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Senate Dems make history, choose first woman majority leader

ALBANY – Senate Democrats made history Monday by electing Sen. Andrea Stewart-Cousins of Yonkers to be the majority leader beginning Jan. 1, when she will become the State Legislature's first woman leader of a majority conference.

“It’s a brand-new conference in many ways,” Stewart-Cousins said after the first closed-door Democratic leadership vote. She wouldn’t detail her agenda or say which of the progressive ideas pushed in the campaigns would be brought to the Senate floor.

“We haven’t had a conversation on any of those things,” Stewart-Cousins said, noting there are 15 new members of the Democratic conference.

The closed-door vote was unanimous, she said.

Democrats had long sought to win the 32 seats needed to control the 63-member chamber, achieving it most recently in 2009 for one two-year term. In the November election, they needed one more seat, but they won 39 seats; the Republicans won 23. One other seat, for which Republican Sen. Susan Serino had a narrow lead over Democrat Karen Smythe in the 41st District in Dutchess County, is still undetermined in a recount. In addition, Democratic Sen. Simcha Felder of Brooklyn, who has long allied with the Republican majority, hasn't yet said with which party he will cacus. Stewart-Cousins said Monday she will meet with Felder in the coming days.

In the fall campaigns, Senate Democrats promised to strengthen the state’s abortion law; pass more gun-control legislation; end cash bail; provide more school aid; legalize recreational use of marijuana; end the “LLC loophole” that allows massive corporate campaign donations; and strengthen transgender rights, among other longtime goals blocked by the Senate’s Republican majority.

Stewart-Cousins also wouldn’t say if she would push for single-payer health coverage, a kind of Medicare for all New Yorkers, as a goal to insure more New Yorkers at more affordable rates. Critics, including Democratic Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, have said they are concerned about the cost of the major initiative and how it may drive a spike in taxes.

Stewart-Cousins said she also hasn’t decided to whether to push to include the GOP minority conference leader -- which will be Sen. John Flanagan (R-East Northport) in January -- in Albany’s “three-men-in-a-room” negotiations between majority leaders and the governor. Stewart-Cousins said she wants to see what one of the private leaders meetings in the governor’s office is like before she pushes for any changes, but noted the decision remains with Cuomo: “It’s not our room.”

Democrats last held a majority in the 2009-2010 term, which was marked by gridlock with Republicans as they struggled over a 1-seat difference in their conference ranks. But unlike then, the Democratic majority come Jan. 1 will be larger and will be the result of gains in suburbs like on Long Island, not just in New York City.

“We’ve now taken the majority with room to breathe, with the ability to not have not everyone on the same page and still pass legislation,” said Sen. Liz Krueger (D-Manhattan). “I think that combined with a woman leader are the two critical historical differences about today."

“I think we are going to be progressive, but are certainly going to make sure that all the needs of all the voters across the state are met,” said Sen. Todd Kaminsky (D-Long Beach). “It really is a new day.”

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