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Peoples-Stokes: From grassroots rabble-rouser to majority leader

Last week’s appointment of Crystal D. Peoples-Stokes as majority leader of the Assembly is spurring veterans of Buffalo politics to look back more than three decades.

Back then, future leaders like Peoples-Stokes and Byron W. Brown were stirring up politics on the city’s East Side. They formed a group called Grassroots, challenged the community’s old guard and eventually began climbing the political ladder.

Now Brown has been elected mayor four times, and presides over the state’s totally dominant Democratic Party as its chairman. And Peoples-Stokes will report to Albany next week as the No. 2 member of the Assembly, appointed to the key leadership post by Speaker Carl E. Heastie of the Bronx.

Nobody recognized what was happening back in the late 1980s, but now it all seems to be coming together. Those rabble-rousers are now helping to run the state.

“Those certainly are the things we somewhat envisioned then — to bring change to improve peoples’ lives, lift up people out of poverty and create job opportunities,” Brown said a few days ago. “Some of those things we planned and envisioned 25 and 30 years ago are certainly coming to fruition today.”

Peoples-Stokes, 67, emerges as very much a part of it all. Few Albany posts feature as much power and prestige as the one she now assumes.

The first African-American and first woman to serve as Assembly majority leader, she will act as main liaison between Heastie and the 107 Democrats in the Assembly, run floor debates, set legislative priorities and support their campaigns.Brown recalls first meeting Peoples-Stokes around 1991, when she was quietly making her mark as an organizer for Citizen Action, a public policy and advocacy group.

“We bonded around issues like improving education and investing in job creation on the East Side,” he said. “We worked closely together on a host of issues.”

Assemblywoman Crystal Peoples-Stokes attends the State of the State at the Empire State Plaza Convention Center in Albany on Wednesday, Jan. 13, 2016. (Derek Gee/News file photo)

Peoples-Stokes was no stranger to the community before entering politics. Ellen T. Kennedy recalls working with her during the early 1990s at Citizen Action. She asked Peoples-Stokes to manage her 1991 campaign for an at-large seat on the Common Council because she knew her way around.

“She was a grassroots organizer, figuring out target audiences, recruiting volunteers, arranging events and attending lobbying days,” said Kennedy, a retired associate professor of social science at SUNY Buffalo State College.

She said Peoples-Stokes knew what it takes to run a campaign, right down to reminding her to cut out wasting her time on the trail.

“I’m a big cat lover and I would always stop to pet the cats as we walked some neighborhoods,” Kennedy said. “She finally said to me: ‘Will you stop doing that? They can’t vote.’ ”

Maurice L. Garner recalls first encountering Peoples-Stokes in 1989, along with a Buffalo Board of Education candidate named Bonnie Nelson. Peoples-Stokes had been appearing around town as a community activist, and was now managing Nelson’s ultimately unsuccessful campaign.

“She had this way about her,” Garner said of Peoples-Stokes. “I thought she was talented, committed and great on the issues. I got her engaged in Grassroots.”

Sometimes that’s how things start — quietly and under the radar. For Peoples-Stokes, who had previously worked in education following graduation from Buffalo State, Grassroots opened new doors. She fit in with a group that would eventually prove a mainstay of the local Democratic Party.

“Back in those days, we were small in number but big on ambition,” said Garner, one of Grassroots’ founders. “It was about just doing the work, without any glitz or glamour.”

Garner recounted the well-documented story of Grassroots recruiting members for park cleanups to shame the Griffin administration over an “underserved” East Side. Gradually, the group entered politics.

By 1993, Peoples-Stokes gained an appointment to the County Legislature to fill the unexpired term of Roger I. Blackwell. She then won a three-way primary, launching a County Hall stint that also included the majority leader’s post.Grassroots officials shy away from overt political talk these days, but back then they offered new faces as alternatives to the old-time leaders.

Crystal Peoples-Stokes celebrates with well wishers, including Mayor Byron Brown, left, at 1670 Main St., Buffalo on primary night, Tuesday, Sept. 9, 2014. (Robert Kirkham/News file photo)

Deputy Speaker Arthur O. Eve, a major voice in Albany and the 1977 Democratic candidate for mayor, was one of those standing in the way.

Peoples-Stokes narrowly lost a primary against Eve in 2000, prompting him to step aside for her election to the Assembly in 2002.

Since then, just about everyone who has worked with Peoples-Stokes describes her as a “serious” legislator. They point to her committee chairmanships, her leadership of the influential Black and Puerto Rican Caucus, and co-chairing Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s re-election campaign in 2014.

Even Arthur O. Eve Jr., who leads the Unity Coalition that often rivals Grassroots and whose father she challenged, says Peoples-Stokes deserves her promotion.

“I can say unequivocally that my father is proud of the 141st Assembly playing a leadership role again,” he said. “It’s good for our community, our city and upstate New York.”

During 16 years in Albany, Peoples-Stokes has made many friends, with nobody interviewed for this story offering a harsh assessment.

Former Assemblyman Sam Hoyt, D-Buffalo, says one of her top attributes is the ability to build consensus.

“It comes from being an organizer with Citizen Action,” he said. “She got that at the ground level — organizing, consensus building. Now her job is mostly herding cats with 107 members of the majority who come from diverse ethnic, geographical and political backgrounds. She’ll be fine because she can get along with everybody.”

Another former Democratic assemblyman, Keith L.T. Wright of Harlem, noted Peoples-Stokes has broadened her political scope from Buffalo’s East Side to across the state. He says her car seems to be spotted in Harlem as much as in Buffalo. As a result, he thinks she is ready for her new assignment.

WNY gets Albany leverage as Peoples-Stokes named Assembly majority leader

“Whatever I did politically, governmentally or legislatively, I realized it affected the people I represented in Harlem,” he said. “But I also came to realize early on that you become ‘statewide’ elected officials too, because whatever you do has a domino effect on the statewide population.”

Wright acknowledged Peoples-Stokes as close to the state’s top Democrats — Heastie, Brown and Cuomo. Some question whether she can maintain the proper distance required by state government’s separation of powers. Wright, a former co-chairman of the state Democratic Party, says he’s not worried.

“In all times in government and politics, it’s always better to have friends than not to have friends,” he said.

Even Republicans like State Sen. Christopher L. Jacobs of Buffalo say they look forward to Peoples-Stokes opening doors through a post previously held by only two Western New Yorkers — Daniel B. Walsh of Franklinville and Paul A. Tokasz of Cheektowaga.

“She’s always been a strong voice for our region but now she has an even stronger voice,” he said. “And as it is so often in politics, it’s all about building personal relationships and trust.”

Those who know Peoples-Stokes best say her mere presence “in the room” will guarantee an important voice in a state government now dominated by downstate. They say she will not always be able to blunt those overwhelming numbers, but that her voice will be heard.

“The speaker would not have selected her if he was not confident that she will be a loyal soldier for his overall goals,” Hoyt said. “But she will have input into major policy-making decisions while never forgetting where she comes from.”

Hoyt said he recently saw “Hamilton” at Shea’s Performing Arts Center, and was struck by the actor portraying Aaron Burr singing “In the Room Where It Happened.”

“Stealing from ‘Hamilton,’ ” Hoyt said, “having Crystal in the room where it happened means an awful lot for Buffalo.”

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