In January, State Senator Andrea Stewart-Cousins, who represents Greenburgh, part of White Plains, part of New Rochelle, part of Yonkers, and Scarsdale in Westchester County, became the first woman—and the first black woman—to lead the New York State Senate in its 242-year history. In the process, she shattered New York’s notorious “three men in a room” decision-making process, in which the governor, Senate majority leader, and Assembly speaker meet privately to hash out budgets and legislative priorities.
Along with Governor Andrew Cuomo, and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, the Assembly’s first black Speaker, she’s one of the three most powerful people in state government, and black legislators lead both chambers for the first time in state history. “It’s a great story for women; it’s a great story for people of color,” Heastie acknowledged in a phone conversation. “But I think the bigger story is that it’s three Democrats in the room.”
Who is the woman leading Albany into a new, blue future? A 68-year-old mother of three whose husband died in 2007, Stewart-Cousins is a striking woman with a wide smile and an elegant wardrobe. Her silk scarves, which she initially wore to distinguish herself from another black female elected official, have their own Twitter account.
She’s lived in Yonkers for nearly 40 years but grew up in public housing in the Bronx. She’s extremely popular in her district, and recently beat a primary challenger with more than 78 percent of the vote. Unlike US Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY)—who is 52 and became a parent in her mid-30s, yet described herself as a “young mom” in announcing her presidential candidacy—Stewart-Cousins actually was a young mom: She had her first son as an unmarried 19-year-old. Her father, a decorated World War II veteran, “never complained about anything,” Stewart-Cousins recalled in a phone interview. He “just worked really, really hard in a low-level job” where, because of racism, “he could never move up.” Her mother dreamed of becoming an attorney, but was similarly barred from that profession.
When she was a single mother living in public housing, Stewart-Cousins protested changes to daycare subsidies that would have made it impossible for women without any family support to work and raise a child (Stewart-Cousins had help from her mother). Since then, she has consistently championed women’s issues, taking the lead on passing the Reproductive Health Act, advocating for pay equity, and helping to create New York’s law mandating paid family leave. She has also demonstrated a commitment to increasing funding for public education and promoting campaign finance and ethics reform in Albany.
Symra Brandon, Stewart-Cousins’s director of community affairs and the first black woman on the Yonkers City Council, met her for the first time at a meeting organized by the Yonkers chapter of the NAACP to address the city’s desegregation plan; Stewart-Cousins then worked on her 1991 campaign. “She doesn’t bring anything to the table but what she thinks should happen for her constituents,” said Brandon. “It’s not about her, but them. She hasn’t forgotten where she came from.”
It was not always clear to Stewart-Cousins that she would pursue a career in politics. She worked in journalism and education before becoming Yonkers’s first black Director of Community Affairs for Terence Zaleski, the city’s mayor from 1992–95. She served in the Westchester County Legislature from 1996-2006. In 2004, she lost her first state Senate race against entrenched Republican incumbent Nick Spano, who was accused of suppressing the vote in minority neighborhoods, by just 18 votes. Two years later, she beat Spano, who had been in office for nearly three decades, by 1,800 votes.
Symra Brandon says that colleagues and members of the public, especially men, routinely underestimate Stewart-Cousins, in part because she is a woman. “They just don’t know what she’s capable of doing,” she said. “This has been happening for a long time; it’s just the end product of all her work.” Or as Michael Spano, brother of Nick Spano, whose state Senate seat she won in 2006, recently told The New York Times of Stewart-Cousins’s initial challenge, “We weren’t worried. And that was a mistake.”
Friends caution against mistaking Stewart-Cousins’s warmth for weakness. “There’s a veneer, but don’t mess with her, because she’ll get you if you’re on the wrong side,” said Brandon. “I’m not saying she’s vindictive or anything like that. When you do right, right things happen.” Cheryl Brannan, founder of the Yonkers chapter of the Westchester Black Women’s Political Caucus, has also known Stewart-Cousins for decades. “If she’s an advocate for an issue, she’s not the wishy-washy type,” Brannan said in a phone conversation.
Governor Cuomo ran into Stewart-Cousins’s backbone at an August 2017 meeting about the Independent Democratic Conference (IDC), a group of state senators elected as Democrats who stalled progressive legislation for years by caucusing with the Republicans. When Cuomo suggested that then-Senator Jeff Klein, the head of the IDC, knew more about attracting suburban voters than others present, Stewart-Cousins shot back: “You look at me, Mr. Governor, but you don’t see me. You see my black skin and a woman, but you don’t realize I am a suburban legislator.” Cuomo, The New York Times reported, “reacted in stunned silence.”
Those who have worked for Stewart-Cousins remember her fondly. Attorney David Imamura interned for her in 2004, when she was a county legislator and he was 16. He recalls her hotly contested state Senate race as an intense experience for a teenager exposed to politics for the first time. It made him realize what a vital role the law and attorneys play in our system, and it’s one of the reasons he became a lawyer. “I speak for a lot of people when I say she’s the one who inspired me to get involved [in politics].”
Asked to elaborate on what makes Stewart-Cousins so unique, he answered immediately. “I think she’s the best listener I’ve seen in politics…more than anyone, [she] will sit down and listen to what you have to say, and that’s true for the average person on the street and for members of her caucus.” State Assemblymember Deborah Glick also described Stewart-Cousins as “a good listener” who is “willing to share the glory,” adding, “That is not always true of people in leadership positions, especially executives.” Assembly majority leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes echoed that perspective, saying of Stewart-Cousins, “She’s there to help; she’s there to serve people. Anything else traditionally thought about as characteristic of someone in a position of power, that won’t necessarily be the same with Andrea.” Comparing Stewart-Cousins’s position in male-dominated Albany to that of Nancy Pelosi in DC, Glick noted that Pelosi has an advantage over President Trump because he is not used to dealing with powerful women. “I think that the governor will find that similarly disconcerting,” she added drily.
Although Stewart-Cousins committed to holding a public hearing on sexual-harassment reforms in her first floor speech as majority leader, she has also supported an alleged harasser. In January 2018, Erica Vladimer, cofounder of the Sexual Harassment Working Group, which has been pushing Albany to hold a public hearing on sexual harassment–related reforms, publicly accused her former boss, then-Senator Jeff Klein, of sexual misconduct. Four months later, as part of a deal intended to unify a fractured Democratic conference, Stewart-Cousins endorsed Klein in his primary (he lost to challenger Alessandra Biaggi).
“I worked in Albany; I understand there are politics at play,” Vladimer told me in a phone interview. “Personally, it hurt.” But, she added, Stewart-Cousins has “really stepped up” on the issue of sexual harassment since then. The hearing Stewart-Cousins vowed to hold is scheduled for February 13, 2019.
When I asked Stewart-Cousins how she will square her commitment not to raise taxes with certain items on the Democratic wish list, such as single-payer health care, she chose her words carefully. “We are very clear that we are going in a direction that’s going to speak to the progress that people want to see New York make in a lot of areas,” she said. “And then there are other areas”—like single payer, which, she pointed out, was never discussed in committee in the Senate—”that require longer conversations.” In the words of Gaby Bordwin, a Westchester resident who cofounded the anti-Trump advocacy group Indivisible Rivertowns, Stewart-Cousins “does not over-promise.”
One of her key goals, Stewart-Cousins said, is to make people “believe in government again.” Since her election, the legislature, which has only been in session since January 9, has by some measures moved quickly: it has passed voting reforms, including early voting, the Gender Expression Non-Discrimination Act, the Reproductive Health Act, the Child Victims Act, and the Dream Act, and banned “conversion therapy” for minors.
It’s not yet clear where other progressive priorities—single-payer health care, the legalization of recreational marijuana, the codification of parolee voting rights, and automatic voter registration, to name a few—stand. State Senator Liz Krueger, who chairs the Senate Finance Committee, sounded a note of caution in a phone interview. In addition to a time-consuming legislative process, she said, there are 15 new senators and new staff being trained: “a new, ‘true blue’ Albany won’t be built in a day.”
Still, Stewart-Cousins is “making waves,” State Senator Brad Hoylman said on the phone. “She’s ASC, not AOC, but it is becoming a new conference.” Glick agrees. “In many ways, this has been earth-shattering in Albany,” she said, particularly for women who have been there for a long time. “I don’t think people outside of Albany can fully comprehend it.”