Before a packed Senate chamber, Andrea Stewart-Cousins officially became New York state's new Senate majority leader on Wednesday, the first woman to lead a major conference in Albany.
The ascendancy of Stewart-Cousins shatters the traditional deal-making formula in Albany, which consisted of "three men in a room" throughout state history. Now, Stewart-Cousins will be one of those deal-makers, crafting important legislation, including the state budget, which defines priorities for the year.
"They have seen co-leaders, they have seen coalition leaders," said Queens State Sen. Michael Gianaris, who is now Senate deputy leader. "they have seen indicted leaders. Yet in 214 years, the one thing neither house of our state government has ever seen is a female leader. Until today."
A record-high 70 women are serving in the state legislature overall.
Carl Heastie, a Bronx Democrat, was elected speaker of the Assembly for a third time. Like Stewart-Cousins, Heastie is black, making 2019 the first time in state history in which both chambers have been led by African-American legislators. In the Assembly, Democrats hold 106 of 150 seats.
THE SENATE LEADER'S PRIORITIES FOR THE NEW LEGISLATIVE SESSION
Stewart-Cousins laid out the priorities for the new Senate majority, including a surprise mention of procurement reform. The process for giving out state contracts resulted in several high-profile corruption convictions last year.
"We will restore the public trust by closing the LLC loophole, reforming our campaign finance system, making sure state contracts are fully vetted, and shining a light on how government works," Stewart-Cousins said.
But it was this cringe-worthy joke from the governor that soaked up much of the attention: "Space, we need space. I'll bring you all up on charges under the MeToo movement," Cuomo said.
Not only do Democrats now control both houses of the state legislature for the first time in ten years, but the margin of control is historic. Only 32 Senate seats are needed to form a majority, but Democrats have 39 members, which makes passing legislation much easier. That means progressive reforms like codifying abortion rights and legalizing marijuana could pass both the state Senate and Assembly.
WHAT REPUBLICANS WILL DO NOW IN THE MINORITY
Republicans say they'll look to push back on Democratic proposals that they think would hurt the economy or negatively impact upstate and rural areas, while acknowledging that their reduced numbers will make it difficult.
"We want to partner with Sen. Stewart-Cousins," said Sen. Joe Griffo, a Rome Republican, "but we can and we will and we must speak out when things occur."
Griffo is standing in as the GOP's Senate minority leader in the absence of Sen. John Flanagan, of Long Island, who is seeking treatment for alcohol dependency.
Wednesday saw the session's first kerfuffle as Republicans unsuccessfully pushed back on a Democratic plan to create a new ethics committee — led by Democrats — that would have the power to investigate allegations of misconduct by lawmakers. Republicans demanded even representation on the panel but were rebuffed.
OTHER PRIORITIES FOR DEMOCRATS IN ALBANY
The Democrats' lock on power won't guarantee success, however, on a long list of proposals they hope to advance. First they'll have to reach agreement on the details with one another and with Cuomo.
"The agenda that the Democratic Senate and Assembly are talking about are everything we've been talking about for years," Cuomo told reporters outside his office after the legislature adjourned for the day. "We have the same priorities, we want to get the same things done, the same pieces of legislation....Now all we have to do is get it done."
On marijuana, lawmakers will have to decide how many retail shops should be allowed, how they should be licensed and regulated, and the appropriate tax rate for the product.
On congestion tolls, they'll need to figure out which vehicles to charge, whether discounts should be given to local businesses or low-income commuters, and how to best use the revenue to support upgrades to New York City's aging subways.
The six-month session includes 61 scheduled days of legislative activity. Cuomo is expected to deliver his State of the State address and his state budget proposal before the end of the month. The state budget is due by April 1.
A VOICE IN 'THE ROOM' WITH THE GOVERNOR AND ASSEMBLY SPEAKER
Stewart-Cousins narrowly lost her first bid for the state Senate in 2004, facing the longtime Republican incumbent Nick Spano that year. Two years later, she won the rematch race. Stewart-Cousins has led the Democratic minority since 2012.
Stewart-Cousins will be the first woman in "the room" — Albany parlance for the top-level leaders meeting with the governor and state Assembly speaker — giving her a voice in the state budget negotiations and the final shaping of legislation.
Unity hasn't been easy for Democrats to achieve in the past, though the conference's leaders have long asserted the dysfunction that plagued the 2009-10 majority is gone.
Stewart-Cousins herself was elected leader six years ago in part because of her district's geography: A large downstate city with suburban concerns, bordering New York City but not in New York City. It's a balance Stewart-Cousins says she knows she has to maintain.
Information from the Associated Press was used in this story.