ALBANY – The first clue that Tuesday's State of the State address might prove different from all the others of the past 40 years was the thunderous applause for Andrea Stewart-Cousins, the new majority leader of the State Senate.
Sure, the Yonkers senator is the first woman and first African-American to head the upper chamber. But more importantly, she is a Democrat, as is now her Senate. And that means that for the first time in memory, most of the progressive-leaning proposals outlined by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo on Tuesday will become law – and soon.
The governor outlined a host of new programs ranging from expanding abortion rights for women to public financing of elections that for years had been bottled up by a conservative Republican majority in the Senate, which the voters of a demographically changing state decisively ousted last November.
"I believe we are in a fundamentally different space. In the old days too many good ideas went to the State Senate to die. Now we have good ideas going to the State Senate to be born," Cuomo said. "For 40 years we haven’t had a Democratic Senate, Assembly and governor, besides one brief period. We can do it. It's just us."
Life in New York State is about to change because of Albany's total control by Democrats. In past years, the governor would routinely call for different ways to fund schools or extend the statute of limitations for child sexual predators or meet his goal for a state relying totally on clean energy by 2040 – only to meet the impenetrable obstacle posed by Senate Republicans.
But Cuomo obviously recognized Tuesday that everything is different, that what he is proposing will be largely accepted. He seemed emboldened, even as the Legislature passed new election reforms and new protections for transgender people in its first few days – unheard of just a few months ago.
"We have the opportunity to be the most aggressive state in the United States on women’s rights issues," he said.
"Let's enshrine Roe v. Wade in the Constitution, pass the reproductive Health Act, pass the Comprehensive Contraception Act," he said. "Let’s show this nation what real women's equality means. Not just talking the talk, but walking the walk, and we’re going to do it this year."
And significantly, the governor never let up on his attacks on Trump administration policies that he used to win a convincing victory for a third term last fall. He lambasted the president's policies that he said have set the state back in its efforts to improve the environment, and promised to continue the state's lawsuit against separating immigrant children and parents seeking U.S. asylum, which he called "a disgusting abuse of power."
"We have a federal government that is fanning the flames of fear. They believe that what works for them is divide and conquer," he said. "It's an old and ugly tactic. You are spreading an American cancer where one cell in the body attacks another cell in the body. It has to stop. The hypocrisy."
Now he said New York has the political muscle to stand up to a federal administration that he says represents everything that New York is not.
"In many ways, I feel liberated with a Senate Democratic caucus," Cuomo said after mentioning several priorities for the Legislature's first 100 days. "I believe we can get it done in first 100 days to show this state a new reality."
Not everyone is on board. Outside a packed Hart Theatre in the Empire State Plaza, State Sen. Patrick M. Gallivan, R-Elma, said the speech left him "at a loss for words." The governor spent his time blaming the federal government for Albany's projected $3 billion deficit, said Gallivan, claiming Washington's new prohibitions against deductions for state and local taxes have "not contributed one dollar to the deficit."
He also noted Cuomo blamed Republicans for most ills of a state in which "we're all supposed to get along."
"I'm confused," he said, noting the lowest tax rates in generations cited by the governor in his speech largely originated with the GOP.
"I don't know if it's a short memory or he's blinded by the rage against the federal government," he said. "It's just not accurate when he says that."
Assembly Republicans, who for more than 40 years have become used to being ignored in Albany, raised their usual warnings about a government forcefully pushing a progressive agenda. Assemblyman Steve Hawley of Batavia noted "an increase in welfare spending, exorbitant taxes and fees and no clear plan on addressing our state’s embarrassing exodus rate were all highlighted in the governor’s policy circus."
“Gov. Cuomo sold out any remaining hint of pragmatic and moderate governance to the far left in order to secure his re-election," Hawley said. "His policy wish-list makes it abundantly clear that he sides more with the radical socialist movement than middle-class New Yorkers."
But Crystal Peoples-Stokes, a Buffalo Democrat and the Assembly's new majority leader, noted many of the governor's proposals that were never passed by Republicans originated in the lower house. Now things will be different, she said, noting the ease in which the new election and transgender protection measures were whisked through both houses over the past few days.
"We just had two days worth of very good examples of that," Peoples-Stokes said. "I've voted on [election reform] for the past 12 years, and finally I've taken my last vote on that because it has passed.
"To that extent," she said, "it's very encouraging."