NARAL's Endorsement of Eric Schneiderman: The Backstory

NARAL New York just produced a video and hosted a press conference for Eric Schneiderman, the Democratic candidate for attorney general. NARAL has yet to even endorse Andrew Cuomo, the sitting attorney general who is running for governor.

Yet it is governors who shape abortion policy; New York attorney generals have virtually no effect on it.

To compound the paradox, Schneiderman is running against a moderate Republican, Dan Donovan, who is pro-life except in cases of incest and rape and vows to "take the appropriate action against anyone who tries to interfere with a woman's right to choose."

Cuomo is opposed by Carl Paladino, who is against abortion even in cases of incest and rape, vows to cut funding for abortion groups and calls abortion a "fundamental assault on the sanctity of innocent human life."

Why?

Irwin Schneiderman, the candidate's wealthy father, has been a board member of NARAL for at least a decade, was once its chair, and also served as the treasurer of its political action committee, stepping down from his NARAL posts in April, according to Samantha Levine, the abortion rights league's spokeswoman. Levine concedes that the senior Schneiderman has been the single largest donor to its political action committee, giving at least $75,000 in the last 6 years. In fact, Schneiderman was the only donor to each NARAL PAC through different two-year cycles, and has accounted for 50 percent of its Women's Health PAC's funding since 2004 and 47 percent of the total raised by the second PAC.

Asked why Schneiderman resigned from his NARAL positions this spring, Levine said: "Because he was not going to be on the board when we made our endorsement in the attorney general race." NARAL endorsed Schneiderman in July, bypassing a pro-choice woman, Kathleen Rice, who was backed by the National Organization for Women (NOW) and other pro-choice groups.

Levine at first said that the group hadn't backed Cuomo because he had no primary. When I pointed out that the group endorsed Comptroller candidate Tom DiNapoli in July, even though DiNapoli had no primary, Levine explained: "DiNapoli asked." So then I asked Levine four times if Cuomo had ever asked for the endorsement and all Levine would do was repeat the mantra: "We have not yet endorsed in the gubernatorial race." DiNapoli's opponent, Harry Wilson, is pro choice, though he opposes third trimester abortions and favors some forms of parental consent for minors.

I pressed Levine twice for any evidence that the last pro-life attorney general, Dennis Vacco, who was in office from 1995 to 1999, did anything on abortion issues that NARAL objected to and she ducked that question as well, launching instead into a speech about "not taking any risks." Her refusal to answer flew in the face of the video NARAL put up last week. That video, which Levine said was paid for by the Schneiderman campaign as a "coordinated campaign expenditure," cited actions taken by attorney generals in Michigan, Virginia and Kansas that were attempts to restrict abortion rights. It then posed the question: "Think It Can't Happen Here?" and answered "Think Again," though Levine did not contest the fact the three states named were far more pro-life than New York, where 75 percent support choice.

Levine could not cite any action in the last 15 years that any AG has taken that has had a significant impact on abortion policy, positive or negative, a fact confirmed by Andrew Cuomo's office, which could only find one press release in four years that even tangentially related to abortion. As Levine noted, Eliot Spitzer did attempt in 2002 to investigate crisis pregnancy centers at NARAL's behest, issuing subpoenas to these pro-life counseling centers in an effort to prove that they were deceptively advertising themselves even though they were listed in the Yellow Pages as "abortion alternatives," specifically not as "abortion services" providers. He ultimately withdrew the subpoenas, getting an agreement from one clarifying how they would describe themselves that was starkly similar to an agreement obtained by guess who? His pro-life predecessor Dennis Vacco.

The irony is that NARAL is so pro Schneiderman, he is the only Democrat in the state senate the group endorsed this year. Levine acknowledged that the refusal of the Senate Democrat leadership to take a vote on a key piece of NARAL-backed legislation -- namely a bill that expands the exception for third trimester abortions -- has forced the group to refuse to endorse even pro-choice senators like Liz Krueger.

Asked why only Schneiderman was given a pass on this, all Levine could say was "because he isn't running for senate," suggesting that if he'd sought re-election he would have been unacceptable to the group whose leader, Kelli Conlin, was the only person to share the stage with him at his victory party other than his family. Levine raised questions about Schneiderman's ties to the senate leadership, though he helped install John Sampson as conference chair and was strongly backed by Sampson in the AG primary.

Levine argued that the murkiness around this exception for late-term abortions was the reason it was important who was elected AG (women can only get these abortions under state law if the pregnancy threatens the life of the woman, while federal law extends the right to women whose health is endangered by the pregnancy). NARAL believes that the next AG may have to take some undefined action to make it clear that federal law, not state law, applies in New York, though it's unclear what he could do. Asked if NARAL had ever requested that Cuomo clarify the applicable rule in New York, Levine said she didn't know, suggesting how recently this has become a rationale for its all AG-related activities.

NARAL endorsed Cuomo in 2006 against a pro choice Republican woman, Jeanine Pirro, so its failure to endorse him so far this year may well be tied to the antagonism between Schneiderman and Cuomo that hung over the primary battle. Conlin has long used the group's endorsements as an expression of her personal political alliances; indeed she was so close to Rudy Giuliani that he named her to two administration posts and NARAL endorsed him against pro choice Democrat Ruth Messinger (it even remained neutral when Giuliani squared off against Hillary Clinton).

Schneiderman's attempt to use NARAL to frame a fundamental contrast with Donovan has been attacked by Donovan as a "red herring," designed "to distract voters from what the real issues are." Even Conlin struggled a bit last week when she hosted a City Hall press conference with Council Speaker Christine Quinn and was asked to explain how Donovan raises such a red flag on abortion when he is backed by Mike Bloomberg, who Conlin did TV commercials for in the 2009 campaign and has saluted as a singularly bold champion of choice.


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