As expected, New York State Assemblymen and Senators wrapped up their work for the year and left Albany last week, leaving a few loose ends. Most notable was the Assembly's failure to move forward with any of Governor Andrew Cuomo's women's rights initiative, a ten point plan he calls the "Women's Equality Agenda."
As the legislative session wound down, the Senate passed nine of the ten points - excluding a controversial abortion measure - and handed it off to the Assembly. Unfortunately, Assembly Leader Sheldon Silver refused to act on any Women's Rights Agenda legislation which did not include all ten points.
Giving Silver the benefit of the doubt that his refusal was not an attempt to leverage protections important to women for political gain, I can only assume the Speaker and his supporters believe the following:
1. Pay equity for women is meaningless without expanded abortion rights;Several advocates for women's rights are rightfully outraged by Silver's all or nothing approach. The Speaker should order his colleagues back to Albany to correct this injustice and pass the nine items upon which the Senate has acted. In the meantime, Silver and his colleagues will undoubtedly feel a lot of heat from women's groups demanding a commonsense approach.
2. Strengthening human trafficking laws is pointless without concurrently changing reproductive choice laws;
3. Ending family status discrimination could not be enforced without expanding abortion rights to the maximum permitted by Roe v. Wade;
4. Strengthening protections for victims of domestic violence would not be desired without expanding access to pregnancy termination;
5. Stopping housing discrimination for victims of domestic violence can only be achieved by also permitting expanded abortion rights;
6. Allowing recovery of attorney fees in employment and lending cases is not feasible without allowing increased opportunity to terminate a pregnancy;
7. Stopping pregnancy discrimination is useless without the ability to simply terminate it;
8. Stopping source of income discrimination is inextricably tied to reproductive rights; and
9. Stopping workplace sexual harassment is, well, given his poor handling of Assemblyman Lopez's harassment, we know how Mr. Silver feels about workplace harassment.
Republicans may be tempted to view Silver's failure as a victory, but they shouldn't. Denying a person equal rights based on gender, race, sexual orientation or any other God-given trait can never be a victory. Further, Assembly Democrats may have outraged some of their base by their actions on this issue. But does this mean that the base will suddenly vote Republican? I don't think so.
Assembly Democrats have given people a reason to not vote for Democrats next year. However, in order to gain politically from this, Republicans must give those same people a reason to vote for Republicans instead. That is a difficult task.
The stereotypical image of a Republican is old, white and male. This image persists, even though the average Republican in the New York State Assembly is younger than the average Democrat. However, when people look to associate with a group, people seek groups with whom they feel that they have shared values. Whether the stereotype of the typical Republican is accurate of not, it has become the image of the party. That image does not appear welcoming to women.
The visible leaders of the Republicans do not help make the party more welcoming. If you ask the average person in Western New York to name a female elected Republican at the State level, they will likely not be able to answer. If they are able to answer, the answer will probably be Jane Corwin in the Assembly or Catherine Young in the Senate. Corwin is a great leader; she is very accomplished and a great advocate for Western New York. She is also well respected by her peers as evidenced by her appointment as Minority Leader Pro Tempore, a position which requires her to lead the debate for the Assembly Minority on every issue.
If you asked the same person to identify the Minority Leader Pro Tempore, I doubt they would be able to answer. Most people are not aware of her leadership position. However, the fact that Corwin would be the answer to the gender question is indicative of the Republican's problem attracting women. She is better known for her gender than she is for her accomplishments.
Republicans, much like the Bills, Sabres and Bandits, need a rebuilding year. During this year, they need to conduct an extensive listening tour. They must better understand what issues are important to women and craft their platform to better include women. They need to stop focusing on how to adjust laws to permit participation of women and instead recraft laws to fully include women.
Fairness should not mean giving women the ability to participate in a system originally designed by and for men. Given changes over the past few decades of women's participation in the workforce and men's role in the family, the Republicans have an opportunity to lead a progressive agenda of change which promotes individual values and rights with the traditional Republican tenet of governmental guidance, not interference.
Further, they need to develop a deeper pool of candidates for public office. Their female candidates need to change from being identified as "females running for office" to "office seekers who are also female." Women must be partners in the process, not a means to attract votes. Through an improved process that naturally includes women, women will seek to join the Republican Party in increased numbers. They will not need to be recruited.
Hopefully, Mr. Silver will come to his senses and do what is right for all New Yorkers. In the meantime, the GOP should use this opportunity to again be the party of Abraham Lincoln, the party of Theodore Roosevelt and the party of the future. Women's equality should not be a political issue. It should not be an issue at all. By welcoming women as a natural part of the process, Republicans can move beyond the politics of gender and instead focus on the politics of core GOP values - the American values which made this country great.
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