Analysis Politics

How New York’s Governor Is Playing Politics With Women’s Equality

Sarah Jaffe

In the wake of the recent announcement that Gov. Andrew Cuomo is creating an entirely new party devoted to “women's equality,” some women's rights supporters have wondered if the move is truly evidence of his dedication to their cause.

In January of 2013, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) announced a sweeping ten-point Women’s Equality Agenda for his state that included broader protections for abortion rights, against housing and pregnancy discrimination, and more. Over a year later, no piece of that agenda has passed through the state legislature; they’re all stalled in a state senate jointly controlled by Republicans and a small breakaway group known as the Independent Democratic Caucus (IDC).

Cuomo’s election-season response was to unveil, on July 17, a brand-new Women’s Equality Party, which is planning to endorse the governor and his running mate, Kathy Hochul, and have its own line on the New York State ballot this November. That means the governor could potentially appear on four different ballot lines, provided he makes it through a primary challenge: Democratic, Women’s Equality, Independence, and the Working Families Party, which endorsed the governor after a bitter convention fight and a deal that, among other things, hinged on Cuomo agreeing to campaign for Democratic candidates to retake the state senate in order to pass bills like the Women’s Equality Act.

This unusual move stirred up some controversy, as the governor had previously opposed the existence of fusion-voting parties entirely. Some advocates, as Rewire reported last year, questioned the governor’s commitment to passing his ambitious bill, and when the announcement came that he was creating an entirely new party devoted to “women’s equality,” some women’s rights supporters wondered if this was truly evidence of his dedication to their cause or of his desire to burnish his liberal bona fides while dealing a blow to activists who pushed him to put, as it were, his money where his mouth was.

The press conference announcing the new party featured Hochul (a former Democratic member of Congress from the Buffalo area) signing the first petition to put the Women’s Equality Party on the ballot—candidates who want to be on its ballot line will have to collect 15,000 legitimate signatures by August 19—accompanied by leaders from NOW-NYC and NARAL Pro-Choice New York.

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NARAL-NY President Andrea Miller told Rewire, “We were happy to be supportive when we were asked to be a part of the announcement.” The group has been a supporter of the ten-point Women’s Equality Act, as well as its precursor, the Reproductive Health Act, and has been involved over the past two years in pushing the state legislature to pass them.

“We agree with the governor wholeheartedly that not only have these issues been stymied in New York particularly because of the state senate, but that they are powerful and motivating issues for voters and for particularly important types of constituencies across the state,” Miller said. “We see this as one more opportunity for candidates to make clear, particularly in some of these hotly contested marginal districts where in fact the Women’s Equality Act and the right to choose could really be a tipping point issue.”

But not all New York women were impressed with the governor’s move. Capital New York reporter Liz Benjamin quoted one Democratic woman who was unimpressed: “Thank goodness, because us girls just weren’t sure where we should cast our votes.”

And Bertha Lewis, former head of ACORN, member of the Working Families Party, and founder and president of The Black Institute, told Rewire, “I think it’s bogus, I think it’s outrageous, I think it is cynical, I think it is disrespectful to women, I think that it is disingenuous, because he’s not really building a party.”

Wherefore Women’s Equality

The fate of the Women’s Equality Act was in the hands of the New York State senate. The state assembly twice passed the full omnibus ten-part bill, once in the 2013 session and once again in 2014. But Republicans in the senate were given partial control over which bills come up for a vote when a group of five Democrats, led by Jeff Klein of the Bronx, split from their party after it won a majority in the 2012 elections and created a power-sharing deal, in which Klein would ostensibly have power to bring bills up for a vote, with the GOP. Gov. Cuomo gave his blessing to the deal that put two men in charge of the senate, rather than the pro-choice leader of his own party, Andrea Stewart-Cousins, the first Black woman to lead a New York State legislative caucus. (For an in-depth explanation of this issue, see Rewire’s 2013 article on the Reproductive Health Act.)

Instead of bringing the omnibus Women’s Equality Act to the floor for a vote, Miller explained, in 2013 “the senate instead decided to stick a finger in the eye of all of us and pass each of the planks individually—with the exception of the choice piece, which they did not even bring to the floor.”

Then this year, according to NARAL-NY, the senate passed eight stand-alone bills from the Equality Agenda, excluding the reproductive health measure and a bill that would have strengthened orders of protection for domestic violence victims.

As Liz Benjamin noted, there was much disappointment among New Yorkers that the governor, after making his announcement with much fanfare, didn’t seem to put a lot of political muscle behind pushing the Women’s Equality Act or the Reproductive Health Act, which was the sticking point for anti-choice Republicans, who adamantly refused to vote on the measure. (On the other hand, Miller said, there was concern from more progressive members of the assembly over the human trafficking part of the Women’s Equality Act, which would increase criminal penalties and give more power to law enforcement.)

But election time is drawing closer, and the governor finds himself facing a Democratic primary challenge from his left as well as Republican and Green Party challengers in the general election. There has been renewed pressure on Cuomo to reinforce his social-progressive bona fides. Benjamin reported that the governor flirted with other ideas for a new third party, including education and immigration, before settling on Women’s Equality. Perhaps polling data released by NARAL-NY, which shows that New Yorkers are three times more likely to vote for a politician who supports all ten points of the Women’s Equality Act—it’s even popular among Republicans—influenced the governor’s choice. The Working Families Party also made the Women’s Equality Act a key component of its deal to endorse the governor over law professor Zephyr Teachout, who is now running against Cuomo for the Democratic nomination.

Teachout told Rewire via email, “The governor wanted, fought for, and had a Republican State Senate”—referring to the common criticism of the governor’s refusal to campaign for Democrats in 2012, while throwing his weight behind certain Republicans who had voted for marriage equality. She continued, “He blames the Republicans that he supported for his failure to pass the Women’s Equality Act. Then he uses the money he raises from Republicans and special interests to buy a cynical advertisement”—the Women’s Equality Party—“on the ballot touting his alleged support for women’s equality in a way designed to damage the WFP—a group he hates because they forced him to pretend to be a Democrat. You can’t make this stuff up.”

Playing Politics

To understand why Cuomo’s Women’s Equality Party might hurt another New York third party, you have to understand yet another complicated New York political issue: fusion voting. Through fusion, politicians are able to run as the candidate of multiple parties, so that Cuomo, a Democrat, will also appear as the Working Families Party’s nominee for governor, and provided he succeeds in getting enough signatures for the Women’s Equality Party, will be on that line as well. Rob Astorino will be the nominee of the Republican and Conservative parties this year and is seeking to create a ballot line in opposition to the Common Core education standards as well.

Once a party gets over 50,000 votes on its line for governor, it wins an official ballot line and does not have to petition to be on future state ballots. If it misses the 50,000 mark in a subsequent election, it has to go through the petitioning process again the next time. The Working Families Party got its ballot line in 1998 with its cross-endorsement of Democrat Peter Vallone, and has held onto its line by endorsing Democratic candidates for governor—including Cuomo, in 2010, who made the party sign on to his economically conservative agenda.

Fusion voting can be used to build an independent third party while avoiding the problem of potentially playing the spoiler and throwing a close election to Republicans, as the Working Families Party has done. In 2010, voters uncomfortable with Andrew Cuomo’s relatively conservative platform could express support for a more economically progressive agenda by voting for the governor on the Working Families Party line. Or, fusion can be used, as Astorino has already done this cycle, to bring attention to a particular issue. Voters who are disappointed in the Common Core but perhaps not otherwise Republicans can send a message by voting for Astorino on his anti-Common Core line. Presumably Cuomo believes that women’s issues are enough of a driver for votes this election year that a Women’s Equality ballot line would bring in votes that might not otherwise go his way.

This year, with polls showing that 24 percent of voters (the same amount of support that the Republican, Astorino, got) would support an unnamed Working Families Party candidate, the governor came to the table and made a deal that included a promise from the governor to actively support Democratic candidates (which he notably did not do in 2012), pressure the breakaway Independent Democratic Caucus to come back into the Democratic party, and push bills that included marijuana decriminalization, a minimum wage increase, and the Women’s Equality Act.

In response to the announcement of the Women’s Equality Party, Bill Lipton of the Working Families Party told Rewire, “The Working Families Party has a long record of standing up for equality for women, from winning paid sick days in New York City to fighting for the ten planks of the Women’s Equality Act. This fall, we’re focused on electing a progressive Democratic and Working Families majority state senate, to unlock the progressive agenda, from Women’s Equality to raising the minimum wage to public financing of elections.”

To Bertha Lewis, the Women’s Equality Party is “absolutely” a move to pull votes away from the Working Families Party. What’s more, she noted, the governor had at one time tried to eliminate fusion voting entirely. “Yet you are bankrolling and spearheading a third party which would be a fusion party? Which is it, Andrew?” Lewis asked.

Cuomo could not be reached for comment by press time, so Rewire was unable to ask whether he plans to build a lasting party infrastructure for the Women’s Equality Party or simply use it to draw attention to this particular piece of legislation in this particular campaign cycle. For Miller, that will depend on what happens this election and in the next legislative cycle, whether or not the full Women’s Equality Agenda or a version of the Reproductive Health Act are passed.

Lewis likened the possibilities for a Women’s Equality Party under Cuomo’s control to the fate of the Moreland Commission, established by the governor in July of 2013 to investigate corruption in New York State politics and then killed in March of 2014 after its investigations, according to a blockbuster story in last week’s New York Times, came too close to Cuomo himself. “Are you going to disband your women’s party if it does make the ballot and becomes an actual party? Are you going to disband it like you disbanded the Moreland Commission, because you created it, you control it and so you can do what you want with it?” Lewis asked. 

There are more questions than answers when it comes to the Women’s Equality Party and its future: Who will be on its ballot line, besides Cuomo and Hochul (provided they fend off the primary challenges from Teachout and her running mate Tim Wu)? Will Congressional candidates spend the time and money to collect petition signatures? Will local assembly and senate candidates in tight races want to put in the time and effort? Who will decide whether candidates like state Sen. Diane Savino, who is staunchly pro-choice but who, as part of the Independent Democratic Caucus, helped block the Women’s Equality Act from passage?

Miller said that NARAL-NY, which is not involved with deciding who qualifies as part of a Women’s Equality Party, will be making its own endorsements. “We will certainly be sure to let voters know who NARAL Pro-Choice New York really does think is a champion for women’s equality and who has stood in the way,” she said. 

Miller continued, “We have a tremendous opportunity in this election to make a real difference in the composition of the government in New York. We could in fact create a fully pro-choice pro-equality government.”

Perhaps the biggest question is whether Andrew Cuomo is the best person to be the face of such a government.

Roundups Law and Policy

Gavel Drop: Republicans Can’t Help But Play Politics With the Judiciary

Jessica Mason Pieklo & Imani Gandy

Republicans have a good grip on the courts and are fighting hard to keep it that way.

Welcome to Gavel Drop, our roundup of legal news, headlines, and head-shaking moments in the courts.

Linda Greenhouse has another don’t-miss column in the New York Times on how the GOP outsourced the judicial nomination process to the National Rifle Association.

Meanwhile, Dahlia Lithwick has this smart piece on how we know the U.S. Supreme Court is the biggest election issue this year: The Republicans refuse to talk about it.

The American Academy of Pediatrics is urging doctors to fill in the blanks left by “abstinence-centric” sex education and talk to their young patients about issues including sexual consent and gender identity.

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Good news from Alaska, where the state’s supreme court struck down its parental notification law.

Bad news from Virginia, though, where the supreme court struck down Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s executive order restoring voting rights to more than 200,000 felons.

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) will leave behind one of the most politicized state supreme courts in modern history.

Turns out all those health gadgets and apps leave their users vulnerable to inadvertently disclosing private health data.

Julie Rovner breaks down the strategies anti-choice advocates are considering after their Supreme Court loss in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt.   

Finally, Becca Andrews at Mother Jones writes that Texas intends to keep passing abortion restrictions based on junk science, despite its loss in Whole Woman’s Health.

News Politics

Clinton Campaign Announces Tim Kaine as Pick for Vice President

Ally Boguhn

The prospect of Kaine’s selection has been criticized by some progressives due to his stances on issues including abortion as well as bank and trade regulation.

The Clinton campaign announced Friday that Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA) has been selected to join Hillary Clinton’s ticket as her vice presidential candidate.

“I’m thrilled to announce my running mate, @TimKaine, a man who’s devoted his life to fighting for others,” said Clinton in a tweet.

“.@TimKaine is a relentless optimist who believes no problem is unsolvable if you put in the work to solve it,” she added.

The prospect of Kaine’s selection has been criticized by some progressives due to his stances on issues including abortion as well as bank and trade regulation.

Kaine signed two letters this week calling for the regulations on banks to be eased, according to a Wednesday report published by the Huffington Post, thereby ”setting himself up as a figure willing to do battle with the progressive wing of the party.”

Charles Chamberlain, executive director of the progressive political action committee Democracy for America, told the New York Times that Kaine’s selection “could be disastrous for our efforts to defeat Donald Trump in the fall” given the senator’s apparent support of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). Just before Clinton’s campaign made the official announcement that Kaine had been selected, the senator praised the TPP during an interview with the Intercept, though he signaled he had ultimately not decided how he would vote on the matter.

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Kaine’s record on reproductive rights has also generated controversy as news began to circulate that he was being considered to join Clinton’s ticket. Though Kaine recently argued in favor of providing Planned Parenthood with access to funding to fight the Zika virus and signed on as a co-sponsor of the Women’s Health Protection Act—which would prohibit states and the federal government from enacting restrictions on abortion that aren’t applied to comparable medical services—he has also been vocal about his personal opposition to abortion.

In a June interview on NBC’s Meet the Press, Kaine told host Chuck Todd he was “personally” opposed to abortion. He went on, however, to affirm that he still believed “not just as a matter of politics, but even as a matter of morality, that matters about reproduction and intimacy and relationships and contraception are in the personal realm. They’re moral decisions for individuals to make for themselves. And the last thing we need is government intruding into those personal decisions.”

As Rewire has previously reported, though Kaine may have a 100 percent rating for his time in the Senate from Planned Parenthood Action Fund, the campaign website for his 2005 run for governor of Virginia promised he would “work in good faith to reduce abortions” by enforcing Virginia’s “restrictions on abortion and passing an enforceable ban on partial birth abortion that protects the life and health of the mother.”

As governor, Kaine did support some existing restrictions on abortion, including Virginia’s parental consent law and a so-called informed consent law. He also signed a 2009 measure that created “Choose Life” license plates in the state, and gave a percentage of the proceeds to a crisis pregnancy network.

Regardless of Clinton’s vice president pick, the “center of gravity in the Democratic Party has shifted in a bold, populist, progressive direction,” said Stephanie Taylor, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, in an emailed statement. “It’s now more important than ever that Hillary Clinton run an aggressive campaign on core economic ideas like expanding Social Security, debt-free college, Wall Street reform, and yes, stopping the TPP. It’s the best way to unite the Democratic Party, and stop Republicans from winning over swing voters on bread-and-butter issues.”

CORRECTION: A previous version of this article included a typo that misidentified Sen. Tim Kaine as a Republican. We regret this error.