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State Senate makes history as first African-American woman is elected leader

Karen DeWitt
Andrea Stewart-Cousins, left, is sworn in Wednesday as state Senate Majority Leader

The New York state legislative session began with ceremonies and excitement as Democrats claimed their solid majority in the state Senate and made history with the election of a new female leader.

They promised to act quickly on a long list of progressive issues, including strengthening abortion rights and expanding voter access.

Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul, in her role as Senate president, was the first to introduce Andrea Stewart-Cousins in her groundbreaking role as the first woman and African-American woman to serve as Senate leader in the body’s 241 years.

"I’ve been waiting to say these words: ‘Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins,’ " Hochul said as the packed chamber stood to applaud. 

Stewart-Cousins thanked her family, Senate colleagues and God for what she said was an "incredible" moment. She said if the Democrats do things right, she won’t be the last woman to lead the Senate.

"We are going to break down some more barriers," Stewart-Cousins said.

She pledged to act quickly to hold anti-sexual harassment hearings, strengthen rights for transgender New Yorkers and make it easier to vote.

"We’re going to implement early voting," Stewart-Cousins said. "We are finally going to give New Yorkers an honest, functional, ethical government that they deserve."

Seventeen new senators also were sworn in Wednesday by the state’s chief judge, Janet DiFiore. They were surrounded by family and friends as a festive air took over the Senate chamber.

Sen. Liz Krueger, an advocate for progressive issues who is beginning her ninth term in office, is encouraged by the changes.

"There’s just this level of excitement," Krueger said. "There’s also a level of seriousness about what this responsibility is.

"I’ve never quite had that feeling the other 16 years I’ve been here in Albany," Krueger added.

Krueger also said Senate Democrats plan to move fast and will likely approve a measure to codify the abortion rights in the 1973 U.S. Supreme Court decision Roe v. Wade into law on Jan. 22, the anniversary of the landmark ruling. 

Not everyone is thrilled, though, with the new direction of the state government.

Members of New York state’s Right to Life Party picketed outside the chamber against the bill, known as the Reproductive Health Act. Holly Delavan, with the group’s Syracuse chapter, is against amending the state’s later-term abortion laws to allow the procedure to protect the health of the mother.

"They are going to abuse it, because they are going to interpret health as how they ‘feel’ about it," Delavan said. "There’s always adoption."

Supporters deny that the provisions would be abused.  

Republicans, who are now in the minority in the chamber and have their lowest number of members in decades, are also discontent. They held a news conference to complain about new rules enacted by the Senate Democrats that they say will limit Republicans’ participation on committees.

Deputy Minority Leader Joe Griffo said his party will now play the role of loyal opposition, advocating for issues that he says the Democrats might neglect, including holding the line on spending and taxes.  

"We’re going to present our vision for New York, and we’re going to express our concerns and outline where we disagree," Griffo said. "Philosophically, politically and on policy."

Meanwhile, in the Assembly, Democrats also began the year by making history, electing Crystal Peoples- Stokes as the first woman and African-American woman to serve as majority leader.

Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie attended Stewart-Cousins’ swearing-in ceremony. Both are originally from the Bronx.  

Gov. Andrew Cuomo was not at the Capitol to witness the historic events. Wednesday was the day set aside under the state’s constitution for a governor to give the annual State of the State message. But Cuomo has opted to deliver his address later in the month.

Cuomo did hold a reception at the mansion for Stewart-Cousins and other members of the Legislature, where he said he intended to present her with a ceremonial gavel.

"I’m very excited about it," Cuomo said. "I think she has the sophistication and the touch to do that job, which is a very, very difficult leadership position."

Cuomo compared the historic developments in Albany to events in Washington, where government is gridlocked and enduring a partial government shut down.

"What a beautiful juxtaposition, New York versus the nation," Cuomo said.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.