Stewart-Cousins becomes first female Senate majority leader
Democrat vows conference will reflect 'intelligence and integrity'
By Rachel Silberstein Updated 11:28 am EST, Tuesday, November 27, 2018
ALBANY — The culture of the state Capitol is notoriously resistant to change, but New Yorkers can be sure of one small but significant adjustment in the months ahead: At least for now, the days of "three men in a room" are over.
Andrea Stewart-Cousins will in January become the first female leader of a legislative chamber in New York, making history at a critical time for her party.
The Yonkers lawmaker, who has led the Senate's Democrats through six especially frustrating years of minority status, vowed to lead a conference that operates with "intelligence and integrity."
"In January, people will finally get the government they've been voting for for so many years," Stewart-Cousins said at a press conference at the state Capitol just after the leadership vote. (Here is a link to video of press conference courtesy of Kyle Hughes NYSNYS News.)
It has been nearly eight years since the Democrats briefly held the upper chamber. With both houses in the party's control next year, the Legislature is expected to immediately focus on a flurry of bills — on issues such as electoral reform, gun control, and abortion protections — that for years were blocked by Senate Republicans, leaving New York lagging other blue states like Massachusetts and California.
New York voters signaled their support for these initiatives — as well as their disdain for President Donald J. Trump's party — by flipping a record number of Senate seats in November's election, granting Democrats a roomy 16-member lead in the 63-member chamber.
The state has also lagged when it comes to electing women to the state's top offices. But 2018 was a watershed for female representation: New York saw the appointment of Attorney General Barbara T. Underwood, the first woman to hold the statewide office, and the election of Democrat Letitia James to succeed Underwood. (Like James, Stewart-Cousins will be the first woman of color to hold her post.)
The state Senate also added five new female members, a 33 percent increase over the chamber's current makeup. Women in the Assembly grew from 42 to 47, primarily on the Democratic side.
Stewart-Cousins will be the first woman to have negotiating power during the state's opaque budget process. The governor, the Assembly speaker and the Senate majority leader typically meet behind closed doors to negotiate the state's $163 billion budget and significant policy measures.
Stewart-Cousins, when asked if she would push for a more transparent budget process — one that perhaps included Republicans despite their loss of power — demurred: "I've not been in the room. After I'm in the room, then we will have a conversation about what I think about the experience," she said.
Next year will be the first year in which black lawmakers lead both legislative houses: Assemblyman Carl Heastie, D-Bronx, made history in 2015 when he became his chamber's first African-American speaker.
Stewart-Cousins got her start in politics in 1992, when she was appointed director of community affairs for Yonkers. She went on to serve for a decade in the Westchester County Legislature before being elected to the state Senate in 2006.
She was tapped as the Democratic conference's leader in 2012 following a chaotic period for Senate Democrats.
The conference briefly controlled the chamber in 2009 and 2010, but that term was marred by dysfunction including a coup attempt by Republicans, the effects of which would be felt for years to come. Several of the key Democratic players of that period — including conference leaders Malcolm Smith and John Sampson — were eventually convicted on corruption charges.
After a breakaway faction known as the Independent Democratic Conference formed an alliance with Senate Republicans, bolstering its slim majority in the chamber, Stewart-Cousins was selected as the minority leader to be a unifying force for the battered and weakened Senate Democrats.
As the breakaway Democrats grew from four to eight members, retaking the majority seem increasingly out of reach.
In April, a post-budget reunification deal between the Democratic factions was announced, but the conference was still one vote shy of passing legislation. In September's primary election, six of the former IDC members — including leader Sen. Jeff Klein — were ousted by left-flank challengers.
One challenge ahead for Stewart-Cousins will be to get all 39 members of a conference surging with ambition and new blood on the same page.
"I do have 15 new members. We will be getting together over the next few weeks ... then I will be in a better position to say this is what we are going to do," she said. "But I do believe we are all of one mind."
Still unclear is what will become of Sen. Simcha Felder, the rogue Democrat from Brooklyn who caucused with Senate Republicans since he was first elected in 2012. Stewart-Cousins said Felder asked to meet with her to discuss his future in the conference, and she agreed.
Outgoing Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan, R-Long Island, congratulated Stewart-Cousins in a statement on Monday, calling her "a good listener and a good leader."
"She is a class act and a truly extraordinary person, and I wish her well," he said.
Sen Michael Gianaris of Queens was elected deputy leader of the majority conference (a post he relinquished to Klein after April's reunification), and Sen. José M. Serrano of the Bronx will be its chairman.