While the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to toss out Roe v. Wade was widely anticipated that Friday morning in June, it still managed to shock the nation and the state.

I was filling in on “The Brian Lehrer Show,” and we had booked New York State Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins to discuss another ruling issued the day before, which struck down New York’s concealed-carry handgun law.

Then the news broke that Roe was overturned while one of the state’s most powerful Democrats was on the air.

Stewart-Cousins framed the fallout in stark terms: “It is why we matter as people, why elections matter, why not taking any of these things for granted matters because depending upon who sits in these seats, the rights that we enjoy as American citizens can be taken away.”

Stewart-Cousins joined me on “The People’s Guide to Power” last Sunday to talk about how this issue is at play ahead of the upcoming general election. The interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

Brigid Bergin: State Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins is no stranger to the fight for abortion access in New York, and we shared a historic moment together in June when that federal abortion decision came down. Majority Leader, welcome back to WNYC and to "The People's Guide to Power."

Andrea Stewart-Cousins: Thank you so much for asking me to join you again. And I too remember that day — we were talking supposedly about the decision that the Supreme Court had made around guns and how horrendous that was, and in the middle of our conversation, the Dobbs decision came down. It was just unbelievable.

It was stunning. I know when I got off the air that day, I actually had to go to my daughter's 3-K graduation, which felt like extreme cognitive dissonance. Do you remember what you did when you got off the air that day?

Oh my goodness. Well, you know, as the Senate leader — and so many colleagues who were just so upset — I wound up, of course, having multiple conversations with so many people, but mostly reassuring people in New York, women of New York, that we still have legalized abortion because I think that was just such a scary decision that people really were concerned about what it was that what happened to us here and beyond. So, it was really just kind of a round robin of communication with everyone to make sure that we know, again, that New York has taken a leadership role on protecting women's reproductive health and rights, and we will continue to do so, and quite honestly, they were asking, "what are you going to do? What are you going to do?"

We had already done, in anticipation of this dire decision, a package of about six bills that would anticipate the overturning. We all wanted to believe that, with this leaked memo, maybe it wouldn't happen. But we also know historically how, especially in terms of this environment, how our Republican colleagues have been so anti-choice, so anti-women's reproductive health, and this majority on the Supreme Court was very, very clearly handpicked and curated to do this.

We were prepared. So we had already done six bills to protect providers to make sure that people would be able to — if they were coming in from out of state — that they wouldn't be hounded, and their physicians here hunted, because they were providing legal services. So, we were prepared and we wanted to make sure to continue to tell women and actually everyone that New York is a state that will provide legal abortions and so that's what I did and continue to do.

Majority Leader, this is a show where we are really focused on the upcoming midterm election and Gov. Kathy Hochul is certainly trying to make abortion a central issue. She's leading in most of the polls, but last week Newsday released a poll that showed her trailing in Long Island just by a couple points, within the margin of error. How do you interpret that?

We always talk about each election being the most crucial election; certainly this one is because how we vote now is really going to determine the future of democracy in general. And we have just become extremely polarized. So I cannot tell you exactly what's driving this, but these are national elections now that are being played out on a local level.

So, abortion is front and center, certainly on Long Island it is as well. Even our state Senate races have taken a really strong, aggressive stance on making sure people understand that women's rights will be protected, whether it's Anna Kaplan, Monica Martinez, or John Brooks. We are all doing that, as is the governor.

I think [Republicans] are muddling this crime situation, which is a national uptick. Republicans have always been good at diverting attention from the issues that we are working on every day. So I think the governor is going to fight with that, but she will prevail because ultimately we understand that our rights are at stake, our future is at stake, and we cannot lose any ground.

So I believe she'll win. Hopefully Long Island will help push her over the top as well. But I believe, everywhere in the state, New York has got to continue to have Democratic leadership so we can continue to have a democracy.

Majority Leader, it's interesting that you raised the issue of crime. In that same poll, while they found an overwhelming majority of voters do think abortion should be legal, only 42% said that they would only vote for a candidate that agrees with them on that issue. And 48% said they could vote for a candidate who disagrees with them on abortion, but agrees with them on other issues. There was another recent poll from Marist College where voters were asked to choose which issue mattered most to them from their list, abortion came in third among that list that they had to choose from. What are you hearing from voters and do you think abortion will be an issue that helps turn out voters in New York?

I think so. I think there's been a tremendous amount of an increase in registration especially post-Dobbs in terms of women, in terms of pro-choice women being activated on the street level. I've been to many rallies since the Dobbs decision.

So I do believe that for those who know, for those like myself, frankly, who've been around long enough to know when abortion was not legal and for the subsequent generations who understand that they have had rights taken away, I believe you'll see an uptick in who goes to the polls, and that's up to us. We've got to get our vote out, but this is an issue.

It's not only an issue of health and reproductive and bodily autonomy, but it plays into every other thing, whether it's the economy, your ability to be able to plan a future that has you and your health and your family at the center. So yeah, I believe that this is going to continue to drive people to the polls and again, New Yorkers are too smart for us not to consider the future of not only ourselves, but our daughters and our granddaughters.

The other thing I want to say is that we've managed to take care of the issues that people are concerned about, whether it's the pocketbook issues. When I say take care of it, I mean, we are doing our part. We were just there with President [Joe] Biden, up in Poughkeepsie, where IBM had this announcement of $20 billion worth of investment into microchips.

So whether it's economic development, whether it's environment — we have our Environmental Bond Act that we're asking people to come out and vote on to take care of our infrastructure.

We are dealing with everyday issues and ensuring a future that will include all the people of New York, and I think people are going to vote for that, ultimately.

We've been through this before, and to be back here, again, in 2022 is mind-boggling.

It's not only an issue of health and reproductive and bodily autonomy, but it plays into every other thing, whether it's the economy, your ability to be able to plan a future that has you and your health and your family at the center.
New York State Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins

I want to remind your audience or tell them if they weren't aware, that here in New York when we passed a women's right to abortion in 1970, the reality was that the legislature had 12 Republicans that voted with Democrats under Republican leadership of the Senate to codify a woman's right to have an abortion. Now, it was under the criminal codes — there were a lot of things wrong, which is why when I joined the Senate in 2007, I carried a bill to update our laws. But the reality is, we did have 12 Republicans.

When we passed the Reproductive Health Act in 2019 not one Republican voted to codify Roe v. Wade, a 1973 law. So, there has been an absolute regression in the way that our rights are being perceived and looked at, and we cannot take them for granted.

That's why I keep saying who sits in these seats matter. And the only way people get in the seats is through voting. And we cannot take for granted what we have. I go back to when we had a constitutional amendment last year, and we in the Democratic majority, along with the Assembly, put together, constitutional amendment that would allow us, like the majority of the country to have no-excuse absentee voting.

The Republican Party put in millions of dollars to tell people to vote against this proposition, and the proposition actually failed, so that we again do not have no-excuse mail-in voting.

But on the other side of that, I was in Brooklyn with Hochul, with [state] Sen. Zellnor Myrie, who sponsored the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, and Latrice Walker, the assemblywoman who sponsored it. We were there with everyone who understands the importance of voting rights and the governor signed the John Lewis Voting Rights Act New York. So again, we try to be leaders and we hope that people take democracy as seriously as we do.

I played a clip of Hochul's opponent, [Rep.] Lee Zeldin. He has said he would potentially appoint a health commissioner who opposes abortion. He is saying that he could not and would not change New York's laws on abortion. Can you fact check that for us? How hard it would be to roll back some of the abortion laws in New York from the governor's seat?

He would be hard-pressed obviously with the leadership that exists there today. And again, so important, all politics are local. So important that you go back and you support your candidates on every level that support the things that you care about, and obviously we are talking about abortion rights.

As long as the Democrats hold on to the majority and the Assembly Democrats hold on to their majority, there's not much the governor could do in terms of trying to get the laws rolled back. But because the governor has a huge amount of discretion over the budget, and because of legislative activity from years and years ago that wound up in the courts, the legislators can't do a lot of things, we can't just add money.

Budget documents are very much policy documents in addition to being financial documents — and so he could starve the Department of Health in many ways. He could defund some of the providers of abortion and reproductive health care services in his budget. There are a lot of things he could do even though he's not touching a law due through the deprivation of resources.

By contrast, as after Dobbs, we strengthened our providers by sending an additional $35 million to help prepare for what we believe will be an influx of women from other states.

Then the governor last week announced another $13 million in order to help smaller family providers. So the difference between having a chief executive like Hochul, who respects women's rights and respects the work that providers do to make sure that they are healthy and safe is critical.

I would not under any circumstance leave it to Zeldin.

Lastly, every one of the Trump nominees, in terms of the Supreme Court all said the same thing [which was that they believed Roe was an established precedent.] Sadly, you and I, and your listeners and beyond were there when those same people overturned Roe v. Wade.

As far as I'm concerned, they've said a lot, but actions speak louder than words and somehow people's memory seem very short because they say one thing and they do something else.

In New York, he won't be able to overturn the laws, but he will be able to take away money.