Grogan Orrock, who currently serves as the state's House Majority Whip. "Failure to do that sentences an issue or an organization to a slow death." One strategy Cope employed was to put a distinctly male face on the issue of women's reproductive rights. She actively recruited men to the NARAL Pro-Choice Georgia board. Atlanta attorney Cooper Knowles was among the first to accept. He says he was attracted to the constitutional defense argument. "Men can be part of the problem, and many who take positions on the other side are men," says Knowles. "I think it's good to have men counter the problem." To develop the male network, Cope created an annual event, dubbed "Pro-Choice Men Cook," to honor men like Ted Turner who care passionately about the issue. Entertainers such as Shawn Mullins and the Indigo Girls readily accept the engagement, and the event attracts men across a wide spectrum, even those who are neutral on the issue of choice. Some question whether this type of levity is appropriate for the topic. "This is such a long, hard struggle, and the opposition is blowing up buildings," says Knowles. "It's OK one time a year to sit back and smile a bit." Another of Cope's strategies was to expand the topics for which her group actively advocated. She channeled the group's resources to all matters of women's health and garnered a more mainstream image for the organization. Cope joined Susan Saleska-Hamilton - a lobbyist known to play hardball on women's issues - in the battle over prescriptive equity to force insurers to cover women's birth control just as men were covered for Viagra. Unfortunately, the bill was hung up in the Insurance Committee, known as a no-man's-land for mandate legislation. Cope also knew that a non-pro-choice Republican senator from Elberton, GA was a pharmacist. Although not an ally on abortion, he was empathetic to the prescriptive inequities of women. The gentleman agreed to go to the Senate and speak in favor of the bill. He was helped by the fact that the entire women's caucus from the House of Representatives was holding watch over the vote, shaming the men of the Senate to vote in favor. "The key to this type of legislation was mainstreaming it," says Hamilton. "Part of that is understanding where people are coming from. Beth has the PR ability to do it. That's half the battle." Since her August farewell, Cope has launched Talking Heads Media, an independent consultancy that helps nonprofit organizations anchor their communications strategies. "Nonprofits tend to ignore the earned media portion of their communications because of a lack of funding or staff or both," she says. Cope sets up a communications infrastructure for an organization, including a strategic analysis, a PR toolbox with talking points, media protocol, press lists, and sample releases. She admits this is not PR programming per se, but it meets the most basic needs of chronically underfunded NPOs. Cope is already drafting plans for a DC office and an expanded staff. Given the fluid nature of politics, especially in an election year, it's a safe bet that Cope will have to be dealt with on the Hill. ----- Beth Cope August 2003 - present Principal, Talking Heads Media May 2001 - present Women's outreach strategist, Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin (D) June 1997 - August 2003 Executive director, NARAL Pro-Choice GA February 1997 - April 1997 Legislative assistant, Planned Parenthood September 1996 - February 1997 Southeastern organizer, Pro-Choice Resource Center

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