The 1990 campaign season produced a mixture of emotions ranging from elation to misery, and all underscored by the exhaustion of campaign workers.
Pro-choice supporters can take pride in the outcome of some races, particularly in the [New York State] Assembly. There may be as many as 8 more pro-choice votes among the new Assembly members. This will ensure that the Assembly remains firmly in the pro-choice camp.
However, the result of the state Senate races was a disappointment. The 1990 Senate was anti-choice by only one vote, so the goal of electing a pro-choice Senate did not seem unreachable. Our side was also looking for help from the state Democrats, traditionally pro-choice, who were trying to wrest control of the Senate from the Republicans.
In order to gain this advantage, the Democrats were mounting their first coordinated statewide campaign effort for their candidates. Campaign managers, money and workers were sent to various campaigns across New York. Hopes were high because some of the candidates, although new to campaigning, were running for open seats.
The Republican party, which had been pro-choice before Reagan, also gave choice a big hand this year by listening to their constituents and changing the state party platform to support reproductive rights. This change produced two gubernatorial candidates who were pro-choice and allowed many formerly pro-choice Republican candidates to be in harmony with the formal party line.
All this effort from both major parties seemed to offer a chance of a pro-choice sweep of all executive and legislative branches in New York. This hope of victory naturally activated the pro-choice forces - both professional and volunteer. Voter Identification Projects were begun, candidates' surveys sent out, public forums arranged, mailings proliferated, thousands of phone calls made and money spent.
The result: the Senate is now anti-choice by two votes.
Not a massive defeat, but not the hoped for victory. Certainly, many questions remain as a result of the 1990 elections.
In order to gain some insight into the results of the past elections, the Body Politic conducted telephone interviews with five prominent pro-choice women from across New York. Each has a particular view of what went right (and wrong) and some suggestions for us in future elections.
The five who graciously granted interviews from their homes or offices were, Geraldine Ferraro, long-time pro-choice advocate, 1984 Vice Presidential candidate and possible future candidate for the New York State U.S. Senate who traveled the state in the last elections campaigning for the State Democrats' Senate candidates; Jon Wegienek, Chair of the Reproductive Rights Committee of the National Organization for Women; Carol Reichert, Associate Director of Family Planning Advocates; Ellen Carton Executive Director of New York State National Abortion Rights Action League; and Tanya Melich, President, Political Issues Management and Executive Director of the New York State Republican Family Committee.
None of our interviewees felt that choice as an election issue was damaged by the election results. The state budget problems were really the overwhelming factor in many races. Choice did not appear to be threatened in New York, so people were more concerned about their pocketbooks than their rights. But choice was important in some New York State elections, and others across the country.
An article in the New York Times on Saturday, December 15, 1990 looks at these nationwide election results and insists that abortion not be dismissed as an issue for 1992. Valerie Syme and Doug Bailey state that abortion was a deciding issue in many elections across the nation - it just was not always the "most debated or prominent issue."
The article lists pro-choice victories including four new governors (two Republicans and two Democrats) who won as a result of crossover votes. The authors assert that, "What polls show is that pro-choice candidates who emphasize the issue and organize pro-choice voters will probably win...".
However, Ms. Syme and Mr. Bailey have some cautions for future pro-choice candidates. Candidates must be qualified, flip-flopping will probably bring defeat, and abortion will not be the decisive issue unless candidates are diametrically opposed.
It should also be remembered that, "Pro-life forces are far more likely to maximize their vote." As Ellen Carton says in her interview, they have been organized politically for seventeen years and we have a lot of catching up to do.
Ms. Syme and Mr. Bailey also see abortion as having the greatest impact at the state level - a view that most pro-choice activists have come to share after the Webster decision in 1989. Their final caution to us all is, "The issue of abortion decided elections in 1990. In 1992, the elections may decide the issue."
Those of us who work for the continuation of reproductive freedom in New York State should not be discouraged by the 1990 election results. We worked hard and had some successes. As Carol Reichert reminded us, there are new elections every two years. There is always another chance.
Tanya Melich went even further with her advice and admonished pro-choice supporters to get in the political process from the beginning. Learn about candidate selection and see to it that only pro-choice candidates run for office. It is much easier to support a pro-choice candidate than work for the defeat of an anti-choice one!
The message that all our interviewees sent is one of congratulations for all the hard work (no experience is wasted) and get ready to work even harder in 1992.
When reached at her New York office, Ms. Ferraro voiced the same sadness shared by all who worked so hard for defeated pro-choice candidates. The results of the Senate races were very disappointing for our side. However, the successful Assembly races were quite encouraging. In light of this mixed bag, I asked Ms.Ferraro
What message about choice do you think this last election sent to the Democrat?
"The message went to the constituents not the party." All of the Senate races were very difficult to begin with. The Democratic candidates were running against "well-financed incumbents" (always a disadvantage). Even though the pro-choice side lost these races, there was an awareness of issues of concern to women raised by their candidacy. "Unfortunately, choice was not the deciding issue in any of the races."
Where do you think choice as an issue ranks with New York voters?
"That's hard to determine. It depends on the district." In Westchester the pro-choice voters are strong and well-organized by Polly Rothstein of the Westchester Coalition For Legal Abortion. Their influence caused a previously anti-choice Senator to change his political opinion to the pro-choice side. Yet, in my own District in Queens, the anti-choice supporters hold sway. The majority of New York voters are pro-choice, but local sentiment and organization are powerful political forces.
Will choice continue to receive strong support from the Democratic Party?
Definitely. For the first time, Democrats mounted a coordinated, organized effort on behalf of its candidates. "Was it enough? No. If it had been, more would have been elected." But there was outreach to the campaigns with managers and money. Next time around, it should be better. Among other things, there are now candidates with campaign experience.
What about support for choice at the National level?
Support for choice is firm. It is part of the Democratic Platform.
What about getting a concerted effort by national Democrats to work for the Freedom of Choice Act?
That could prove more difficult. A great deal of grassroots pressure and support would be needed.
What are your plans for 1992?
I will do a poll in January. The results will be my guide. My reception as I campaigned across the state was so warm that I was encouraged at the possibility of challenging Alfonse D'Amato for the U.S. Senate. The poll should determine if public reaction was mostly based on a warm, fuzzy puppy remembrance of the 1984 campaign or if I can count on real political support.
We look forward to the results of Ms. Ferraro's poll and hope to see her fighting in the political ring in the future.
What do you think will happen in the 1991 legislative session as a result of the elections?
I am afraid that anti-choice legislation may take a more "ominous" turn in 1991. The main concern is that our loss of another pro-choice seat in the Senate may cause bills to come out of committee that might not have made it out last year.
What is N.O.W. planning to do during this legislative session?
We plan to lobby. Last year N.O.W. hired a full time lobbyist "who must have invented the 40 hour day." There were 500 bills of interest to the organization and many of them pertained to reproductive rights. N.O.W.'s strategy to protect the state from this destructive legislation is to "keep up the lobby pressure." You should take a page from computer adages - "Lobby early and often." "As long as Richard Gotfried is Health Assembly Committee Chair we are probably protected. The Senate is a different story."
What plans does N.O.W. have for lobbying in 1991?
N.O.W. will continue to monitor bills and there are also plans to lobby in the Capital every month. N.O.W. will arrange home office lobbying for those unable to travel to Albany. "If everyone can do just a little, we can do a lot."
What about future plans in New York?
Future plans for N.O.W. New York State are not formed yet. Certainly, we will be gearing up to defeat Senator D'Amato should he run again for the Senate. The fact that Sen. D'Amato has already hired Jessie Helms' campaign manager bodes ill for the 1992 campaign season.
What is the current situation with N.O.W. possibly forming a third party?
As far as plans for a possible third party go, that issue is being debated at the National level, and currently has little impact on the New York State affiliate. Hearings are going on all over the country to assess people's feelings and commitment to this possibility. This is a good consciousness-raising tool. Many members of N.O.W. and groups with similar agendas do feel alienated from the current political parties. Whether they are unhappy enough to start a new party remains to be seen.
For the immediate future, New York State N.O.W. will concentrate on New York State problems, such as Minor's Access to services and tracking all those other bills. There is plenty to do right here.
How did you do?
"We had mixed results." The Assembly candidates we supported did very well. NARAL was particularly involved in Susan John's campaign to defeat Gary Proud for the 131st Assembly seat. Albany site director Laurie Nichols was sent to Rochester to directly participate in the successful primary campaign.
The rest of our effort was mostly directed at promising Senate campaigns. Unfortunately, all candidates NARAL endorsed in the Senate races lost.
What message about supporting choice as an issue does this send to future candidates?
"There is no advantage in being anti-choice." No candidate based their whole campaign on being anti-choice. The losing candidates who supported choice were not defeated on that issue. The candidates lost because they were challenging an incumbent, or because of taxes, or other issues. Choice was not the number one issue among New York State voters.
Most anti-choice candidates actually down-played their stand and tried not to discuss the issue. It has become apparent, at least in New York State, that being blatantly anti-choice is not a good campaign strategy. NARAL's strategy in the future, must be to work harder to get out the word on people's position on choice.
We have to remember that the anti-choice forces have been politically organized for 17 years. We only really began to mobilize politically after the Webster decision in July '89. "We have a lot of catch up work to do."
What future support for choice do you expect from the major political parties?
Even though choice was not the number one issue with New York voters, I see no lessening of commitment from the Democrats. Their pro-choice Senate candidates fared badly, but the Assembly races were quite successful.
I also expect no change in the newly pro-choice Republican platform. "Republicans clearly thought being anti-choice was no longer a political advantage. Many pro-choice Republicans were elected.
Do you have any regrets about NARAL's work in the last election?
"No. We really did a good job. We printed and distributed thousands of pieces of literature, started Voter Identification projects across the state, did phonebanking, endorsed candidates, sent staff to work directly on campaigns, published a statewide voting guide and gave direct financing through the PAC."
What would you like to see pro-choice activists do over the next two years?
Two things. First, the greatest threat to choice in New York is in the concept of Minor's Access - the ability of teens to have an abortion without parental or judicial consent. Losing that right will do no service to New York State teens. Local groups should organize to educate the public, legislators and media about the saneness of current New York law.
Second, get an early start on the 1992 elections by identifying pro-choice voters. Then educate pro-choice activist about the workings of the political system in order to develop an infrastructure to prepare for 1992. Try to get into the political system to see that pro-choice candidates are selected to run for office.
What is NARAL doing for the next two years?
Two things. First, we are already gearing up to identify vulnerable anti-choice incumbents throughout the state. We will be looking for races we can win with special attention to open seats.
Second, we are also preparing to defeat Senator D'Amato if he chooses to run again.
What effect did the elections have on the make up of the New York State Legislature?
There are 14 new faces in the Assembly and 12 are pro-choice. This may translate into as many as 8 new pro-choice votes. Good news is made better by the fact that these new pro-choice representatives come from both parties, showing that support for choice is bi-partisan.
Unfortunately, we were not able to turn the Senate pro-choice. "Missed opportunities are sad" but, we are only down by one more vote so things have not substantially changed.
We should also take heart from the fact that the majority of Senators serve first in the Assembly, so the pool of future Senators is more and more pro-choice.
Was any candidate hurt by being pro-choice?
Choice as an issue figured in a few campaigns, such as Susan John's in Rochester. Ms. John was successful in defeating Gary Proud, the anti-choice incumbent in the primary - not a feat to be sneezed at. Choice helped her campaign.
The bottom line is, "No one was hurt by being pro-choice. However, choice was not the central issue in most campaigns. The economy, taxes and crime had greater resonance with the voters. Choice either helped, or it had no real effect."
Campaigns are temporary but lobbying is forever. What recommendations would you give to the pro-choice community for the next two years?
The 1991 legislative session is almost upon us and I have two recommendations for the pro-choice community.
First, lobby the New York State Legislature! "Emphasize the importance of holding the line on access. Keep abortion safe and legal." Especially remember New York State teens. Access to abortion for teens is threatened every year, but this year may be more difficult than usual.
Second, remember when you lobby to support family planning funding and promote K-12 Family Life Education. We are trying to prevent the need for abortion. Family planning and education will do more to prevent abortion than all the Randy Terrys in the world.
FPA will again kick off the lobbying season by sponsoring the first lobbying conference in Albany on the 28th and 29th of January, 1991 (see article on page 20). Whether you are an experienced lobbyist or a neophyte, this is for you.
A final word of encouragement - remember that your legislators stand for election every 2 years. We have another chance in 1992. "Just be pro-choice when you go in the voting booth."
The results of the state Senate races were very disappointing to pro-choice supporters. However, choice candidates scored well in the Assembly. What message do you think this sent to the political parties about choice as an issue?
The mixed success of choice candidates in the Senate and Assembly races does not change the importance of the issue of choice. Choice actually became a different issue in 1990 because both party platforms supported it. Both parties running pro-choice candidates for governor enhanced its importance, but defused it as a statewide issue.
In the Hudson valley, Democrat Harriet Cornell ran against Republican John Holland for an open Senate seat. There was a clear difference, but Mr. Holland made the campaign issue taxes and anger at Governor Cuomo. Ms. Cornell was not able to get the Independents and pro-choice Republicans to support her candidacy. Taxes were the over-whelming issue in this race and most Senate races, so Ms. Cornell lost. It had nothing to do with her pro-choice stand.
There was a different outcome in the 115th Assembly race. Democrat Ro Ann Destito who works for Mel Miller, faced Republican Conservative David Townsend, who is pro-choice. Ms. Destito made minor's access a campaign issue by producing a commercial directed at parents saying that because David Townsend supported choice, he did not want parents to have any say in their children's lives because he would not support Parental Consent legislation. That commercial backfired on Ms. Destito and Mr. Townsend was elected.
The state Republican platform was changed to support choice this year. Do you see any move to reverse that decision?
Not really. Republicans did not loose elections by being pro-choice. The Republican candidate for Governor, Pierre Rinfret lost because, "He defeated himself. A lot of people were mad at him."
In fact, being pro-choice probably helped Republican John Ravitz in his race against Democrat Alan Blinker. These two squared off in the East side of Manhattan where there is almost a 60% Democratic registration.
Both were pro-choice, but Mr. Blinker decided to attack Mr. Ravitz as a person who would not stick to his principles when he went to Albany because so many Republicans were anti-choice. The voters revolted at this strategy and Mr. Ravitz defeated Mr. Blinker by about 54% (and about $600,000.00 less dollars).
The only reason to change the platform may be to accommodate Senator D'Amato when he runs again for the U.S. Senate in '92.
Where do you think the issue of choice stands with New York State voters?
Choice is important in New York State, but, "...if people feel it is safe, they do not vote it as their first issue." If you want to protect choice, work to ensure that we have more pro-choice candidates running for office from both parties. "Get in the nominating process from day one. There is too much end of the campaign emphasis. Pay more attention early on." In other words, learn how the political process works. See to it that only pro-choice candidates are nominated. You can be sure the oher side will be working for anti-choice ones.
Do you think reproductive rights issues will face a more difficult time in the 1991 legislature?
Maybe not more difficult, but equally as tough.
Good luck to all lobbyists!