One by one, the responses from female Democrats came swiftly and forcefully to the leaked U.S. Supreme Court draft opinion that would overturn Roe v. Wade.
“I refuse to go backwards,” Gov. Kathy Hochul said during an unrelated press conference on Tuesday.
Her statements of condemnation quickly turned into a rallying cry: A day later, Hochul rolled out two new campaign videos affirming her support for abortion rights.
It was a vivid example of how, across the country, Democrats are attempting to capitalize on the threat to Roe as a way to energize and broaden political support, particularly among women voters. Although the fiercest midterm election battles are expected to be in red or swing states, in deep blue New York the issue will likely reframe debates in key races, which thus far have been dominated by concerns around public safety and the economy.
Some Democrats also hope the momentum will usher in legislative and funding initiatives that would strengthen access to abortions.
A moderate with a massive campaign war chest, Hochul is heavily favored to win the Democratic primary and poised to become the state’s first woman elected governor. But she has come under increasing criticism, namely for an $850 million tax subsidy for a new Buffalo Bills stadium and a sloppy vetting process for the former Lt. Gov. Brian Benjamin, who last month resigned amid a bribery scandal.
The new campaign ads, one entitled “Strength” and the other “Always Protect,” time out to just 21 seconds combined and are part of an at least $10 million multimedia strategy targeting voters across the state. The first 15-second digital spot begins with a polaroid of the governor and her mother, who worked together on domestic violence issues. It ends with Hochul saying, “I’m protecting abortion access because I’ll always stand up for New York women.”
On Thursday, Hochul did a round of media hits where she offered a blunt take on the electoral impact of rolling back reproductive rights.
“Abortion is on the ballot now,” she said during an appearance on MSNBC, pointing to the potential SCOTUS ruling as the fallout from Trump-appointed Supreme Court justices. “This is what happens when you don't elect Democrats.”
Hochul also pledged to make New York a “safe harbor” for abortions, drawing a sharp contrast with the leading Republican gubernatorial challenger, Long Island Rep. Lee Zeldin, who opposes most abortions and last week embraced the idea of having a “pro-life” state health commissioner.
Women’s rights advocates say that mobilizing voters around reproductive rights is a no-brainer, especially in New York. The state legalized abortion in 1970, three years before Roe v. Wade. A New York Times analysis of polls taken over the past decade found that 63% of residents believe abortion should be legal.
“The reality is that this is not a polarizing issue,” said Heidi Sieck, who heads #VoteProChoice, a group which works to elect Democrats at the federal, state and local level who support abortion rights.
Still, Sieck criticized Democrats for failing to recognize the threat to Roe and leaving the conversation about abortion to organizations like Planned Parenthood and NARAL, two leading advocacy groups.
“We can’t have that anymore,” she said.
Beyond the gubernatorial election, there are congressional races where the issue has already reinvigorated Democrats — in particular, the two candidates looking to unseat Republican Rep. Nicole Malliotakis, a Donald Trump supporter who represents the 11th Congressional District, including Staten Island and South Brooklyn.
Democrats Brittany Ramos DeBarros and former Rep. Max Rose are facing off in the district's primary. On Tuesday, Ramos DeBarros, a progressive, issued a series of tweets blasting the former president along with her primary opponent.
"I feel the fury that I think that a lot of people feel right now, that our elected officials have failed us for so long," Ramos DeBarros told Gothamist. "Even when they've said that they ideologically agree, they failed to really step up and fight.”
That same night she rallied with pro-abortion rights women outside the Staten Island courthouse and then joined a larger citywide protest in Foley Square in lower Manhattan.
On Wednesday, Ramos DeBarros joined a rally outside the Brooklyn home of Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer demanding a vote to end the filibuster and enable a carve-out to codify abortion rights, a move that analysts say is unlikely to happen.
As someone who describes herself as a working class “AfroLatina, Staten Islander, anti-war combat veteran,” Ramos DeBarros said this fight is about making sure race and class don’t determine who gets access to necessary health care, and it’s a fight she said she feels personally.
Her opponent Rose has also seized the moment. On Wednesday, he and two state Legislature candidates — Jessica Scarcella-Spanton and Vinzent Argenziano — held an abortion rights rally in front of Malliotakis’ Staten Island office.
He took a shot at Malliotakis who voted against the Women’s Health Protection Act, which would make abortion legal across the country. At the time, she called the bill “barbaric.”
“You know what ‘barbaric’ is?” Rose said through a bullhorn. “Barbaric is a court telling millions upon millions of women that they know better than them.”
In public statements, Malliotakis noted that the SCOTUS draft was not final and said she thought it was important for the court to investigate the source of the leak. On the issue of abortion rights, she said it was an issue for the courts, not politicians. If the issue is returned to the states, she reiterated her opposition to New York’s current law.
Camille Rivera, a Democratic strategist, said that while women candidates need to be careful not to be “opportunistic,” the stakes demand that they lean into the moment.
There’s gotta be a reckoning and we need a thunderstorm of votes. And the only way to do that is by really honing in and meeting voters where they are and telling them that for women...
“There’s gotta be a reckoning and we need a thunderstorm of votes,” Rivera said. “And the only way to do that is by really honing in and meeting voters where they are and telling them that for women, particularly for women of color, it could be a life or death situation.”
Rivera is representing Melanie D’Arrigo, a progressive candidate in one of the redrawn congressional districts that is currently held by Rep. Tom Suozzi, a Long Island Democrat who is running for governor.
Sieck, of #VoteProChoice, said there are still ways for New York to take the lead in abortion rights. “Even in a place as Democratic and pro-choice as New York, there are still things we have to do,” she said.
In 2019, the New York City Council approved $250,000 to go toward a nonprofit called the New York Abortion Access Fund that pays for low-income women, including those outside the state, to receive the procedure. It even pays for women who require an abortion after 30 weeks to travel to a specialized clinic outside the city.
Spearheaded by the Council’s Women’s Caucus, the effort made New York the first city in the country to directly fund abortions.
Alessandra Biaggi, a state senator representing parts of the Bronx and Westchester, has proposed a similar measure in the Legislature that would establish an abortion fund that would accept taxpayer contributions. This week, she introduced another bill that would protect those coming to New York for abortions and gender-affirming care from litigation initiated in courts outside the state.
“We are getting incredibly creative but also thoughtful about how we can amend as well as pass and introduce laws and bills in New York to make sure that we are coming at this from every angle,” Biaggi said Thursday during an appearance on the Brian Lehrer Show.
The two-term state senator is also a candidate this year for Suozzi’s congressional district, a five-county area which would include portions of her current senate district under the now contested boundaries.
Another bill, sponsored by Queens Assemblymember Jessica González-Rojas, would require private insurers to cover the cost of an abortion. Hochul has voiced support for this proposal.
State Sen. Liz Krueger of Manhattan has proposed legislation to protect New York doctors performing abortions by prohibiting law enforcement from participating in out-of-state investigations. She also also sought to create an “equality amendment” to the state constitution that would protect the right to reproductive care, including an abortion, and prohibit discrimination.
The veteran lawmaker spent a decade working to pass the Reproductive Health Act, which codified and strengthened abortion rights in New York. Blocked by Republicans, the measure finally passed in 2019, after Democrats won control of the Legislature.
At the time, many people, including pro-choice Democrats, questioned her efforts to enshrine abortion rights into the state constitution.
“Even when I submitted the bill on the floor of the Senate, when we passed it, my Republican colleagues were saying ‘Oh, you're just inventing a problem that doesn't exist. This is established federal law. There's never going to be an issue for us in New York,’” Krueger recalled.
She added: “Well, who was right?”