Safar takes the helm at Law Forward

‘We need to imagine the world the way we want it to be’

By: - September 13, 2021 6:45 am
Nicole Safar | Photo courtesy of Law Forward

Nicole Safar | Photo courtesy of Law Forward

Law Forward, Wisconsin’s nearly one-year-old public interest law firm, announced Thursday that it has hired its first full-time executive director, Nicole Safar. 

Safar helped lead Planned Parenthood of Wisconsin for many years, including as the group’s vice president of public affairs and legal advocacy, before leaving to serve as Gov. Tony Evers’ assistant deputy secretary at the Department of Health Services. After a year running the progressive issue advocacy group A Better Wisconsin Together, she takes the helm at Law Forward as it joins the intense legal battle over drawing Wisconsin’s next round of voting maps.

Working in the progressive movement for the last twenty years, Safar says, she has seen popular, common-sense ideas with majority public support thwarted again and again — particularly in Wisconsin, where gerrymandered political maps have locked in Republican control of the Legislature even when most voters, statewide, cast their ballots for Democrats. 

Among the issues that have gotten stuck, she says, are making it easier to vote, decriminalizing cannabis and expanding Badger Care to cover more Wisconsinites who don’t have health insurance — all of which get overwhelming support in public opinion polls. 

Where 10 years ago nobody was talking about redistricting and the census, now normal people understand what’s going on and they care about it.

– Nicole Safar, executive director of Law Forward

“On any given day if you asked the vast majority of people, ‘Do you think this is a good idea?’ they would say yes — but on a political level you can’t get there,” she says. “The answer to that has got to be strengthening our democracy.”

Strengthening democracy is Law Forward’s mission: “Over the past decade, Wisconsin has become the nation’s primary testing ground for reactionary policies,” the group’s founders declared when they launched the progressive, nonprofit firm last October. Law Forward’s website says it is dedicated to “advancing democracy and restoring Wisconsin’s pragmatic progressive tradition.”

It’s a good time to be doing this kind of work, Safar says, as public attention turns to the problem of protecting democracy.

“Where 10 years ago nobody was talking about redistricting and the census, now normal people understand what’s going on and they care about it.”

She sees Law Forward’s work as being in “the sweet spot” at the center of the pro-democracy movement.  

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The group’s top priority for the next six months to a year will be redistricting. Law Forward filed a lawsuit in federal court on behalf of several nonpartisan citizens’ groups and individual voters. The group is challenging Wisconsin’s state legislative districts for violating the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, and asking the court to step in and ensure that new maps balance population and voting power statewide.

Another top priority for Law Forward is ensuring that elections are administered fairly and that new obstacles to voting aren’t erected.

The group has also gotten involved in legal battles over legislative overreach and separation of powers, as the Republican-led Legislature continues to try to grab power from Evers and state agencies.

But the rewarding thing about her new job, Safar says, is that, while there are a lot of smart, committed advocates working on different issues, she now has the luxury of joining with others to do long-term, strategic planning the progressive movement lacks, with its plethora of siloed groups.

“We can get lawyers together and say, ‘Here is where we want to be in five to 10 years, how do we get there?’ And think about strategic development of the law in these areas,” she says. “This idea of being able to bring everything together in an effective and efficient way — I don’t think we’ve seen that done on the progressive side.”

On redistricting, Law Forward is working with a coalition of state and national groups on a collective strategy for getting fair maps.  

And while the group’s lawyers focus on litigation, Safar’s job is to do outreach and build relationships with like-minded organizations and potential funders, which is similar to the work she did at Planned Parenthood. Her nonprofit advocacy background, plus her experience in partisan politics and in government, give her a valuable perspective and a plethora of contacts to bring to her new job.  

Stirring up division versus making good law

Conservatives have been better at playing the long game than progressives, Safar concedes, bringing together a movement that embraces such disparate goals as lowering taxes for the rich and corporations and limiting access to abortion, birth control and accurate sex education. The Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty, which regularly goes to court to defend all of those issues — filing lawsuits on everything from purging voter rolls to stopping programs for transgender kids in schools to opposing pandemic-related public health orders — could be seen as Law Forward’s rightwing counterpart.

But Safar is frustrated by that comparison. She describes WILL as “a political organization that fronts as a legal and academic organization.”

“They’re stirring up division, not trying to make good law,” she opines. 

Law Forward and its allies in the progressive movement are trying to find policy solutions, not stir up partisan divisions, in Safar’s view. “The other side just wants to divide us,” she says. “We want to figure out how to get more people health care and make sure our schools can open safely. They just want to say, ‘Nope, that’s a violation of our freedom.’”

It’s easy for WILL to declare victory when they beat back public health orders, for example, because they aren’t trying to offer solutions.

Does Safar have any regrets that she is not at Planned Parenthood to fight for reproductive rights as Texas begins enforcing the most restrictive anti-abortion law in the nation with the tacit blessing of the U.S. Supreme Court?

Yes, she says. “It’s scary.”

“My opinion — not Law Forward’s — is that we have an illegitimate U.S. Supreme Court that says if you live in Texas your constitutional rights don’t matter,” she adds. “It’s a scary time to be a woman of childbearing age.”

She is particularly proud of the work Planned Parenthood did after President Donald Trump was elected in 2016. As the Republicans took control of the entire federal government, then-House Speaker Paul Ryan gave a floor speech in which he declared that the GOP would repeal the Affordable Care Act and defund Planned Parenthood. “People were ready to throw up their hands,” Safar recalls. “They were saying things like, ‘We’ll never beat Paul Ryan in Wisconsin.’”

But Planned Parenthood — both in Wisconsin and nationally — recognized that “we didn’t have to beat Paul Ryan, just weaken him, to save the Affordable Care Act.” Through coalition-building, and organizing, advocates beat back Republicans’ repeated attacks on health care. 

“At the end of 2018, Planned Parenthood clinics were still open and Paul Ryan was gone,” Safar says. Sure, Ryan was not defeated — he left office voluntarily. But she credits the collective action of health care advocates in his community and throughout the state for preventing him from achieving his stated goals. 

Progressives, she says, need to think of new ways to push back on the conservative agenda, and consider whether they are too quick to assume some strategies can’t work. “We need to ask, ‘What haven’t we done before?’” she says, “and imagine the world the way we want it to be.” 

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Ruth Conniff
Ruth Conniff

Ruth Conniff is Editor-in-chief of the Wisconsin Examiner. She formerly served as Editor-in-chief of The Progressive Magazine where she worked for many years from both Madison and Washington, DC. Shortly after Donald Trump took office she moved with her family to Oaxaca, Mexico, and covered U.S./Mexico relations, the migrant caravan, and Mexico’s efforts to grapple with Trump. Conniff is a frequent guest on MSNBC and has appeared on Good Morning America, Democracy Now!, Wisconsin Public Radio, CNN, Fox News and many other radio and television outlets. She has also written for The Nation, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Los Angeles Times, among other publications. She graduated from Yale University in 1990, where she ran track and edited the campus magazine The New Journal. She lives in Madison, Wisconsin with her husband and three daughters.

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