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'New day' in Albany as Stewart-Cousins becomes first woman to lead Senate

Exterior view of the New York State Capitol

Exterior view of the New York State Capitol building in Albany, pictured Dec. 18, 2018. Credit: Hans Pennink

ALBANY — Sen. Andrea Stewart-Cousins made New York political history on Wednesday as she formally was sworn in as the first woman to become majority leader of the State Senate. 

"When you think about it, not that long ago, women weren’t even allowed to walk on the floor of this chamber,” Stewart-Cousins (D-Yonkers) said shortly after figuratively taking the Senate gavel around 1:30 p.m on the opening day of the state legislature's 2019 session. "I stand here the first woman leader of a legislative house in state history. And if we do this right, I cannot and will not be the last." 

Stewart-Cousins moved from minority leader of the Senate to majority leader after Democrats rode a "blue wave" on Election Day to seize control of the chamber. She will be one of the three people in Albany — along with Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie — who will call the shots on the state budget and the flow of legislation. And as a colleague said, she upends the "proverbial three men in a room" — the old Albany saying for the powerful leaders who make most of the decisions in state government.

And with Democrats running the Assembly and executive chamber, Stewart-Cousins promised a lengthy "progressive agenda." Looking to pass bills on abortion, gun control, bail policies, campaign-finance, early and mail-in voting, and contract oversight, she told colleagues, "We have been sent here to be ambitious."

She promised to make permanent the state's property-tax cap — a high priority for Long Island leaders. And she promised to hold hearings on sexual harassment in the workplace.

"Let my voice be clear: We need to deal with the scourge of sexual harassment in the workplace," she said. "We cannot let this moment and this movement pass, and we will hold hearings and hold all accountable."

Republicans, now in the minority, "recognize the historic nature of this day," said Deputy Minority Leader Joe Griffo (R-Rome). Reflecting on the many profiles written of Stewart-Cousins since Election Day, Griffo added, "I think it’s a true chronicle of an extraordinary [journey], characterized by dignity . . . we salute you.”

Griffo urged Stewart-Cousins not to neglect the opinions and ideas of the 23 Republicans in the 63-member Senate, saying they represent some 8 million residents and most of upstate New York. 

Freshman members of the new majority also were sworn in ceremonially, including Sens. James Gaughran (D-Huntington), Anna Kaplan (D-North Hempstead), Monica Martinez (D-Brentwood) and Kevin Thomas (D-Levittown). The Long Island Senate delegation, which for so many years was represented by nine Republicans, now is led by six Democrats.

"I think we're going to have a session that really exceeds expectations," said Sen. Todd Kaminsky (D-Long Beach), who, with 2.5 years experience in the Senate, is the dean of the Island's delegation of Senate Democrats.

Among the other issues teed up for action this session are the legalization of recreational marijuana and sports betting, new tolls for Manhattan, rent control and funding for the beleaguered subways.

The governor, holding an impromptu session with reporters later, said he was "excited" about the Democrats' shared agenda and praised Stewart-Cousins for having the "sophistication" and "touch" to balance upstate-downstate political needs.

 Asked if he was concered that legislative Democrats, who are seen as more liberal than the governor, would go farther to the left than he wants, Cuomo said: "I'm not afraid the Democrats will go too far."

Even so, harmony isn’t ensured.

Cuomo, entering his third term as governor, has said he feels “liberated” by the Senate switch because he couldn’t get as many policy wins as he wanted with a Republican Senate. But some Democrats have blamed him over the years for propping up the GOP. They say the agenda Cuomo has outlined — recreational marijuana, early voting, no cash bail, campaign-finance reform and more — basically is lifted from proposals they’ve supported for years.

“Many of the issues that are taking center stage now originated in this chamber,” said Heastie (D-Bronx) after he was easily re-elected to a third term to lead the Democrat-dominated Assembly. “We proposed these bills before they were popular because they were the right thing to do." 

The comment appeared to be a jab at Cuomo. Later, Heastie said it wasn't a slight but rather an acknolwedgement of legislators' work. 

Heastie noted that there  are 50 women in the 150-seat Assembly this year, a record, and that three of the top four posts are held by women, including the new Deputy Speaker Assemb. Catherine Nolan (D-Queens) and the new majority leader,  Assemb. Crystal D. Peoples-Stokes of Buffalo.

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