As renewed threats to Roe v. Wade have made abortion rights a central issue in the 2018 New York gubernatorial race, Governor Andrew Cuomo’s record on women’s health has fallen under scrutiny.
On Monday, Cuomo announced a slate of digital ads calling out eight Republican lawmakers he says have failed to push through the Reproductive Health Act, a bill that would enshrine abortion protections in state law. The governor’s support for the legislation rings hollow to reproductive rights advocates and to his opponent, Cynthia Nixon, who say Cuomo has done all he can to make sure the bill continues to collect dust during his time in office.
“He had two terms to get this legislation through and he never made it a priority,” Lauren Hitt, a spokeswoman for the Nixon campaign, tells Broadly. “He never made it a sticking point in budget negotiations, he knew the [Independent Democratic Conference] would never bring it to a vote and yet he continued to empower them, and he refused to campaign for vulnerable Democrats when he had the chance.
“Now, in an election year when this is a hot topic, he’s trying to present himself as a champion of women’s rights,” Hitt continued. “The IDC was always his priority, and it always took precedence over what women needed.”
Cuomo’s office did not respond to Broadly’s request for comment.
The IDC formed in 2011 as a small group of Democrats who opposed the New York state Senate’s Democratic leadership at the time. Its members have voted consistently with their Republican colleagues ever since as part of a “power-sharing agenda” between the two parties. During his two terms as governor, Cuomo has been accused of courting IDC members and furthering their agenda, stymieing progressive goals that are thought to be a given in deep-blue New York—like protecting abortion rights.
When Cuomo has stood up for reproductive rights, critics say he’s shown himself to be out-of-touch and misguided. In the weeks following President Donald Trump’s inauguration in February 2017, Cuomo announced plans to add an amendment to the state constitution that would codify Roe v. Wade, put it on the ballot and “let the people decide” on Election Day.
It was a nice gesture, advocates said, but one that ultimately proved Cuomo wasn’t listening closely enough to what they were asking for: Amending the state constitution requires legislators to agree on the amendment “twice in successive terms,” according to the Village Voice, and then win a majority vote from New Yorkers. Another route would require voters to first approve a constitutional convention, where elected delegates would then ratify the proposed amendment.
“The constitutional amendment would take three years to pass,” Heidi Sieck, the co-founder and CEO of #VOTEPROCHOICE, a pro–abortion rights PAC, tells Broadly. “We don’t have that kind of time. We’re asking the Senate to pass the legislation that’s been sitting there for years.”
VOTEPROCHOICE has thrown its weight behind Nixon, a candidate who has made her reproductive rights activism a centerpiece of her challenge to Cuomo. The day after Trump nominated federal judge Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, Nixon gave a speech at a New York City rally, gripping a coat hanger and telling the story of her mother’s illegal abortion in the 1960s and trashing Cuomo’s record on supporting abortion rights in the state.
“Cuomo said yesterday that God made him a feminist when he made him the father of three daughters,” Nixon said at a podium in Union Square last Tuesday. “I’m tired of men saying they support women’s rights because they’re the father of daughters. Why don’t you support our rights because we’re human beings? Why don’t you support our rights because it’s the right thing to do?”
Despite Nixon’s digs at Cuomo’s feminist credentials, the gubernatorial incumbent has picked up his share of endorsements from notable women’s rights advocates like Hillary Clinton, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, and Planned Parenthood.
“In this critical moment in our nation’s history, the stakes are too high,” Robin Chappell Golston, president of Planned Parenthood Empire States Acts, said in a statement last week. “We need an experienced leader who will fight to protect New Yorkers from federal attacks on our rights and values — and that leader is Andrew Cuomo.”
Nixon’s supporters still hold that the candidate’s challenge throws Cuomo’s record into stark relief, making Nixon the obvious pick for New Yorkers who want a true ally in the fight for reproductive rights.
“The smoke-and-mirrors politics aren’t going to cut it anymore, because people’s lives are truly at risk,” Sieck said. "We need people who have the courage of conviction.”