ALBANY – The death of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s much touted “women’s equality agenda” was the result of a poor strategy that relied too much on outside women’s rights organizations and not enough on a key group: the female members of the Assembly who actually had to do the voting.
That’s the assessment of those female Assembly Democrats who on Monday were still bitter that they were asked Friday to approve what they called a watered-down package of measures to address everything from pay equity to sexual harassment to abortion.
While some groups and the governor late last week expressed surprise that the Assembly would end the session without passing nine of the 10 provisions – leaving out an abortion provision, to match the Senate’s legislative move – female lawmakers said Monday they are equally surprised that any blame was being placed on the Assembly.
The dispute boiled over in a testy meeting Friday between 28 female Assembly Democrats and Cuomo, who they said tried to persuade them to go along with a new compromise package just a day after he had been saying he wanted all 10 bills, including the provision he said protects abortion, or nothing at all.
Besides saying the Assembly had already compromised by moving away from previous positions on everything from pay equity to housing discrimination against domestic violence victims, female Democratic lawmakers said the governor negotiated too much with women’s groups and not with lawmakers.
“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,” said Assemblywoman Crystal Peoples-Stokes, a Buffalo Democrat. She said the female legislators made clear to the governor that the negotiations should have directly included them and not been limited to the many closed-door talks he held with private women’s rights organizations over the months and weeks.
Last Tuesday, The Buffalo News reported that Cuomo administration officials were quietly floating a plan to women’s groups that they embrace the idea of lawmakers passing nine of the 10 bills and letting go of an effort to codify the state’s abortion laws in the event that the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision by the U.S. Supreme Court legalizing abortion is ever overturned.
The Cuomo administration said no such requests were made, and representatives from about 15 women’s groups met privately with Cuomo that night. The representatives later said they were committed to the idea of all 10 provisions or none at all.
But by Friday, things changed. The Senate passed nine separate bills, without the abortion provision that the Assembly had approved a day earlier in a single, omnibus bill. That meant the Senate and Assembly versions did not match, and bills must match precisely to become law. Advocates, including Cuomo, then shifted from a 10-or-nothing lobbying strategy to a nine-is-needed position. They all assumed the Assembly would then just take up the nine separate bills.
But they were wrong. The Assembly ended its 2013 session without any final “same-as” bill with the Senate.
Friday, shortly after Assembly Democratic women held a news conference explaining their position, Cuomo asked the group to send six representatives to meet with him, sources said. But the lawmakers refused and said it had to be all 28 female Democratic lawmakers still at the Capitol or none at all. The administration also sought to have outside women’s groups at the meeting, something the lawmakers also refused to go along with, according to a number of lawmakers.
“When we went to the meeting the effort was to get us to stay on Friday,” Peoples-Stokes said of the governor’s push to have the Assembly remain in town and pass the nine bills minus the abortion provision. That was how many insiders thought the whole matter would come down in the end: Pass nine, everyone would declare a political victory, and all could go home smiling. It was not to be.
“We were just not going to do that, and I’m still not because I think all 10 should be included,” Peoples-Stokes said. “The bills were weakened, and you can’t get the choice bill in what you are getting? You get fluff? We don’t want fluff. These are women’s lives. We don’t deserve fluff.”
“The feeling at the end of session is we took a principled stand, and we’re going to stick with it. The fact that all the Democratic women agreed together was very empowering for us, and I kind of like that feeling,” said Assemblywoman Linda Rosenthal, a Manhattan Democrat.
Indeed, while some sought to blame Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, a Manhattan Democrat, for the Assembly leaving town without taking up the same bills as the Senate, it was more than apparent that Silver followed the lead of his Democratic female colleagues. He had little choice in a year in which he has been heavily criticized, with some outside groups calling for his ouster, for approving a secret sexual harassment settlement award in the case of Vito Lopez, the former Assembly Democrat from Brooklyn who was forced to resign.
Michael Whyland, a spokesman for Silver, said the focus is still on getting all 10 provisions passed. “The women of the Assembly’s Democratic conference sent a powerful message on Friday, especially with reproductive rights under attack in Washington, and we will continue to work in consultation with the governor to get all 10 points passed,” he said.
The Democratic women’s concerns go deeper than abortion rights. They say the Assembly already negotiated a package with Cuomo to get to the omnibus 10-bill package that was weaker than what they had embraced for years. For instance, the Assembly supported legislation requiring that attorney fees be paid in all successful discrimination cases, such as age or religious discrimination, not just based on gender discrimination as in the 10-point bill.
The Assembly has also pushed for stronger pay equity laws for working women, and wanted it applied to both private and public sectors, not just private employers as in the 10-point bill.
Assembly Democrats also wanted, and gave up in the final women’s-oriented bill, pay equity rules banning discrimination based on race or nationality.
Monday in Buffalo, Cuomo would not rule out calling a special session to bring the Assembly back to Albany to consider the nine bills already passed by the Senate. “Everything’s possible,” he said.
Cuomo said the nine bills the Senate passed would “really make a difference for women, and they have to become a reality, and I’m sure they will.”
Senate co-leader Dean Skelos, a Long Island Republican, said Monday that Assembly Democrats should listen to their Democratic governor and return to the Capitol. “These nine measures will improve the lives of countless women throughout our state, and it’s time for the speaker to swiftly join us in enacting each of them into law,” he said.
But People-Stokes said she remains committed to pushing for all 10 provisions. “We came together a couple times, just with Democratic women, to try to reaffirm our unity on this issue, and every time it came up pretty solid, since the Senate did not act like we thought they should,” she said. “I don’t know if that solidarity is as tight as it was Friday, but from my perspective I’m still there.”