Much of the talk after Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's State of the State address Wednesday focused on his plans to "enact the toughest assault weapon ban in the nation, period."
If you listened closely, however, it wasn't his talk about guns in the wake of the Newtown, Conn., tragedy that those in the audience were most interested in. Instead, the greatest applause was reserved for his announcement heralding a Women's Equality Act.
I follow politics closely, but even I was surprised by both his focus on women and the response in the hall. After all, women's equality is hardly a hot-button issue in New York right now, particularly in comparison to gun control, superstorm Sandy, jobs, education and the like.
What explains this focus on women? Don't get me wrong -- I strongly favor women's equality. As he said, "Women have been treated badly for a long time." But how did this issue reach the governor's agenda -- and why now?
There isn't a lot substantively to object to in the governor's 10-point Women's Equality Act. The goal is to "break down barriers that perpetuate discrimination and inequality based on gender." This will be achieved by, among other things: pay equity, allowing for the recovery of attorneys' fees in employment and credit and lending cases, strengthening human trafficking laws, ending discrimination and stopping sexual harassment.
In fact, the only point of the 10 likely to elicit rebuke is the one solidifying a woman's freedom to choose an abortion by enacting the Reproductive Health Act, which would guarantee every woman in New York the right to make her own health care decisions. Cardinal Timothy Dolan has already written to the governor that he is "hard pressed to think of a piece of legislation that is less needed or more harmful than this one," and protests from others are likely to follow.
While the goals on the 10-point list are laudable, this isn't really about the future of New York or New York women. Instead, this is about Cuomo's future beyond New York, as a national political figure.
To get there, he needs to shore up his base -- liberal Democrats who have been unhappy with him over the last two years, with good reason. At times, with his focus on spending cuts, capping property taxes and cutting pension benefits, the governor sounded a lot more like a Republican than a Democrat. He also had a cozy relationship with Senate Republicans. For all the talk about bipartisanship, it doesn't sell in party circles or when you're trying to win primaries. Cuomo knows that.
So unlike his other State of the State speeches, this address focused heavily on touting a "progressive agenda." He invoked the image of New York as the nation's progressive capital several times. New York is, in his words, "a community based on progressive principles, and we must remain that progressive capital of the nation. It's about principle, fairness, equality, and decency."
Cuomo was in Charlotte, N.C., briefly for the Democratic National Convention last summer. And he surely watched the Republican gathering in Tampa, and was cognizant that the so-called Republican war on women was a huge theme in the presidential election. After the election, it became clear that it is next to impossible to win nationally without the women's vote.
I guess as women, we have to take assistance and leadership where we can get it. But if you, too, found yourself wondering, why women's equality? Why now? The answer seems fairly clear. It isn't only the governor's unabiding interest in women's equality, it's his interest in our vote.
There's nothing wrong with that -- especially if it leads to worthwhile legislation. After all, that's politics.
Jeanne Zaino is a professor of political science at Iona College.