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Cuomo's new women's political party serves multiple purposes

Greg Cotterill / WEOS Geneva
Gov. Andrew Cuomo visited Seneca Falls in June to stump for his Women's Equality Act.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo is making women’s rights a pillar of his campaign and is focusing on an abortion rights provision. The issue serves multiple purposes for the governor.

Twice now, Cuomo has boarded a bus with his running mate Kathy Hochul, and several other leading female politicians, and rode to rallies for women's equality upstate and in New York City and Long Island.

On the first stop of the tour, in Albany, he promoted his newly created Women’s Equality Party, which will be on the ballot in November. He also pushed the Women’s Equality Act that he’s tried for two years now to get approved in the legislature.

Cuomo told the audience, made up mainly of union and Planned Parenthood members and local elected officials, that he initially thought it would be a no-brainer.

“It’s hard to imagine that somebody could be against it,” Cuomo said. “First point -- equal pay for equal work. How could you be against it?”

Other provisions include measures against human trafficking and domestic abuse. But the entire plan got stuck over the tenth provision, which would codify into New York state law the abortion rights defined in the 1973 U.S. Supreme Court Roe v. Wade decision.

Democrats in the Senate did not have enough votes on their own to pass it, and no Republicans, even pro-choice members, would sign on.

Women’s groups allied with Cuomo, including NARAL Pro-Choice New York, would not agree to splitting the nine other items off, so none of the Women’s Equality Act became law.

In this campaign Cuomo has taken a personal view of the measure, featuring his three daughters and his live-in girlfriend, Food Network star Sandra Lee, in a television ad.

“There are still people trying to end a woman’s right to choose,” said Lee in the ad.

Abortion is also a political wedge issue against the governor’s Republican opponent, Rob Astorino, who Cuomo has attempted to portray as an ultra-conservative.

Cuomo, without mentioning his opponent by name, says candidates would be making a mistake to oppose the act, abortion provision included.

“And if you want to be against those ten points, then you be against those ten points at your own political risk,” Cuomo said. “Because women want full equality in this society.”

Astorino, who is pro-life, says he would not act to rescind abortion rights, which have been New York state law since 1970. He says Cuomo is using the issue for political purposes.

“It’s a straw man, abortion’s been legal in this state for 44 years,” Astorino said earlier this year. “Abortion in any major way in New York is not going anywhere.”

Astorino says he believes women voters care more about jobs and taxes, and he says Cuomo has misrepresented what the Women's Equality Act would actually do. The Republican says he will never sign a law that would expand “abortion on demand through nine months, and potentially performed by non-doctors.”

“That is just hideous,” Astorino said.  

The governor and his supporters deny that, and say the bill simply repeats what is already in the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision.  

Polls show Cuomo is already viewed more favorably by women in New York than by men. In a race where the incumbent governor is perceived as far ahead of his opponent, the governor’s newly formed Women’s Equality Party may help provide the extra boost to get women supporters out to vote on November 4.

The creation of an alternative third party can also serve another purpose for the governor. It would draw votes away from the Working Families Party, a left-leaning group that has, at times, had a strained relationship with Cuomo.   

Karen Scharff, with Citizen Action, is a key member of the Working Families Party leadership, also known as WFP. She’s said women should not be pigeonholed into a separate party, and that the newly created Women’s Equality Party is about politics, not achieving actual policy.

“Women’s equality is a nice message for the campaign,” Scharff said. “From my point of view what matters is getting the bill passed.”

Scharff says the only way that can happen is for voters to select the WFP endorsed candidates.

Cuomo won the Working Families Party endorsement for his reelection bid, but only after he made a video recording under the direction of party leaders naming specific promises demanded by the group. They include working to shift control of the state Senate from Republicans to Democrats who support the Women’s Equality Act, among other things.

Since then, Cuomo has had little to do with the group publicly and skipped a recent Working Families Party rally in New York.

Scharff points out that the Working Families Party is an actual political party, with leadership posts, a decision making structure and an issue platform. The Women’s Equality Party so far has none of those things and is controlled by the state Democratic Party, which is run by Cuomo.

“Women’s Equality, at this point, is just a line on the ballot,” Scharff said. “In order to become a party they have to meet all the other criteria at some point.”

And the line on the ballot could be one of the most important aspects of the Women’s Equality Party. It will be identified as WEP on the candidates’ slate, which is just one letter away from WFP, which is how the Working Families Party line will appear on the ballot. The confusion could siphon even more voters away from Working Families.

Fewer votes in November for the Working Families, or any minor party, can have big consequences. A party has to get at least 50,000 votes in a statewide election year in order to be automatically included on the ballot. If they don’t reach that threshold, then the party has to go through the painstaking process of collecting thousands of individual signatures in order to qualify.

Scharff would not say whether there are tensions between Cuomo and the Working Families Party, but she says both the governor and her group are focused on getting more Democrats elected to the state Senate. She discounts recent polls that show Republicans ahead in five key races.

“I don’t take polls four weeks before Election Day very seriously,” Scharff said.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.