State Legislature Divided Over Women’s Equality Agenda

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By Brandon B. QuinnIn an effort to save face and possibly pass the highly touted Women’s Equality Agenda pushed by Governor Andrew Cuomo, members of the State Legislature and Mr. Cuomo himself have been verbally sparring since June 21, the last day of session, over who is more pro-woman and who exactly needs to keep working.

Locally, while women’s advocacy groups across the East End weigh in on the legislation, State Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr. and Senator Kenneth LaValle—longtime allies in Albany—stand on opposite sides of this political game of chicken, and they too have differing opinions on who is doing a disservice to women.

The Women’s Equality Agenda is a plan set forth by Mr. Cuomo with provisions to secure equal pay for equal work, to protect victims of sexual harassment and domestic violence, and to crack down on human sex trafficking. All of these measures have drawn bipartisan support in both the state Assembly and Senate.

The one point of contention in the plan is the provision that would uphold the right of women to choose to have an abortion, regardless of whether or not Roe v. Wade ever gets overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Since Mr. Cuomo proposed this agenda, those in the traditionally Republican-controlled State Senate have said they support the platform, but would not pass it if it included the abortion protection. Conversely, the Democrat-controlled Assembly has had unfettered support for the entire platform and, along with Mr. Cuomo and leading women’s rights advocates, have vowed to pass the entire agenda, abortion protection included.

As recently as June 20, when the Assembly approved the entire Women’s Equality Agenda, Mr. Cuomo reiterated this position, with a statement reading: “The Assembly had the courage to stand up on behalf of the women of New York, and now the Senate must do the same. Each and every part of the Women’s Equality Act is vitally important to the future of women in our state, and New Yorkers deserve to know where all their elected representatives stand on all of them.”

But the Senate stood by its original word, passing the first nine segments of the agenda with individual bills while leaving out the abortion protections. Since identical bills must pass both houses before being signed into law, the State Legislature was at a standstill on the legislation.

That is, until Mr. Cuomo went on the “Capitol Pressroom” radio show and said: “You have to remember, these nine are historic accomplishments. We’ve been talking about these for decades. Pay equity, discrimination protection, sexual harassment protection—this is an extraordinary accomplishment in the nine.

“The 10th, abortion, actually doesn’t change anything,” he continued. “It codifies [abortion rights] but it doesn’t change anything … At the end of the day, these nine would be extraordinary … so, of course, the Assembly would wind up passing them.”

Mr. Cuomo spoke too soon.

Refusing to compromise, the Assembly brought none of the individual bills to a vote prior to the session ending two weeks ago, standing pat with the 10-point omnibus bill. That decision has upset both Mr. Cuomo and some of the women’s advocate groups that, up until the prior week, were demanding that the Assembly pass all 10 measures, or none of them.

Jeffrey A. Friedman, the executive director of The Retreat, an East End organization that provides domestic violence services to about 3,000 people a year, said his group was “instrumental in trying to advocate for this legislation on behalf of victims of domestic violence.”

“To be able to tell these women that it passed—it would’ve overcome huge barriers for so many of the victims, and we are very saddened by it,” said Mr. Friedman, who noted that The Retreat is not a political organization. He also stressed that he did not blame either house in Albany, simply stating that he is “concerned about the victims.”

The East End Women’s Network, a local women’s advocacy group that boasts approximately 150 members, echoed Mr. Friedman’s disappointment over the stalling of the measure. “Especially at a time when our government is recognizing other disenfranchised groups, like immigrants and same-sex couples, to at this time not be voted as equal is disheartening,” said Paula Daniel, the group’s president.

State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, who has since taken heat on multiple fronts, defended the decision made by the Assembly to not pass any of the other nine points, in a statement: “Invariably the question will be asked, ‘Why not pass the nine bills your colleagues across the hall say they are willing to consider?’ The simple answer is that a woman residing in the State of New York is not, and never should be considered, nine-tenths of a citizen. When the time came, we did [female] New Yorkers the simple honor of voting on the agenda that they need, that they demanded and that they deserve.”

At least one women’s advocacy group, the League of Women Voters of the Hamptons, agrees with Mr. Silver.

“The League of Women Voters is very disappointed in the refusal of the State Senate to pass the Women’s Equality Agenda after the Assembly approved the bill,” said Judy Samuelson, co-president of the local chapter. “We vigorously supported the bill, which would have substantially improved the lives of women through the full 10-point agenda.”

Members of the State Senate, meanwhile, view the stand-off differently.

“When the governor first proposed the 10-point bill, we said we weren’t going to pass all 10 points, but we’d love to go along with nine of them,” said Drew Biondo, the director of communication for Mr. LaValle, a Republican. “The Assembly knew all along that passing the omnibus bill wouldn’t do any good for the women of New York State. It would be a shame if the Assembly was not called back to vote on the nine bills.”

But according to Mr. Thiele, an Independence Party member, he hasn’t been told to plan any trips back to Albany any time soon for a special session.

“We, and I in particular, don’t need to pick and choose,” he said. “The women in the Assembly were pretty adamant that they only would pass all 10 points, and the rest of us are standing by them. You can’t be a little bit pregnant—and you can’t be a little bit equal.”

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