As Dems push abortion rights, state party takes hands-off approach to Equal Rights Amendment fight

Some advocates fear a repeat of 2021, when the state party failed to invest enough to promote controversial ballot initiatives.

A marcher holds an “ERA NOW” sign during the 2020 Women’s March in New York City.

A marcher holds an “ERA NOW” sign during the 2020 Women’s March in New York City. Ira L. Black/Corbis via Getty Images

The New York State Democratic Committee held its spring convention this week in Albany ahead of consequential elections in November as the party seeks to flip several seats in Congress and win back the House. Abortion rights were a hot topic of conversation – but not the state Equal Rights Amendment, which would enshrine abortion protections in the state constitution. 

Some committee members appealed to party leadership to dedicate resources to promoting the ballot referendum, citing the failure of 2021 ballot proposals. But for now, the state Democratic Party is keeping its hands-off approach to ballot initiatives, even as other organizing efforts backed by top Democratic leaders continue to ramp up.

Before the state party’s convention, Independent Neighborhood Democrats, a Democratic club in Brooklyn, penned a letter to party chair Jay Jacobs asking that the state party apparatus formally help to get the Equal Rights Amendment approved. “We ask that the NYSDC use its resources to actively campaign for the NY ERA,” the letter reads. “It took decades of advocacy for this amendment to make it to our ballots, and we cannot fail at getting the NY ERA ratified.” The letter was signed by 11 Democratic state committee members, and one member-elect, as well as several political groups, local party officials and a variety of “community leaders.”

The letter specifically cited the failures of 2021 constitutional amendments that would have permitted no-excuse absentee voting and same-day voter registration, major election reform priorities for Democrats. The state Conservative and Republican Parties campaigned heavily against the measures, with conservative billionaire Ronald Lauder pumping in over $4 million to fund the opposition. State Senate Democrats spent about $327,000 to promote the constitutional amendments, but the state Democratic Party did not spend anything to promote the ballot measures that year, with Jacobs defending that decision by saying that none of the groups advocating for the ballot measures had asked that the state party step in to help. 

The Equal Rights Amendment was set to appear on the November ballot this year, but it hit a wrinkle earlier this month when a state judge knocked it off the ballot on procedural grounds. Democrats have appealed the decision and expect that the lower court ruling will get overturned in time for the measure to go before voters in November. In the meantime, advocacy has not stopped as pro-ERA activists continue to try to get the word out.

“I think it needs this attention,” said Erica Vladimer, a state committee member who signed the letter. “It would have been good if voter protections and, you know, and redistricting protections got the same attention in 2021, but I think the political landscape is very different.”

Although the topic of abortion was discussed at length at the convention, the Equal Rights Amendment didn’t come up until near the end, when Committee Member Daniel Brecker asked about it. “The whole state Committee meeting was about getting the vote out, telling the Democrats’ story, making sure we win in November,” said Brecker, who said she was shocked that no other speakers brought up the amendment. “And to me, regardless of what apparatus is out there, the ERA is part of that story.” 

In response to Brecker, Executive Committee Chair Christine Quinn said they’d set up Zoom meetings with former Rep. Carolyn Maloney, a champion of the federal Equal Rights Amendment. 

In a statement to City & State, signaled support for the ERA, though he did not directly address what role the state party should have in pro-ERA advocacy campaigns. “Of course we support the ERA and the fight for reproductive rights,” Jacobs said. “We’ll be making an unprecedented effort through our coordinated campaign to get out the vote, flip the House, and protect abortion rights in 2024.” A Democratic source with knowledge of conversations who asked not to be named told City & State that the state party is currently in close contact with advocates leading the campaign to promote the Equal Rights Amendment.

Supporters of the ERA amendment got started early, launching a campaign last year to educate voters on the ballot measure and to get out the vote. The New Yorkers for Equal Rights coalition plans to raise $20 million for the effort, which began ramping up earlier this year.

The pro-ERA campaign has the staunch support of Gov. Kathy Hochul, House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, the three Democrats tasked with leading their party’s congressional electoral efforts this year. It’s part of their broader plan to campaign on abortion, which didn’t work out so well for Democrats in 2022 even as abortion has succeeded on the ballot in other states. 

Although some Democratic leaders hope that support for the ERA will drive Democratic turnout, is a key part of Democrats’ strategy, the New Yorkers for Equal Rights coalition describes itself as a non-partisan group and is not coordinating with any candidates or promoting any party. “The fight for New Yorkers to have the freedom to control our own bodies, lives, and futures goes well beyond political party and ideology,” a campaign spokesperson said when asked whether it has sought or would like to see the state Democratic Party take an active role in promoting the amendment. “We welcome the support and are working with groups across the political and ideological spectrum."

That doesn’t mean that there won’t be concerted efforts to oppose the Equal Rights Amendment. Conservatives have already begun campaigning against the ballot measure, framing the protections it would grant based on gender identity as an attack on girls and women’s sports. A non-partisan group called Coalition to Protect Kids aligned with Republican talking points is advocating against the measure and had about $100,000 to spend as of January. And spokespeople for the state GOP and Conservative Party told City & State that they intend to use their resources to oppose the ballot measure too. “I don't know what happens if Ron Lauder spends millions of dollars to defeat it, because it probably could get defeated if the state party doesn't step up,” Brecker said.