Planned Parenthood is losing two top political officers who helped build the women’s health care organization into an electoral powerhouse under its recently departed president Cecile Richards, sparking internal concerns about a shift in direction under new leadership.
Deirdre Schifeling, executive director of the organization’s political arm Planned Parenthood Action Fund, and Wendi Wallace, Planned Parenthood’s director of political outreach, told staff in late January that they would be leaving within a matter of months.
The major departures come at the beginning of a new election cycle, and months after the November appointment of Planned Parenthood’s new president, Dr. Leana Wen, who previously served as Baltimore's Commissioner of Health.
Wen is the first physician to fill the role in nearly 50 years.
Wen and her team have put heavy emphasis on her medical credentials, beginning tweets and statements with, “As a doctor...” and kicking off her presidency with a “This Is Health Care” campaign to emphasize Planned Parenthood’s role outside of politics. In early January, she announced a plan to explore the expansion and addition of Planned Parenthood’s non-abortion services, as well as continuing to “protect” and expand abortion access.
Wen arrived at Planned Parenthood as a health care administrator, not steeped in the world of Democratic campaigns. Some staffers were taken aback to receive a 182-page handbook on rules and tips for staffing Wen. The “Special Assistant Guide” from the Baltimore City Health Department, according to a copy obtained by BuzzFeed News, details guidelines on timeliness (“Nothing can fall through the cracks”), office demeanor (“Make sure to frequently look up [from Twitter] and make eye contact with Dr. Wen to see if she is trying to communicate urgent information”), language use (“Dr. Wen ‘learns’ not ‘hears’”) and correspondence (“Try not to look at emails more than once. Take care of it then”).
"Putting systems in place to help us be even more effective and efficient in our work is just good management,” Planned Parenthood’s senior vice president of communications Melanie Roussell Newman said in a statement. “This document was prepared by special assistants in Baltimore as a guide for how to do their jobs well, and was informally shared with a very small group of staff, as part of the transition to Planned Parenthood. It is a management best-practice and quite common for staff at large organizations to prepare these kinds of documents, so that processes don't have to start from scratch every time a new person joins the team."
In response to a previous BuzzFeed News article on the messaging shift toward emphasizing health care, Wen insisted in a series of tweets that Planned Parenthood’s “core mission is providing, protecting and expanding access to abortion and reproductive health care. We will never back down from that fight.” On Tuesday she attended the State of the Union as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s guest and appeared publicly with several Democratic members of Congress.
“Political and advocacy work is core to Planned Parenthood’s ability to provide care,” Wen said in a statement sent to BuzzFeed News. “And we are not backing down, in fact Planned Parenthood advocacy and political organizations will be expanding our reach and impact.”
But for people inside and outside of the organization, Wen’s assurances have not calmed concerns about a new vision at Planned Parenthood, perceived by some as a belief in leadership that if the group is less political, it will present most prominently as a health care provider and minimize its status as a partisan target on the right. Schifeling and Wallace’s departures, as described by three operatives familiar with the organization’s inner workings who declined to speak on the record, came as a hit to the political infrastructure that Richards helped build in her decadelong tenure as president.
And they worry more departures will follow.
Schifeling and Wallace both denied that a change in direction was the reason for their decisions to leave. Wallace left for another job opportunity. Schifeling, like Richards, had planned to depart the organization for new challenges under the assumption that Hillary Clinton would be elected president in 2016. When that didn’t happen, she and Richards stayed on to help their organization fight for survival. Following the 2018 midterm elections, the new Democratic majority in the House of Representatives is friendly toward Planned Parenthood and the organization is less at risk, and both Wallace and Schifeling said they felt like it was a good time to leave.
Wen is “110 percent committed to our political work and our advocacy work,” Schifeling told BuzzFeed News in an interview on Tuesday.
“We’re in a moment of transition, we have new leadership coming in, so I made the decision myself that it was a natural time for me to move on,” she said. “I felt like either I could stay through 2020 or I could leave now and help the organization find my replacement.”
That transition has been an expected adjustment after more than a decade under the previous president.
“Change is hard, transition is hard, and when organizations are in a big leadership transition like this one there’s always a lot of rumors, and fears, and concerns of all kinds,” Schifeling said. “And one that seems to be surrounding Leana is that she is not committed to political work, but it’s just not true.”
Planned Parenthood is also in the midst of a restructuring under Wen, replacing some departing staff and shifting the hierarchy of departments. The political division Schifeling had run previously reported to Planned Parenthood executive vice president Dawn Laguens, who announced in November she would be leaving the organization as well. Now, Dana Singiser (formerly Planned Parenthood’s vice president of government relations, a department that worked outside of the elections division) will take on a similar — but not identical — role to Laguens’s.
Singiser told BuzzFeed News Thursday that she looks forward to “going back to [her] roots” in her new role, as her first job out of college was connected to organizing and campaigns.
“My view is that we need to invest even more in our electoral program, political work, and mobilizing our 12 million supporters,” she told BuzzFeed News, adding that she believes Wen is entirely committed to that mission as well.
Singiser has already started in her new role, and Wallace has left. Schifeling’s last day is March 1.
Schifeling will stay with Planned Parenthood for a few months, she said, to help with the adjustment. She said she then plans to pursue “Democracy reform.”