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With MLK as guide, Stewart-Cousins, Heastie rewrite history

Senate Deputy Majority Leader Michael Gianaris (D-Astoria) hugs

Senate Deputy Majority Leader Michael Gianaris (D-Astoria) hugs newly elected Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins (D-Yonkers) as she prepares to speak to members of the New York State Senate during the opening day of the 2019 legislative session at the Capitol in Albany on Jan. 9 Credit: AP / Hans Pennink

ALBANY – Andrea Stewart-Cousins, a friendly girl eager to help others, grew up in public housing in the Bronx and Manhattan, and Carl Heastie, a quiet, studious kid, grew up in a middle-class section of the northeast Bronx. Each saw racism erode the people around them, but each drew strength and hope from the work of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

On Monday, the holiday honoring the slain civil rights leader, Stewart-Cousins, 68, will go to her job as majority leader of the New York State Senate and Heastie, 51, will preside over the Assembly, as the first African-Americans to lead the State Legislature in its 241-year history.

“That’s what happens when everyone stands on everyone else’s shoulders who came before them,” said H. Carl McCall, who was the first African-American statewide leader when he was elected state comptroller in 1993.

“African-Americans had demonstrated their ability to lead, now the younger African-Americans have shown the state they can lead,” McCall said.

At 83 years old, McCall was one of the few African-Americans who had shouldered their way into New York politics. He won a State Senate seat in 1975, in the days of the Harlem-based “Gang of Four” — composed of David Dinkins, who would become New York City’s mayor; Rep. Charles Rangel, who was an influential congressman from 1971 to 2017; Manhattan Borough President and businessman Percy Sutton; and Basil Paterson, who became a state senator, state secretary of state and deputy mayor of New York City.

But few imagined a State Legislature led by African-Americans.

“I think the two who have passed away would be shocked and that Dinkins and Rangel are in shock,” said former Gov. David Paterson, New York’s first African-American chief executive and Basil Paterson’s son.

Heastie and Stewart-Cousins both excel at the one-on-one relationship with individual members of their conference, a marked change from their longtime and powerful predecessors — Speaker Sheldon Silver and Senate majority leaders Dean Skelos and Joseph Bruno — which many members over the years found autocratic. Another difference: Stewart-Cousins and Heastie have not been singed by scandal, as their predecessors were. Silver and Skelos were forced from office in corruption scandals that embarrassed and politically threatened the rank-and-file.

“I think it speaks well of them that their colleagues see them as honest people,” said Richard Brodsky, who teaches at New York University's Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service and is a former assemblyman. “I think that the world is changing and that is part of it, but it is by no means the central reason they were chosen.”

A 2015 study by the National Conference of State Legislatures and Stateline news found African-Americans were under-represented in statehouses nationwide compared to their population. Instances of state legislatures led by African-Americans since Reconstruction are rare.

“I grew up in a time where I didn’t see myself going anywhere,” Stewart-Cousins said in an interview. “I was growing up in the '60s … pretty much my world didn’t reflect me in most places.”

At home in Manhattan’s Amsterdam Houses and in the Bronx’s Parkside House, she liked writing but saw no African-American journalists. She was discouraged that her mother typed 100 words a minute yet couldn’t get hired at a good corporate job. Her father, who was awarded medals for valor in World War II, was denied the G.I. Bill’s benefits for education and to buy a house. In school, she had one African-American teacher.

Much changed with the civil rights movement and King, whose words she loved, propelling Stewart-Cousins to protests and ultimately a life in government trying to right the wrongs he so illuminated.

“As an African American who has personally benefited from Dr. King's tireless efforts,” Stewart-Cousins wrote in 2015, “I am encouraged in my work by Dr. King's admonition that, ‘Change does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability, but comes through continuous struggle.’”

While Stewart-Cousins has an embracing smile, Heastie’s is wry and he uses it sparingly, yet precisely. Still looking like the buttoned-down accountant he once was, he’s a quiet “Star Trek” nerd and proud of it, a guy who amuses himself with higher math. Heastie allied with enough Democrats and outwitted enough others to emerge as leader of the Bronx Democrats, then used the same stealth in 2015 to become leader of the 150-seat Assembly when few outside the Democratic conference knew who he was.

“For me it’s a great thing, it’s a great thing, for Andrea as a person,” Heastie said of their shared history as the first African-American leaders of the legislature.

Heastie recalled that in the late 1970s when he was about 10 years old, he and his family took a trip from the Bronx to visit his grandmother in Miami. After they stopped in Georgia, his father said, “Come over here, I want to show you something.” He took his son to a wall where drinking fountains had once been installed and showed him the residue of small signs that said “whites only” and “coloreds.”

“I know what my father was trying to show me, that this was the life. It stuck with me,” Heastie said. “Dr. King always talked about you want people to be judged by the content of character and not the color of this skin. That has always motivated me.”

Pressed to talk about himself, Heastie said, “I appreciate my colleagues giving me the privilege of being the first one, I really don’t want that to be what I’m known for when the book is written on Carl Heastie as being speaker. If that’s all that people talk about, then I don’t know if I did a good enough job.

“But it’s great, I’m happy and when people think about me and Andrea I hope people think that we’re two great people who happen to be African-Americans,” Heastie said in an interview, “and that we didn’t just get these jobs because we were African-Americans.”

Don’t worry about that, say African-Americans who preceded them in New York politics.

“We clearly watched the evolution of politics,” said Assemb. Jeffrion Aubry, 70, who has represented parts of Queens in the chamber for more than 26 years.

Basil Paterson had to run for lieutenant governor in 1970 as the Democratic nominee without use of his picture in ads, because his campaign thought it would lose him white votes, David Paterson said. Other African-Americans found they could only rise so high in the party power structure, in order for the party to avoid being seen as the “black party,” several Democrats said.

“America is ready for more than a token, and I couldn’t be more delighted,” David Paterson said. “I am most delighted by the white legislators, and the Asian legislators and the Hispanic legislators who are the ones that really made this happen. So, on Martin Luther King Day, they need to really take a bow as well.”

Aubry said the result of African-Americans at the wheel is already becoming clear. The Senate and Assembly, with Heastie and Stewart-Cousins working closely together, in the first two weeks of the legislative session have passed landmark voting rights acts to combat voter suppression reported mostly in minority communities and other measures to strengthen civil rights for transgender people and end “conversion therapy” of gay men and women. Protecting abortion rights is days away, along with other measures aimed at protecting civil rights that had been bottled up for years in Albany.

“The bills have been passed because we know what it’s like to be discriminated against,” Aubry said.

But Stewart-Cousins and Heastie are drawing up another legacy for people such as Jamaal T. Bailey.

Heastie “has always been by a big brother and mentor to me,” said Bailey, 35, a Bronx Democrat who was elected to the State Senate in 2016 after serving as an intern and aide to Heastie. Now, he’s a rising star in the Senate.

“My daughter, when she comes to the Senate, she sees how Andrea Stewart-Cousins is the leader,” said Bailey, who grew up in Co-Op City in the Bronx. “They see the possible … we expect them to do great things.”

“You have people who have not only broken the glass ceiling, but they have decimated the glass to where you couldn’t even build a ceiling back if you tried,” Bailey said.

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