The triumvirate that’s run New York state government for decades -- the governor, assembly leader and senate chief -- has been disparagingly called “three men in a room.”
Andrea Stewart-Cousins may change that into two men and one woman.
The 63-year-old senator from Yonkers is poised to become the first female leader of a legislative majority in New York history if Democrats regain control of the senate next year. As part of a deal with the Working Families Party to win its endorsement for re-election, Governor Andrew Cuomo has vowed to help Stewart-Cousins wrest control of the chamber from a coalition of Republicans and breakaway members of her own party.
“If I get the chance to be the first woman majority leader, my biggest hope is that I will not be the last,” Stewart-Cousins said during an interview last week in her Albany office. “I’m all for breaking glass ceilings.”
Shattering a barrier wouldn’t be new for Stewart-Cousins. She’s the first black woman to preside in the senate and, as the top Democrat, the first female leader of a legislative conference. A seat at the table in the governor’s office would highlight a public career that’s taken her from director of community affairs in Yonkers to unseating the third-most-powerful Republican in the senate.
The alliance of unions and activists that Cuomo joined May 31 in a deal brokered by New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, a fellow Democrat, seeks to put the party in control of both the legislature and executive branch for the first time since 2010. Cuomo struck the accord after polls showed he might lose about 20 percentage points if an unnamed Working Families Party candidate were on the ballot.
The governor also agreed to support decriminalizing small amounts of marijuana, publicly financed campaigns and a $10.10 an-hour minimum wage. Localities could raise that by 30 percent.
In 2012, senate Democrats got lukewarm support from Cuomo after infighting damaged their reputation. In 2009, the party took over the senate for the first time since 1965, only to plunge into a month-long leadership battle that paralyzed the legislature. Malcolm Smith and John Sampson, two former Democratic leaders in the chamber, were later indicted on federal corruption charges.
Stewart-Cousins has moved the senate Democrats beyond their tumultuous past, putting them in position to win the backing of Cuomo and labor leaders, said Michael Mulgrew, president of the United Federation of Teachers, which represents about 200,000 educators in New York City.
“For years it was about egos and personal triumph,” Mulgrew said. “When you talk to Andrea, she always gets back to the same place: We’re elected officials and we’re here to help the people of New York state, and she preaches that to the conference.”
Stewart-Cousins said her views on how government can play a positive role in people’s lives were shaped by her youth. She grew up in public housing in Manhattan, and her father served in World War II. When he returned, he took a job as teletype repairman for Western Electric and later worked for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which runs the city’s subways, buses and commuter rails. Her mother broke into civil service through her ability to type 100 words a minute.
As a child, Stewart-Cousins suffered from severe asthma, and her frequent trips to the hospital were paid for by her father’s union health-care plan.
In 1992, after a professional life that included 13 years in customer service and later sales and marketing at AT&T Inc., and a stint as a reporter, Stewart-Cousins became active in politics full-time. She started by writing speeches for a Yonkers city council campaign and was then hired by Mayor Terence Zeleski as director of community affairs to help implement a court-ordered desegregation plan.
“I thought she had the skills that would be helpful in bridging the racial divide within the city,” Zeleski said in an interview.
In 1995, Stewart-Cousins won a seat in the Westchester County legislature with the help of the connections she developed working for Zeleski, she said.
Stewart-Cousins ran a political campaign each year from 2003 to 2006, two to hold her county legislature seat and two against Nicholas Spano, the No. 3 Republican in the senate. In 2004, she lost to Spano by 18 votes.
“They told me I wouldn’t even come close, much less 18 votes short,” Stewart-Cousins said.
Two years later, she bested the incumbent by a few thousand votes.
Stewart-Cousins took over the senate Democrats in December 2012, a month after the party won enough seats to retake the majority. That didn’t happen because Bronx Senator Jeff Klein and his group of breakaway members called the Independent Democratic Conference joined Republicans to take control of the 63-member chamber.
“It was heartbreaking,” Stewart-Cousins said.
In making the deal with the Working Families Party, Cuomo said Klein and his group need either to rejoin the mainline Democratic conference or face primary challenges. Jason Elan, a Klein spokesman, declined to comment on Stewart-Cousins’s leadership.
Dean Skelos, the Long Island Republican who leads the party in the senate, has questioned Cuomo’s commitment to the deal and is already highlighting Democrats’ tumultuous time in the majority as evidence they can’t handle leadership. Scott Reif, his spokesman, called their economic policies a “recipe for disaster.”
“While Senator Skelos very much enjoys working with Senator Stewart-Cousins, he fundamentally disagrees with the direction she and her senate Democratic colleagues want to take this state,” Reif said in an e-mail.
Stewart-Cousins, who has supported the budget deals Republicans have struck with Cuomo, said retaking control of the senate would come with an extra responsibility: serving as the first woman in the negotiating room.
“You represent a promise, a hope, for so many people,” she said.
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