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Primary Colors Shade Albany Abortion Debate

June 17, 2013

Guns, God and Gays.  It’s shorthand for the reluctance of white middle class Americans to vote Democratic despite general agreement with the party’s economic policies.

It’s also captures three cultural hurdles Governor Cuomo is looking to clear in order to run for re-election next year as a history-making, effective progressive.  National Democrats take note.

Cuomo’s political investment in marriage equality exceeds that of any straight politician in the nation.  He wielded the levers of gubernatorial schmoozelegislative craftsmanship and political assistance to secure marriage rights for more gay couples than anyone else.  The Governor’s personal involvement in passing the measure through the then GOP-controlled State Senate is widely chronicled.

Gays– who comprise 5% of the national electorate and vote more than 75% Democratic- are a key party constituency. More than 11% of the Democratic Primary voters in presidential delegate-rich California are LGBT.

Cuomo has also tightly linked himself to gun control supporters, securing a national spotlight in the wake of the Newtown massacre.  With speed (some say too much speed), Cuomo convinced Republican senators representing politically moderate districts on Long Island to back his SAFE Act.

Cuomo’s potential 2016 presidential rivals, Governors Martin O’Malley of Maryland and John Hickenlooper of Colorado, have also pressed gun control bills.  But no initiative received as much attention as Cuomo’s success in New York.  Support for gun control—already high among Democrats at 78%- is highest among Democratic women.  And women are the dominant force in Democratic presidential primaries.

In the waning days of the 2013 legislative session, Cuomo’s chief social legislation objective is his dulcetly named Women’s Equality Act.  The bill is an amalgam of thoughtful, not terribly controversial, proposals that would strengthen protections for victims of domestic violence, end odious discrimination against women with children in the rental of housing and expand harassment protections to all New York workplaces.

It would also codify abortion rights in New York consistent with the parameters of Roe v. Wade.  The act is stalled.

It is difficult to discuss Andrew Cuomo and abortion without recalling Mario Cuomo’sunbridled defense of abortion rights at Notre Dame in 1984. The Religious Right (remember Jerry Falwell?) was the wind beneath President Reagan’s re-election wings that year and Democratic vice-presidential nominee Geraldine Ferraro of New York was in a messy public spat with John Cardinal O’Connor over her vocal pro-choice stance.  Walter Mondale, the Democratic presidential nominee, accused Regan of suggesting that “God is a Republican.”

In America’s cradle of Catholic pride, Mario Cuomo powerfully summoned the Church’s social justice teaching to provide context for his support for legalized abortion, despite his personal, faith-based opposition.  Andrew Cuomo appears less inclined to reach to dogma.  He states his support for abortion rights straightforwardly: either you are pro-choice or you are not.

Cuomo is pressing Senator Jeff Klein and the Senate’s Independent Democratic Conference hard on the WEA’s abortion rights provisions.  Klein and his colleagues, kingmakers after they bolted from the dysfunctional State Senate Democratic caucus, are liberal but pragmatic.  The Bronx Democrat shares leadership of the State Senate with Dean Skelos, a Nassau County Republican first elected to the Assembly the same year Al D’Amato rode a wave of suburban votes to the US Senate.  They rule together, sharing the blessings of cooperation and the strains of uneasy political partnership. Skelos is blocking the WEA from coming to the Senate floor.

After one IDC member, Diane Savino of Staten Island, called for passage of the WEAwithout the abortion provisions, she was slammed by women’s groups.  Twitter lit up with calls for the IDC’s lone female member to press for an up or down floor vote on Cuomo’s bill.

On the other side, New York’s Catholic leaders have unleashed their harshest rhetoricyet of Cuomo’s tenure after relatively mild opposition to Cuomo’s marriage equality efforts.

“We must not let victims of abuse and discrimination be held hostage to Governor Cuomo’s ideologically driven political agenda,” the Catholic Conference said in one of many press statements, “an agenda that is extremely harmful to mothers, infants and religious liberty.”

Polls show strong support for Cuomo’s bill.  Opponents contend the public is backing the less controversial elements of the bill, not its abortion provisions.  But the data is pretty clear—this morning’s Siena Poll shows support ranging between 56% to 67% for the bill’s abortion provisions, depending on how the question is framed.  A clear majority says the abortion provisions should not be removed from the bill as part of a legislative compromise.

The larger argument of WEA opponents is why bother.  Abortion rights seem in no peril in New York.  Few see a retrenchment on Roe v. Wade while a Democratic president retains the power to appoint the next Supreme Court justice.  New York’s last Republican Governor, George Pataki, supported abortion rights.

For Albany politicos, Cuomo’s success in this legislative session is linked to his package of bills responding to lawmaker corruption scandals than by his abortion rights agenda.  And pummeling IDC members on choice could potentially find the weak spot that makes the current power sharing between Skelos and Klein unsustainable.  IDC members want neither a culture war with pro-choice women in their districts nor the wrath of the liberal editorial boards that gave them a pass on their Republican teamwork in exchange for progressive victories on gay marriage, gun control and a higher minimum wage.  (Over the weekend, the IDC introduced its own Women’s Equality Act.)

But passing the WEA would make Cuomo the nation’s progressive icon– a bold Westchester Wonder erasing national Democrats’ memories of the hesitant Hamlet on the Hudson who passed on the presidency in 1992.  Even if the bill passes without its abortion plank, Cuomo’s high profile advocacy can lock down the support of ideological Democrats so effectively that his imprimatur– not those of traditional liberal activist groups- will define the progressive virtue of others in New York, California and beyond.

Cuomo’s biggest bet isn’t on casinos in the Catskills— but on Democrats’ desire for the unrepentant social liberalism avoided by Barack Obama and criticized by Bill Clinton.

If you are going to carry the baggage of being a liberal from New York across the country, you might as well actually be one.

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