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

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.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo Pat Arnow via Wikimedia Commons

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.

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.