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Is New York's Women’s Equality Act Dead?

by David Howard King, Dec 22, 2013
 

cuomo-womens-equality

ALBANY, N.Y. — Gov. Andrew Cuomo was delivering his State of the State speech last year, moving efficiently through his PowerPoint presentation with a mix of one-liners in his boardroom style, when his tone started to change.

His voice took on more of the oratory tone his father was known for as governor before launching furiously into a passionate discussion of women’s rights before announcing he was making the passage of a 10-point women’s equality agenda his priority.

Nine of the measures would deal with income inequality, sexual harassment, pay inequity, human trafficking, pregnancy discrimination, family status discrimination, lending and credit discrimination, he said, in a rare, crowd-rousing moment, almost like he was spoiling for a fight, Then he announced the 10th point: strengthening the state’s laws regarding women’s reproductive rights and — he repeated himself, loudly: “Because it is her body, it is her choice! Because it's her body, it's her choice! Because it's her body, it's her choice!”

Not stopping there, his speech turned personal and invoked his three daughters. “Maybe it’s a man's world, but it is not a man's world in New York. Not anymore,” Cuomo’s voice thundered across the cacophonous, cold Empire State Plaza Convention Center’s main hall. “We are going to change the lives for my daughters and your daughters and your sisters and your nieces and your wife and your significant other and every person in this room… . And we’re going to do it this year.”

Cuomo’s announcement was met with applause. He was putting his liberal bona fides on display just as his commitment to liberal ideas were being questioned by the national media including Chris Hayes of MSNBC. But here was New York’s governor getting tough on an issue his base could really eat up. Women’s groups were charged up and most Democratic legislators were excited to have a cause to back the governor on after Cuomo had worked miracles in getting same-sex marriage passed.

Nearly a year after that momentous speech, the Women’s Equality Act has virtually disappeared from the conversation. And its opponents have declared it all but defeated — with the Catholic Conference of New York crowing in a fundraising letter of Dec. 13 that it had “defeated an insidious proposal pushed by Planned Parenthood and the National Abortion Rights Action League designed to dramatically expand late-term abortion.”

AN ELECTION YEAR

Women’s advocacy groups and legislators are concerned that Cuomo has backed off his commitment to pass the Women’s Equality Agenda and will be focused in 2014 on election-year, bread-and-butter issues that appeal across political lines — things like tax cuts and education funding.

Some don’t even expect him to mention it in next year’s State of the State address on Jan. 8, 2014.

The governor’s office did not respond to requests for comment about the forthcoming speech, continuing its pattern of keeping the media at arm’s length.

Cuomo’s reticence may have to do with the fact that advocates and legislators can’t agree on whether to compromise on the 10th point from the Women’s Equality Act.

“The governor doesn’t want to have this conversation during an election year,” said a source involved in negotiations surrounding the 10-point plan. The person requested anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the talks. “It’s complicated. Abortion is legal in New York so people will ask: ‘What does this one measure matter?’ and it takes explanation.”

But leading state Democrats say they are expecting the governor to show leadership on the issue, even in an election year.

“I hope the governor will continue to articulate his support for the Women’s Equality Agenda in his State of the State Address,” said Democratic Senate Minority Leader Sen. Andrea Stewart-Cousins, adding: “If he fails to I am sure that the women who have worked so hard in advocating for this package over the last year will continue to press for its passage.”

The governor doesn’t want to have this conversation during an election year"

“I would be very concerned if the governor does not address women’s reproductive rights in his [State of the State] speech,” said Sen. Liz Krueger, who carried a number of the points in Cuomo’s plan as her own legislation prior to his announcement of the Women’s Equality Act. However, Krueger also noted that Cuomo’s priorities aren’t always heralded in his State of the State. “People say that the governor’s State of the State sets his priorities and legislative goals for the session but I’m not so sure that is true for this governor.”

Andrea Miller, president of NARAL Pro-Choice New York said in no uncertain terms: “We are very hopeful that the Women’s Equality Agenda will be mentioned in the governor’s speech and we would be incredibly surprised and disappointed it it wasn’t.” Miller says that conversations with Cuomo’s office and legislators are ongoing.

The Women’s Equality Coalition, a large collection of women’s groups from across the state that formed to push Cuomo’s women’s agenda, has been gearing up for this session and is ready to capitalize on polls that show large public support for the measures and the fact that legislators are facing an election year.

Sonia Ossorio, president of The National Organization for Women NYC, said advocates were prepared to “push hard” for the package.

She said they had boosted their website, tried to do away with the “legalese” surrounding some of the 10 points and presented the personal stories of how women of all walks of life have been impacted by the issues addressed in the package. “Our jobs as advocates is to push hard for every single right we can as women. And it is the legislators' job to make it happen.  We shouldn’t have to wait year after year,” said Ossorio.

And she said she doesn’t discount Cuomo. “I think  governor Cuomo is committed to advancing women's rights or he wouldn’t have put himself out there,” Ossorio said, adding that with the election year she will “do everything in my power to inform women about how hard their elected officials worked on their behalf.”

Tracey Brooks of Family Planning Advocates of New York said that polls have shown that voters overwhelmingly support all aspects of the agenda. “We are moving into an election cycle where it is time for legislators to move all of the agenda. The Women’s Equality Coalition does not think partial passage is acceptable.”

Brooks said that legislators who “don’t support women’s reproductive rights” in New York have a bad record of reelection.

THE STICKING POINT

For some legislators, after Cuomo showcased women’s equality in his State of the State, it felt like a done deal.

Cuomo seemed incensed to act on the plan that includes equal pay measures, stops against sexual and pregnancy discrimination, strengthening of human trafficking and domestic violence laws and, perhaps most controversially, a measure that would take New York’s abortion code out of the penal law and put it into the health code.

But that last measure proved to be lynchpin that brought the rest of the act to a halt.  

The Catholic Diocese in New York mobilized against the legislation.

Cardinal Timothy Dolan and the New York Bishops wrote a public statement that was read aloud during mass on June 8 and 9 as the state Legislature was headed into its final days of session.

“We are profoundly distressed by the introduction of a bill in New York State today that would ease restrictions in state law on late-term abortion and runs the serious risk of broadly expanding abortion access at all stages of gestation,” Dolan and the Bishops said in their joint statement.

Dolan also criticized Cuomo’s legislation on an Albany radio show, making comments that seemed to question Cuomo’s standing as a good Catholic. Dolan later issued a statement to clarify that he did not mean to direct his criticism at the governor personally.

Despite having announced the 10-point plan in January of 2012, Cuomo didn’t unveil the actual bills and all their details until three weeks before the end of session. The vote didn’t come until the very end of session.

The Assembly passed all 10 measures as a package in an end-of-session flurry and the Republican-controlled Senate voted on each point separately — they passed all but the 10th.

It was clear to a number of legislators that Cuomo had not put his full force behind the measure. A group of 28 female Assembly Democrats met with Cuomo in late June and expressed their frustration in the way he had handled negotiations. They said they felt he negotiated too much with advocacy groups, left legislators in the dark, acted too late in the session and was quick to abandon the full package when negotiations got tough.

“That was one of the things we said to him. As a matter of fact, I pretty much asked, ‘Why all the advocates’ meetings?’ They have an opinion, and we don’t mind working with them, but we wanted to talk to him,” Assemblywoman Crystal Peoples-Stokes, a Buffalo Democrat told The Buffalo News.

The Cuomo administration tried to convince Assembly Democrats to stay one more day and pass the package of 9 bills minus the abortion measure but they refused.

The Independent Democratic conference in the Senate was roundly criticized at the end of the session for failing to put pressure on its allies in the Republican Party to move all 10 points of the women’s equality agenda. They countered at the time that not all Democrats supported the abortion measure — the most obvious being Bronx state Sen. Ruben Diaz Sr., an outspoken abortion opponent.

THE WOMEN’S AGENDA IN 2014

Earlier this month, the IDC’s leader, Jeff Klein, a state Senator from the Bronx, announced the conference’s agenda with only one measure focused on women’s equality: giving working parents six weeks of maternity and paternity leave.

The IDC’s Sen. Diane Savino said there could be movement on the women’s equality agenda, if advocates can accept some compromise in the upcoming session.

“I think it is pretty clear that there is overwhelming support in both houses for nine out of 10 bills,” Savino said. “The thing that keeps tripping us up is there aren’t the votes for the 10th measure in the Senate. Those votes just don’t exist. I think it would be a real tragedy and disservice to women if we don’t pass these nine.”

Savino said she supports the 10th measure but that the first nine points will help better women’s lives across the state.

“We aren’t in Texas or Alabama. Women aren’t having their right to an abortion denied,” she said. “Not to negate their concerns, but in New York what we don’t have are proper protections against human trafficking, guarantees for pay equity and family leave.”

Savino said she thinks it is up to women’s groups to discuss the matter with the Assembly and to get them to introduce the 10 bills separately so the first nine can be passed by both houses. “It really comes down to whether they are willing to have the same discussion with Sheldon Silver,” Savino said.

Assemblywoman Deborah Glick couldn’t disagree more with Savino’s assertion that only nine of the measures should be passed. “I’ve seen members of the IDC continue to say there aren’t the votes for the entire agenda,” Glick said. “But they asked for the bill not as a package but as individual bills — that caused the problem. The governor sent down the bills individually.”

Glick insisted that there would have been enough votes because New York Senate Republicans are trying to distance themselves from national Republicans and, had they been forced to vote on all of the measures at once, some of them would have felt pressure to vote for all of them. “If it had been a package it would have had the votes,” she said.

Glick said the IDC is pressing for the passage of nine points of the measure to solidify their relationship with the Republicans.

But Savino disputed Glick's version of events, arguing that the bills were separated at the request of the Women's Equality Coalition. "We passed nine of the ten bills. When the abortion provision was put on the floor, it was voted down by a majority of senators, including two Democrats who are not members of the IDC," Savino said. "Assemblywoman Glick is entitled to her own opinion, but she cannot rewrite history."

Stewart-Cousins said the basic premise behind negotiating each point of the 10-point package and taking months to make sure legislators on both sides had input was to make sure they voted in the end.

“We have seen Albany come together on issues like this where there are sticking points in packages where there is something for everyone,” Stewart-Cousins said. “We passed the tax cap with the renewal of rent control and, like in that situation, this package was designed so that everyone got something they wanted. As such it should be voted on as a whole.”

Miller said that New York’s Senate Republicans will face a national backdrop for the fight over women’s reproductive rights, with the Supreme Court expected to hear two cases to do with women’s reproductive health — one case from Boston about protest outside of abortion clinics and the other from Oklahoma having to do with a state law that limits the right of women to access medicine to end their pregnancy.

Furthermore, Republicans across the country in conservative states are advancing laws that challenge access to abortion in what observers say is an attempt to use the issue in the 2016 elections.

“I certainly hope the Republican conference can see how advantageous it would be to listen to their constituents. I would hate to have to say that there are no Republican senators who are pro-choice,” Miller said. “I am in a position right now to say that there are no Republican senators who have demonstrated they are pro choice and this is all going to play out with the backdrop of a strong national conversation on women’s reproductive rights.”

Some Albany observers expect that Cuomo will have leverage on the issue this year because Republicans won’t want Senate Democrats to have it as an issue to hold over them come November. They have suggested that Cuomo may broker some sort of compromise and make it part of the budget deal in order to give Senate Republicans cover with their base.

Ossorio said there is a pressing need in New York for the women’s rights legislation.

“I talk people everyday who didn’t know we didn’t have these rights,” Ossorio said. “It is a great way to spark political activism and I know we did a really good job of making things clear for every single legislator — including Republicans — on the real-world consequences to women’s lives.”  

As far as Cuomo goes, Glick thinks that his support is still there. “I believe the governor recognizes and is committed to addressing gender inequality and I  believe he will find ways as the session proceeds to advance real reform — not just pieces of it.”

Krueger agrees with Glick and said that she believes that all 10 points would have passed the Senate if the governor had sent them to the Senate as a package. More importantly, she said the governor needs to put his political muscle behind it.

“We need the governor to commit to this to get this done,” Krueger said. “That doesn’t mean introducing the bills three weeks before the end of session, voting on them in a rush and then giving up on all 10 points at the last minute.”


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