Behind the scenes in a blue state legislature, pro-life lobbyists go door to door for votes
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ALBANY, N.Y.— Kathleen Gallagher had gotten up at 6:45 a.m. to drive from her home in Schenectady, N.Y., to the state legislature in Albany where she is a lobbyist for the New York Catholic Conference. In a blue state that can be an unrewarding job. Gallagher does not fit the stereotype of a Catholic pro-life lobbyist. On this Tuesday in early May she’s wearing a skirt and jacket, and just above her ankle is a recent (small) tattoo with the first initials of her husband and children. One of her colleagues suggested a visible tattoo might not be “work appropriate,” but she thought a tattoo of her family’s names couldn’t be more appropriate to her work.
Jason McGuire, an evangelical pastor who heads up New Yorkers for Constitutional Freedoms and its affiliate New Yorker’s Family Research Foundation, had gotten up at 3:30 a.m. along with his teenage son who has been working with him to drive from his home near Rochester to Albany. McGuire and Gallagher aren’t on the same side on every issue, like gun control, but they are allies on abortion. On this Tuesday, the duo is tracking a bill scheduled to be voted on in committee to remove many abortion restrictions in New York. They will work most days in Albany until the legislature wraps up its session, likely in June.
While red state legislatures are busy passing restrictions on abortion, some blue state legislatures are trying to loosen them. Pro-life lobbyists in blue states, instead of seeking restrictions, typically have to work on blocking laws. Last year, California’s legislature passed a law allowing nonphysicians—physician’s assistants or nurse practitioners—to perform first trimester abortions. The outcome on a similar bill, the Women’s Equality Act (WEA), was different in New York last year, thanks to a closely divided Senate and the lobbying effort from the state’s pro-life groups.
The New York Senate—by one vote—blocked the bill, which had an abortion provision as one point in its 10-point agenda. The abortion provision would have expanded the legality of late-term abortions; allowed nonphysicians to perform abortions; and removed criminal penalties associated with botched abortions and second-degree abortions, where someone would commit an abortion without the mother’s consent. New York currently offers legal protections to babies in the womb who are older than 24 weeks. The bill would have allowed an abortion at any point in the pregnancy for the sake of the mother’s life or health, including emotional health.
In the split Senate, the lobbyists needed the votes of two Democrats to block the bill. One Democratic vote was a former pastor from the Bronx, Rubén Diaz Sr., who is unabashedly pro-life. The other Democratic vote was a Jewish senator from Brooklyn, Simcha Felder, who votes conservatively on a number of issues but not necessarily on abortion. Felder declined an interview on the subject. McGuire said Felder had been nervous about how his vote would play with the rabbis in his community.
This session, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo vowed to pass the WEA again, but he has not pushed it as hard as he did last session. Despite continuing pressure from NARAL Pro-Choice New York, Cuomo faces reelection this year, so he is unlikely to push a controversial abortion bill. Democrats last year insisted on keeping the abortion provision tied to the other uncontroversial items, like an anti-trafficking measure, but they have recently shown willingness to pass portions of the WEA separately.
ON THIS TUESDAY IN MAY, McGuire and Gallagher have another abortion bill to worry about. They need nine votes to defeat the Reproductive Health Act (RHA) in the Senate Health Committee. The RHA is essentially a stand-alone version of the abortion provision in the WEA, but strikes more regulations on abortion than the WEA. It also calls abortion a “right,” a concern to the pro-life lobbyists because that terminology could threaten conscience protections for healthcare professionals. The bill has trodden water in the health committee for seven years.
Over coffee and pastries, Gallagher and McGuire meet in a conference room with their staff and volunteers to map out the day. They focus on the Senate Health Committee hearing at noon, but parse other committee schedules to see if anything has snuck past their attention. Stephen Hayford, on staff with New Yorkers for Constitutional Freedoms, mentions a bill increasing the number of physician’s assistants a physician could supervise.
“I did look at it and I was OK with it,” said Gallagher. “It’s about supervision. It doesn’t allow them to do things on their own.” McGuire jumps in to ask whether loosening such regulations might “open the door” for abortion providers.
“I don’t think so,” said Gallagher.
“OK, I just haven’t looked at it,” McGuire said.
Gallagher has forgotten to make copies of a bill that they will pitch to legislators that day. McGuire’s colleague Hayford has copies ready for her.
“You’re going to talk, we’re going to print the copies,” McGuire said to Gallagher, laughing.
They all pray and go separate ways, with Gallagher and McGuire on duty to visit the office of each senator they need to vote “no” in the health committee. In the elevator, a woman cordially greets Gallagher, and after we exit Gallagher identifies her as the former top lobbyist for Planned Parenthood. The friendliness is “ebb and flow,” Gallagher said.
The Gallagher-McGuire duo circled the halls of the legislative offices, and dropped into each office on their list. They had some anxiety that the senators who would vote against the RHA might not show up to the hearing because of an annual memorial for fallen police officers scheduled at the same time. In each office they double-checked whether the senator would be at the hearing or send a proxy. At one Republican senator’s office, they met with a staffer and pulled up NARAL Pro-Choice New York’s website that showed his boss as an “undecided.” The staffer was bemused, and assured the duo the senator would be voting “no” on the bill.
Some legislators in the Republican caucus describe themselves as pro-choice, so getting uniform Republican votes against an abortion bill isn’t a given. But this is also an election year, and while the Catholic conference doesn’t get involved with campaigning, McGuire’s group has a political action committee that is swinging into gear. Throughout the day, several senators made a point to speak with McGuire.
Next, the duo had a meeting with a senator to pitch their draft of a bill, which would tighten health inspections of abortion clinics. Normally, they would never dream of pitching a bill with more abortion restrictions to a New York legislator, but recent events in New York opened the possibility. An April report showed that the state health department had neglected to inspect eight of the 25 abortion centers under its purview over the last twelve years. Both Democratic and Republican legislators decried the health department’s negligence. The health department told me that it would reinspect all 25 centers and have the goal of inspecting them every four years. Soon after the duo’s initial pitch to a senator to introduce legislation on the matter, a Republican assemblywoman introduced her own bill that would require inspections of abortion centers every two years and a report on the inspections.
By the time Gallagher and McGuire finished their pitch, the health committee hearing was about to start. They slipped into the hearing room, where an overflowing crowd surrounded a table of senators. Senate Democrats began by discussing the RHA, saying it was “well past time” to move the bill to the floor. One of their colleagues, the pro-life Democrat Diaz, piped up—Diaz is not on the health committee, but came to the hearing to speak anyway.
“They are killing our babies, they’re stopping the growing of our communities,” said the senator from the Bronx. “This legislation is not only a menace to our minority community but also a threat to our women. ... It will move New York state in the opposite direction of ‘safe, legal, and rare.’”
Democratic Sen. Diane Savino said the bill would not expand late-term abortions, and Diaz shot back that it would.
“If you don’t support a women’s right to choose, there’s nothing I can say to you,” Savino said to Diaz.
Republican Sen. Greg Ball jumped in: “No one is even suggesting the overturn of Roe v. Wade. The only extremists in this room are the legislators who are supporting this.”
‘That’s all we get around here, is victory by one vote.’— McGuire
After more heated discussion, the chair of the health committee, Republican Kemp Hannon, was demure in announcing that he would vote “no.” “There are many technical problems with this bill,” Hannon said. He took the roll call; the bill failed, with exactly the nine votes needed despite the police parade happening outside the window of the hearing room. Felder, the Brooklyn Democrat, remained silent during the hearing, but provided a key vote against the bill.
“That’s all we get around here, is victory by one vote,” said McGuire.
As the senators spilled out of the hearing room, McGuire thanked each one who voted “no.” Then McGuire stood in the hallway holding the pink purse of the head of a Rochester pregnancy center while she did a TV interview. It was past lunchtime, and the lobbyists decided to assess the vote at the only eating establishment past security in the capital, Dunkin’ Donuts, which turned out to be the great crossroads of state politics. Several of the senators from the committee passed through the Dunkin’ Donuts and greeted Gallagher and McGuire, offering thoughts about the hearing or tips on their jobs.
One sat down and told Gallagher to be “more aggressive” and set up events with families to highlight the extreme stance Senate Democrats were taking on abortion. After he left, Gallagher laughed to herself about a senator telling a Catholic lobbyist to be more aggressive on the abortion issue. Senators’ interest in highlighting the extreme position of Democrats could possibly be related to the election this fall. But both Gallagher and McGuire are hopeful that a few Senate seats will change this year so they can block abortion bills with more than one vote.
“It can get discouraging at times,” said McGuire. “But the biggest thing you can do is hold back the flood ... while this generation becomes more and more pro-life.”
“I always used to say, as a lobbyist, the most important thing a person could do was write a letter to your legislator,” Gallagher said. But she has revised that: “The most important thing we can do is talk to your neighbor.”
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