Andrea Stewart-Cousins, likely the next majority leader of the State Senate, stood on a stage in a party room at the Garden City Hotel last Tuesday night and credited Long Island voters with helping Democrats win back the chamber.
Four of the eight Republican seats Democrats flipped statewide were on Long Island.
“Thank you Long Island,” she told a crowd of supporters. “Thank you for serving us our biggest majority ever.”
In an interview, Stewart-Cousins pledged to protect suburban interests if, as expected, she is elected majority leader in January. The 68-year-old mother of three, a Yonkers resident, is a former Westchester County legislator, English teacher and journalist who covered local municipal issues.
“The thing is in my whole legislative life, I’ve only represented Westchester County and a suburban district . . .," she said. "I’ve always been keenly aware of suburban issues, and local government issues. . . . It’s something I care about deeply."
Stewart-Cousins will have a caucus of six Long Island Democrats — compared with none in 2015 — in a chamber of 63 senators that will include 39 Democrats.
Last Tuesday, Democratic challengers Anna Kaplan of Kensington Village; James Gaughran of Northport; Monica Martinez of Brentwood and Kevin Thomas of Levittown beat Republican Senate candidates. They will join incumbents Todd Kaminsky (D-Long Beach) and John Brooks (D-Seaford), to comprise the Island's Democratic delegation.
Prominent Long Island Republicans say they're skeptical that the Long Island Democrats will have much say in a party caucus dominated by 24 members from New York City.
Republicans note that the last time Democrats controlled the Senate, in 2009-2010, the Senate voted for big spending increases and a massive payroll tax on suburbanites to fund the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. Blowback from suburban voters was key to Republican gains in the 2010 elections, when they reclaimed the majority.
"Are the six Democrats going to be able to stand up in the Democratic caucus . . .?" Nassau GOP Chairman Joseph Cairo said in an interview last Thursday. "It’s not like we’re talking about a majority of one or two. It’s going to be very challenging. They're going to have to stand up to protect Long Island.”
Suffolk Democratic Chairman Rich Schaffer said he was confident Stewart-Cousins and "the Long Island Six" — a nod to the GOP senators known as the "Long Island Nine" who for decades represented the region in Albany — " would "protect our interests and maybe even do better in terms of bringing back more funding and not coming up with any hare-brained schemes."
Recalling the MTA payroll tax and other initiatives he said hurt the suburbs, Schaffer said, "There aren't words for how bad it was, and I made that known."
Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone, who stumped during the elections for Democratic Senate candidates in New York suburbs, said he hoped there would be less gridlock this time around.
Bellone said he planned to push state legislators to approve funding for new water-quality infrastructure, including sewers.
He also said he's been talking with local organizations to try to dispel the notion that "somehow Long Island's going to get hurt" with Stewart-Cousins and Senate Democrats in charge. "It's just not really the case at all. This is somebody who comes from the suburbs, really does understand our issues."
Stewart-Cousins acknowledged what she termed "fear mongering."
“We’ve just elected a great crop of strong, Long Islanders into the Senate," she said. "You've got a real delegation there.”
She listed a few of her legislative priorities: Enacting tougher gun-control laws, codifying women's reproductive health rights and passing legislation to allow early voting in New York.
Stewart-Cousins and other Democrats pointed to a larger and more diverse suburban caucus, with members not only from Long Island, but also the Hudson Valley region and upstate New York.
Adding more suburban lawmakers "really gives us a very strong number of people who are going to be fighting for suburban interests, and we’ll have a loud voice in the conference," said Kaminsky (D-Long Beach), who won a special election in 2016 and is the senior Long Island Democrat.
“I think the caricature is it’s a city conference with a few outliers," Kaminsky said. "We now have a lot of suburban members. And that obviously will give significant weight to suburban concerns."
Jack Martins, a former Republican state senator from Old Westbury who unseated Democrat Craig Johnson in 2010 when the MTA payroll tax was a hot-button issue, said Long Islanders are facing a new political reality.
"We went from having significant seniority from the Senate Republicans representing Nassau and Suffolk County in positions to influence policy and protect our community, and now we have a bunch of freshman senators who don't have that seniority. . . . That's the reality," said Martins, an attorney.
Martins said, "There’s still an overwhelming sense in the Democratic caucus that there’s money that should be going to New York City to help them with their needs. And that comes at the expense of Long Island."
He continued, "I don't know how a few Democrats here on Long Island are going to go to Albany and convince the rest of their caucus that somehow they are not entitled to more, when that has been their premise for as long as they've been up there."
Julie Lutz, legislative committee chairwoman of the Suffolk County School Superintendents Association, said her group was planning to meet soon with state lawmakers of both parties.
She said education officials are concerned about rising costs due to an increase in the number of students taking English as a second language or needing free or reduced-price lunches. Schools also need to spend more to boost safety protocols and on mental health education and social and emotional learning, Lutz said.
"We're hopeful as always that the Long Island representatives, and that’s been our experience, focus on Long Island needs, whatever side of the aisle they're on," said Lutz.
Kaminsky said the Democratic Senate will give Nassau County Executive Laura Curran a fair hearing for her legislative priorities, which include a key measure that affects her plan to reassess all county properties.
Curran, a Democrat, has lobbied the state Legislature to pass a measure that would spread assessment increases over a five-year period. Some members of the Nassau County Legislature, which Republicans control, have said Curran's reassessment plan would cause spikes in some tax bills.
Presiding Officer Richard Nicolello (R-New Hyde Park) said with Democrats in control of the Senate and Assembly, "my concern is they'll do end runs around the Nassau County legislature."
Stewart-Cousins said she was "very much a proponent of home rule . . . to the extent that local governments can reach a point, and then if for whatever reason states have to be there, but I'm always supportive of what local governments think they need."
Scott Reif, a spokesman for Senate Republicans, said: ”Senate Republicans will continue to give voice to the challenges facing middle-class suburban families, including the need to reduce property taxes, fully fund Long Island schools and protect our cherished natural resources for the next generation. We are hopeful that the new majority will work with us to address these important issues.”
- Age: 68
- Hometown: Yonkers
- Career: Former journalist at The Herald Statesman; sales and marketing for New York Telephone/AT&T for 13 years; Westchester County legislator from 1996 to 2006