ALBANY – For the first time in the 242 years since the creation of the New York State Senate, a woman has become its leader.
Moments after her colleagues voted her as Senate Temporary President and Majority Leader, Sen. Andrea Stewart-Cousins looked out upon her audience in the soaring, Henry H. Richardson-designed chamber and marveled at what she saw.
Before her, 20 of the 63-member Senate body were women. “Wow," she said.
Officially expired as of Wednesday afternoon: Albany’s long government insider tagline of “three-men-in-a-room."
Shortly before 1:30 p.m., Stewart-Cousins was sworn into her new power post by a woman, Chief Judge Janet DiFiore. The senator had been introduced by Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul, a woman whose legal job is to serve as presiding officer of the Senate; Hochul had just told senators and their guests gathered for the first day of the 2019 session that “you are about to hear the shattering of this ceiling."
Unassuming as is her style, Stewart-Cousins noted the historical moment. "Women weren’t even allowed to walk on the floor of these chambers,'' she said.
That is the past. Senators sworn into office Wednesday reflected, more than any other Senate session in history, the changing demographics of New York. Among the new senators: the first Muslim, first Iranian American, first Chinese America, first Salvadoran American, first Costa Rican American, first Indian American and two Colombian Americans.
“This is incredible and first and foremost I want to thank God, because frankly I consider myself being here an amazing grace," Stewart-Cousins told the packed Senate chamber.
An hour earlier, Carl Heastie had been re-elected Assembly Speaker. For the first time in the Assembly majority leader’s aisle seat in the middle of the chamber was a woman: Assemblywoman Crystal Peoples-Stokes, a Buffalo Democrat. She had been tapped in December by Heastie to run the Assembly’s floor operations, putting her in one of the top leadership posts in the 150-member house.
Surrounding her were 50 women – a record to hold office as Assembly members.
As she walked to the Assembly floor to take her seat, Peoples-Stokes paused to reflect on the moment.
“I’m not sure I can put into words how insurmountable I think the significance of this day is. It's exciting. It's to some extent overwhelming. It's humbling,’’ she said.
The demographic shift reflects a larger change in state capitols around the country. The National Conference of State Legislatures estimates that in 2019, 2,110 women will serve in the 50 state legislatures, meaning women will make up 28.5 percent of all state legislators nationwide. That number is up from the 2018 session's ratio of 25.3 percent and the most women elected at one time, the group said.
New York's ratio is about 32 percent. The state with the highest ratio of women legislators is Nevada with just under 51 percent.
History aside, it was also a day for some legislative chest-thumping at a time when relations between the two houses and Cuomo – despite their Democratic Party membership cards – can be described as frosty. Cuomo did not attend either of the opening sessions, though Senate officials said they were led to believe he wanted to show up. Cuomo sent some of his top advisers.
In his opening remarks, Heastie offered warm words for Stewart-Cousins and pledged to work closely with her on a host of major items coming up in the ensuing months. Her firmed up that point up by crossing from the Assembly side of the Capitol’s third floor to be present on the Senate floor when Stewart-Cousins took her new job.
In his speech to his Assembly colleagues, Heastie did not mention Cuomo by name or title.
Instead, he went through – bill by bill – a series of measures being touted by Cuomo as issues Assembly Democrats long ago proposed. “We did not need editorial boards or other officials to instruct or push us on our long-held priorities," Heastie said.
He went through names of individual lawmakers who long ago “led the way” and first began pushing for things like raising the minimum wage, paid family leave, abortion rights, criminal justice changes like speedy trials and college affordability measures. This year, he said it will be Assembly Democrats pressing for stronger tenant protections, legalization of marijuana and new economic development efforts.
“I’ve traveled across this state and I promise we will not forget any community in upstate New York," said Heastie, a Bronx Democrat.
With Heastie looking on, Stewart-Cousins joined him in a host of those priorities, but added some of her own. In what will certainly be a fight with Cuomo, she said the Senate will advance efforts to “make sure state contracts are fully vetted." That became an increasingly sour issue in 2018 following corruption trials – including the Buffalo Billion bid-rigging case – that highlighted problems in state law, including a Cuomo-pushed effort in 2011 that took away some of the state comptroller’s oversight abilities over certain contracts.
Siding with Cuomo, which could be a problem in the Assembly, Stewart-Cousins said Senate Democrats will press to make the state’s existing property tax cap permanent in law. Without specifics, she said the Senate will press to reduce costly mandates the state imposes on localities.
With a number of her colleagues already pressing for new anti-corruption steps, the new Democratic leader said the Senate will push laws “to give New Yorkers an honest, ethical government they deserve.’’
The two houses will start their alliance for real next Monday – when the nitty-gritty work of the 2019 session begins – with passage of a series of steps to improve voter participation. The measures will include automatic voter registration, same-day voter registration, excuse-free absentee voting and authorization for early voting ahead of election days.
Opening days are ceremonial spectacles. Lobbyists, like migratory birds, descend back on the Capitol hallways. Family members of lawmakers, rarely seen here, pose for pictures on the chambers’ floors. Protesters, this year on an assortment of issues, reappear with chants and noisemakers.
But the lingering image of the 2019 opening day is a Capitol, so long a house of power for men, with high numbers of women in top level jobs in both the legislative and executive branches.
“I look and see something I’ve waited for far too long: and that’s a lot of women," Hochul said as she spoke from the Senate rostrum.