Nobody may embody Albany’s new political hierarchy better than its rookie Senate majority leader — Andrea Stewart-Cousins.
The Yonkers Democrat is the first to break the Capitol’s infamous mold of “three men in a room” governance, and the first non-Republican senator in memory to preside in an established way over its upper chamber.
So after a frenetic month in which reams of new and progressive legislation became law under Democratic control of all three branches of state government, Stewart-Cousins came to Buffalo on Thursday to reassure.
“I’m here because Buffalo matters to me,” she said.
Meeting with editors and reporters of The Buffalo News, the senator seemed to grasp the need to allay fears of a state government now totally dominated by downstate Democrats. Yes, she noted swift passage of new bills that expand abortion rights and the time period for child abuse victims to file claims, as well as a host of other measures formerly bottled up in the old Senate dominated by upstate and suburban Republicans.
But at the least, she said, Albany is moving. And she said that even more upstate-centered initiatives — ranging from extending historic tax credits to improving transportation — lie ahead.
“People depend on us and we have a responsibility to be deliberate, aware, and have as many perspectives as possible,” she said.
Stewart-Cousins may face her strongest challenge in convincing a wary upstate following her Democrats’ decisive victories in November. Gone is the Republican Senate that was viewed as a check on an Assembly and governor’s office traditionally dominated by New York City Democrats. Sen. Timothy M. Kennedy of Buffalo, who accompanied the majority leader on Thursday, remains one of only three upstate Democrats in the majority conference of 39.
Stewart-Cousins said she appointed Kennedy chairman of the powerful Transportation Committee with a traditional “city-centric” focus “to make this statement.”
“When you talk about transportation and you talk about economic development and the investments we’ve already made,” she said, “we want to make sure that the resources that continue to help Buffalo blossom are not only respected but nurtured.”
Kennedy said he is confident that the Senate’s new leadership will retain and expand historic tax credits that have helped upstate neighborhoods like Buffalo’s Larkinville. And Stewart-Cousins emphasized her suburban base in Yonkers as she said all of her efforts will not concentrate on New York City.
“There are things that you care about; that we care about,” she said.
In a wide-ranging conversation, the majority leader touched on other subjects, including:
• Working with Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo: While the governor has been critical of Senate Democrats in recent days over issues like the proposed Amazon development in Queens, the Senate has also approved several of his budget initiatives.
“We have an interesting relationship,” she said. “That’s what most people have with the governor.
“One thing I do is share my opinions; I don’t mince words,” she added. “We look forward to being partners.”
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• Legalizing marijuana: Stewart-Cousins said the complexity of allowing recreational use of the drug appears to preclude inclusion of that measure in the budget by April 1. Important issues such as the impact on drug enforcement in communities of color must be assessed, she said, and New York should look to the experiences of other states as it fashions its own policies.
“I don’t think it will be in the budget,” she said. “We want to make sure we get it right.”
And she believes the entire budget will produce its share of disagreement and compromise, but will result in overall agreement.
“I think we’re in a much better place,” she said.
• Criminal justice package: With the Legislature set to enact several new measures next week, the majority leader said issues such as bail reform, jail reform, speedy trials and solitary confinement will be addressed and that consensus will be reached.
“At least we will not have a fight about how we do criminal justice reform,” she said. “I know some things are going to happen.”
• Ethics: More progress on addressing the Albany culture that produced a string of corruption scandals in recent years lies ahead, she said. She noted campaign finance loopholes for limited liability corporations have already been ended, and contribution limits may be lowered in an effort to “take big money out of politics.”
“Again, at least we’re talking about it,” she said. “There will be campaign finance reform.”
She noted, however, that nobody in the Capitol has furthered some earlier discussions about ending “fusion” voting, which allows candidates to run on several lines.
• Economic development: Despite criminal charges and convictions stemming from the Buffalo Billion — Cuomo’s signature upstate economic development project — the senator said such programs contribute to the region’s resurgence and that it is up to state leaders to “turn around” perceptions.
“So it would be ridiculous to walk away,” she said. “But it’s clear that we need to make sure we are doing things the right way; that there are checks and balances, and that the Legislature is certainly in tune and involved.”
On a personal note, Stewart-Cousins said it has been an “extraordinary” and “humbling” experience to be the first woman of color to lead the Senate.
“There was no space in my thought that I would ever be in a position like this,” she said. “It’s a testament to the values of the dream that is America. And for whatever time I have onstage, I hope I can be productive and have an impact on people's’ lives.”