ALBANY — Women are emerging as the year’s most sought-after voting bloc as candidates in New York and nationwide campaign on promises to protect reproductive rights, combat violence against women and ensure equal pay.
The 2014 election in New York has seen the creation of a new Women’s Equality Party and a barrage of attack ads and mailers denouncing one candidate or another as being soft on domestic violence. There was even a women’s equality bus tour featuring Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
Women are increasingly voting at higher rates than men, and in 2010 they helped give Republicans a big victory in the midterm elections. For Democrats like Cuomo, women are a pivotal part of his base. Republicans, meanwhile, want to make inroads.
“The women’s vote, as we’ve seen in this election all over the country, is hotly contested,” said Debbie Walsh, director of Rutgers University’s Center for American Women and Politics. “The Democrats need it, the Republicans want it.”
As a result, candidates in races from governor down to the state Assembly are talking about reproductive rights, domestic violence and broader issues like the minimum wage, education and equal pay that they believe with resonate with female voters.
“I am not going to leave this planet Earth until the New York State Legislature says my three daughters and your daughters and your sisters are equal to every man in this state,” Cuomo said during a stop on his “Women’s Equality Express” bus tour.
Critics dismiss the rhetoric as a cynical ploy and note that women care about issues like jobs and the economy just as much as men do.
Polls suggest that if Cuomo wins a second term, he’ll have women to thank for it. While male voters are evenly split between Cuomo and his Republican opponent, Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino, female voters favor Cuomo by more than 2-to-1.
Astorino, who has said he is personally opposed to abortion but has no intention of changing current law, has accused Cuomo and the Democrats of using it as a wedge issue to distract voters from questions about unemployment and taxes.
“It’s an issue that the governor likes to bring up to raise some money, to rile up a few people, but to avoid the issues that people need to talk about in this state,” he said.
Similar tactics are going on in legislative races.
In a hard-fought race in the Hudson River valley, supporters of Democratic Sen. Terry Gipson sent out a mailer featuring a picture of a woman with a bruised face. It accused Republican candidate Sue Serino of opposing equal pay and abortion rights. The same mailer popped up in other races, too.
Serino produced her own mailer blasting Gipson for voting against help for victims of domestic violence, rape and breast cancer. He denied the charges.
On the other side of the river, an ad for Republican Senate candidate George Amedore said the former state assemblyman is “leading the fight to stop domestic violence” and wage inequality. A radio ad supporting his opponent, Democratic Sen. Cecilia Tkaczyk, labeled Amedore as “anti-choice and anti-women.”
Barbara Thomas, a longtime member of the League of Women Voters, said it’s good that candidates are paying attention and she hopes they see so-called women’s issues in the greater context of economic and social issues like health care, wages and education.
“I hope that this increased interest and attention results in actual legislative changes,” she said. “We frame it as a woman’s issue. It’s really about fairness.”
At the center of the back and forth is legislation known as the women’s equality agenda, a 10-point legislative proposal that’s now bogged down in Albany gridlock.
Nine of the agenda’s provisions have broad support: help for domestic violence victims, tougher human trafficking laws and rules for wage discrimination and accommodations for pregnant workers. The 10th is the sticking point: It would codify federal abortion rights in state law to ensure they continue if the Supreme Court Roe v. Wade decision is overturned.
Republican Senate leaders oppose the final proposal. Democratic leaders of the Assembly, however, refuse to split up the package, leading to a political standoff and giving Democrats high-caliber ammunition against Republicans.
Cuomo, who tapped former Buffalo congresswoman Kathy Hochul as his running mate, created the Women’s Equality Party in an effort to appeal to female voters. New York allows candidates to run on multiple party lines, and the new party gives Cuomo and other Democrats a way to advertise their support — while getting their name on the ballot an additional time.
Green Party candidate Howie Hawkins dismisses the move as “ballot hocus pocus.” He said Cuomo hasn’t done enough on economic issues that disproportionately affect women.
“Cuomo’s trickle-down economic policies don’t trickle down to working-class women, who need living wage jobs, a closing of the male-female pay gap, affordable child care, paid family leave,” he said
One glaring political problem for women gets less attention. Women make up 51.5 percent of the state population, yet only two of the 18 candidates for statewide office are female. The state now ranks 33rd in the nation for female legislators.
“The number of women candidates isn’t rising at the rate you would expect,” Walsh said. “You’ve never had a woman governor. You’ve had some women in statewide office, but not many.”