Advocates try a new tack to push Cuomo’s stalled women’s agenda

Women's Equality Coalition's new campaign. (Women's Equality Coalition)
Tweet Share on Facebook Share on Tumblr Print

ALBANY—The coalition of advocacy groups that championed Gov. Andrew Cuomo's stalled women's agenda last session is back with a new look.

The Women's Equality Coalition, which includes more than 850 organizations with varying missions, on Thursday launched a new digital advertising campaign, ditching last session's solemn tone and embracing a lighter, satirical approach, in the hopes of generating legislative support through grassroots activism.

The groups redesigned their shared logo and website, with a markedly different web commercial, and they engineered a renewed social media blast aimed at educating New Yorkers about the legislation. The group has a luxury it didn't have before last session's push: time.

“We're launching a public awareness campaign that's really in a digital platform, although we will be enhancing it with really tried-and-true methods of field organizing to make sure that New Yorkers are aware that: A., we didn't get the Women's Equality Act in 2013, and B., why it is important that we have it,” said Tracey Brooks, executive director of Family Planning Advocates, the lobbying arm of Planned Parenthood.

MORE ON CAPITAL

ADVERTISEMENT

Cuomo announced the 10-point Women's Equality Act in his State of the State address in January, saying the packing was among his chief priorities for the session.

But battles over a contentious abortion provision halted the full package, which also included protections against human trafficking and discrimination in housing and employment.

Cuomo brought key women's groups together after his announcement and worked with them until nearly the end of session, crafting the language of the omnibus bill. Critics, particularly conservatives and the Catholic church, pushed the governor to release the bill, while denouncing it as an extreme expansion of abortions in New York.

Advocates argue the legislation simply codifies federal abortion rights in state law. New York legalized abortion in 1970, three years before the landmark Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade, and the statute that remains on the books is more restrictive than current federal law.

Once Cuomo introduced the bill publicly, the women's groups intensified pressure on key senators, but Republican Senate leader Dean Skelos of Long Island, who is pro-life, refused to bring it to a vote. The four-member Independent Democratic Conference, which shares control of the chamber with Republicans, argued throughout session that there weren't enough votes in the Senate to pass the bill, even if it did come to a vote.

In a last-ditch effort during the final days of session, I.D.C. Leader Jeff Klein offered the abortion provision as an amendment to another bill, but it was two votes short of coming to the floor.

Ultimately, the Democratic-led state Assembly passed the full package, and the Senate passed individual versions of the nine pieces that were less controversial, which meant none of the provisions were legally enacted.

Skelos' office declined a request for comment.

The coalition of groups spent the summer regrouping after last session's loss, and strategizing for the upcoming fight, Brooks said.

The ad campaign, which will appear on Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest and other social media sites, will feature a satire video depicting a 1970s-era game show. The contestant hears about a woman being sexually harassed in her small workplace, another being fired for sharing information about her wages with other employees, and a third being rejected from housing because she has been abused by a domestic partner.

In each case, the contestant has to decide, are these situations “illegal or just sleazy?" The answers are the same: The women in these hypothetical situations are not protected by state law.

“What we're looking to do is really break through the clutter,” Brooks said. “These are unfortunate situations that women live with. [The video uses] political satire to keep people's interest and attention about why it is time for New York's Legislature to listen.”

The campaign was developed independently of the governor's office, which Brooks said was not a change from the coalition's work during session. Although it appeared that Cuomo and the coalition worked in lockstep during session, Brooks stressed the coalition's independence throughout the lobbying process.

“We are a coalition that makes its own decisions about what our campaign looks like, how to implement it, what our resources are, and that continues to be true,” Brooks said.

It is unclear whether Cuomo will put his full weight behind the women's agenda for another session. When asked last month whether there had been any progress on the legislation, he shrugged and indicated that there hadn't.

As to whether he would again include the agenda in his State of the State address, the governor said to wait and see.

The governor's office did not respond to a subsequent request for comment.

Dennis Poust, spokesman for the state Catholic Conference, said the group is bracing for a similar push from the governor and women's groups in the 2014 session, and the Church remains equally steadfast in its commitment to stop the bill, he said.

"We remain confident that the votes are not there in the Senate for the abortion expansion piece of that legislation, so we are hoping that the Assembly will do the right thing and pass the [other] nine pieces for which there is broad agreement,” Poust said Wednesday.

NARAL Pro-Choice New York, which was a prominent leader of the coalition last session, split from the larger group to focus on election work after the advocates' lost in the Senate in late June. The group has been clear that it will target lawmakers who block the abortion provision in aggressive ad campaigns come the 2014 election cycle.

Andrea Miller, the group's president, said Wednesday it is still NARAL's priority to pass the Women's Equality Agenda before next year's elections.

“You can diagnose the last session in lots of different ways, but the bottom line is a lot of things didn't happen because there is a power dynamic in Albany that needs to change,” she said. “There is a real frustration with how particularly the Senate ended the session.”

She said NARAL was disappointed that the I.D.C. didn't push Skelos harder for a vote on the full 10-point agenda, but she hopes they will support this and other pieces of progressive legislation this session, fulfilling the promise they made when explaining why they split from mainstream Democrats to begin with.

Anna Durrett, a Klein spokeswoman, argued in a statement Wednesday that the I.D.C. showed its commitment to the abortion legislation when Klein offered the bill as an amendment.

“When a majority of senators voted the bill down, nobody was more disappointed than Senator Klein,” she said. “But as he made clear by his actions that day, he believes in this issue and hopes to see it pass in the future.”

Miller agrees with the coalition's grassroots focus, she said.

“The reality is, nothing is more powerful than hearing from your constitutents that this is what we need and expect,” she said.

“This is not a total reset,” she added. “We have unfinished business. And we go into the next phase with that clearly in mind.”