Sitting next to New York State Senator Andrea Stewart-Cousins in her district office in Yonkers, a labyrinthine setup perched on the undulating and dangerously potholed streets of the city’s waterfront, it’s hard to quash my low-grade anxiety.
To be sure, the senator is preternaturally accessible, with a reputation in Albany as much for amiability as some of her fellow pols have for viciousness. Seated under one of the dozens of plaques that cover all four of the yellow-washed walls of her office, the 64-year-old is relaxed but alert, good-humored in a no-nonsense sort of way. Her grin is wide and her laugh easy, but they belie toughness. Between questions, she keeps her gaze on me, looking pleasantly amused, like the mother of a precocious child watching her progeny make a mess of the sandbox. I suddenly find myself distracted by my poor posture and tug a sleeve’s edge over my exposed tattoo.
The senator’s ability to rise above the muck has, over four decades, propelled her from teen mother in the Bronx projects up through the private sector at a time when women (let alone black women) had very limited options, then up through city and county government to where she is now, halfway through her eighth year in the State Senate and the first woman to lead a conference in the State of New York. Neither puerile nor bombastic, the senator can smile and be downright cordial, even as she drops a shoulder and plows into whatever issue she believes is right. And that may be her greatest strength. She has a history of simply not standing for it. It hasn’t always been a fair fight, certainly not an easy one, and, even now, Stewart-Cousins faces the greatest challenge of her career: uniting a conference divided against itself.
In late 2012, Stewart-Cousins and the New York State Senate Democratic Conference made history when she was elected conference leader—the first time a woman had led a conference in the state. By every notion of how legislatures and basic math work, Stewart-Cousins should have been leading the Democrats, the numerical majority, and the rest of the Senate in crafting and passing legislation—if she had her way, legislation updating women’s reproductive health issues, electoral reform, and education initiatives, all platforms she’d campaigned and fought for since her election in 2006.
But one reason, perhaps the main reason, she’d been elected to this leadership role was to unite a fractured party comprising the vast majority of Democratic senators and a small group of four (now five) Dems under the leadership of her former mentor, Jeff Klein, who had established a power-sharing agreement with Senate Republicans in late 2012, effectively crippling the rest of the party. Now, with a governor-appointed commission revealing continued corruption in Albany, a wave of Democratic ethics breaches, and a legislature unable to update women’s reproductive health laws that pre-date Roe v. Wade, Stewart-Cousins must lead a hollow majority and, through influence, fundraising, and not an insignificant amount of sheer will, bring the errant sheep back into the fold, or, if not, then round up some new sheep.
The question is, is she up for the fight?
Andrea Stewart was born on September 2, 1950, in Manhattan, the daughter of Beryl and Bob Stewart. Her father, a quiet man and a decorated World War II veteran, left a segregated Army for a largely segregated civilian life, and, despite the promise of the New Deal, was unable to secure the bank loans white veterans could. So, like many black veterans unable to purchase a home, he moved his family into public housing, first on Amsterdam Avenue and later in the Bronx, and worked as a Teletype repairman for Western Electric and then a repairman with the MTA. Beryl dreamed of being a lawyer, but with that sort of career closed to most women, and particularly black women, she entered the work force through civil service, heading up the steno pool in city government to the tune of 100 words per minute.
Andrea Stewart-Cousins’ undated family photo
Andrea Stewart with her husband, the late Thomas Cousins
Despite enduring a childhood racked with illness, including severe asthma, Stewart-Cousins never felt like she and her brother went wanting. “Together, [my parents] really gave us the sense of security and what we needed,” she says. At 19, that security began to slip away. Stewart, unmarried, gave birth to her first child, Kevin, while living at the Parkside Houses in the Bronx. As with most things, she recounts that early trial matter-of-factly.
“My adult life started early,” she says. “I was a single mother at 19, so I started raising my son and I went to work for New York Telephone Company.” By 21, she was living in public housing with her child, and soon was out protesting changes to daycare subsidies that, had she not had her mother’s support, would have left her unable to work and feed her son. She didn’t know it at the time, but this refusal to accept the indignities, large and small, that shape the lives of those discriminated against would, decades later, turn into one of the county’s hardest-fought legislative battles, which ended up with the creation of the Westchester County Human Rights Commission. “When I fight for those things, like everything that I fight for, whether it’s education or daycare or whatever,” she says, “it’s because I know those things matter.”
By 1979, Stewart had become Stewart-Cousins after marrying the late Thomas Cousins, had three children, and was living in Yonkers. She’d taken advantage of a class-action suit against the telephone company to apply for one of a handful of marketing positions the company had been forced to open to women of color. When New York Telephone disintegrated, she took a buyout and went back to school for journalism while writing for Gannett newspapers. On class assignment, she spent election night 1984 at Geraldine Ferraro’s headquarters in New York.
“There I was with all of the big national networks, getting a chance to see it. I didn’t get to ask her any questions, but to be there was extraordinary. I wrote a story, I remember, ‘Gerry Loses Like a Winner’ or something. It was historic; she was the first woman who was able to run on a national campaign, so that may have been a very early seed-planting experience,” she says.
If there was a seed, it hadn’t yet germinated by 1991, when her friend Symra Brandon asked for help as she campaigned for city council in Yonkers. Stewart-Cousins had been working on a second degree, this time in education, and had a job in personnel management when Brandon approached. The two had met earlier that year at an NAACP parents’ meeting on the eve of Yonkers’ controversial busing program, which sought to end years of what was, effectively, segregation in the school system. “She was one of the parents who were fighting to make sure the kids were served correctly,” says Brandon.
After Brandon was elected to city council, and Terence Zaleski became mayor, Zaleski, on Brandon’s recommendation, asked Stewart-Cousins to join the administration as the first African American Director of Community Affairs for Yonkers. She was shocked by the offer, having never considered a role in government. “I guess it was a nod towards where this city was moving,” she says, “by saying, ‘okay, we’re going to start having people of color and the diversity of the city represented in city government.’”
Despite her initial hesitation, she took to civil service like a fish to water. Not one to sit still, she poured her energy into developing programs for her neighbors. Over the next couple years, she co-created the Yonkers Riverfest arts and music festival, helped found the South Yonkers Business Improvement District—a predecessor to the current BID—as well as Art on Main Street, and helped create city internships for the disabled.
NY State Senator Andrea Stewart-Cousins during a swearing-in ceremony in the NY State Legislative Chambers in Albany
In 1995, ensconced in her work, Stewart-Cousins ran for and won a seat on the Westchester County Board of Legislators, where she’d serve for the next 10 years. Here, she continued her community-minded approach to administration, but would soon hit a wall of discrimination she hadn’t faced before. It had nothing to do with color or gender, but, before it was over, it would polarize the county.
In the mid- to late-’90s, Westchester was reeling from the twin blows of a
high-profile racial-discrimination class-action suit against Texaco, at the time located in Harrison, and the appearance of anti-Semitic graffiti in Mamaroneck. Hate crimes and bias had become part of the national conversation after the murder of young, gay Matthew Shephard, and Westchester suddenly became very conscious of its own undercurrents
At the time, those looking to lodge complaints of discrimination had access to a state-run human-rights commission with a regional office in the county, but the backlog of cases handled by the state was so staggering, it could take up to seven years to have a particular complaint addressed. According to the New York Times, in the 1996-1997 fiscal year alone, the state commission, which had no subpoena power, received almost 3,500 new complaints from all over New York, and, by February 1998, the backlog statewide was more than 9,000 cases.
“I looked at this county with a million people,” recalls Stewart-Cousins, “and I wondered where anybody went if there was an incident of discrimination here, so I asked that question, we had a hearing, and, unbelievably, hundreds of people showed up to explain how they needed some help from county government because they were on a long queue in the state system.”
From Stewart-Cousins’ perspective, as well as then-County Executive Andrew Spano’s, starting a commission to address employment, housing, and credit bias was a “no-brainer,” and the only fight she expected was in terms of dollars and cents. Who in an enlightened county like Westchester at the dawn of the 21st century would object to equal rights for all?
So it was a shock when, after two years of discussing and drafting legislation around the commission, she held a pubic hearing at the end of February 1999, only to face a four-hour onslaught of public fury, some of it due to the costs of running the commission, but primarily over the inclusion of homosexuals under the protections of the commission.
The debate raged for months, in public meetings and letters to local publications, with opponents—mainly from the clergy and lay congregations of the Roman Catholic Church—asserting that the inclusion of protection for people of all sexual orientations would, in the words of one letter-writer, “be seen as implying that homosexual or bisexual conduct is morally equivalent to heterosexual activity, in contradiction of the beliefs of the vast majority of religious traditions and the great majority of [Stewart-Cousins’] constituents.”
The senator dug in. “It occurred to me it would just be sheer folly if I thought that I was going to help to create an anti-discrimination commission that allowed discrimination against some people,” she says. “So that was a non-starter.” Stewart-Cousins emphasizes that it wasn’t, and isn’t, her job to legislate faith, to determine who’s a sinner and who’s not. “My job is to make sure that everybody has an opportunity to live their fullest life, and to have respect and opportunities and justice, whether it’s in healthcare, or employment opportunities, or housing,” she says.
Other religious groups and civil-rights organizations supported the commission, including its equal protection for homosexuals. And in July 2000, after some modifications to operating costs, the Westchester County Human Rights Commission began accepting complaints. As part of Stewart-Cousins’ design, the committee had subpoena power, could investigate and levy fines up to $10,000 in cases of discrimination, and, unlike the State’s commission, offered protection against discrimination based on sexual orientation. At the time, Stewart-Cousins called it a “high point of her political career,” which had just begun.
NY State Senator Andrea Stewart-Cousins speaks during a ground-breaking ceremony at the Old Croton Aqueduct Keeper’s House and Visitor & Education Center in Dobbs Ferry on June 27, 2014. Stewart-Cousins is leader of the NYS Senate Democratic Conference.
Four years later, Stewart-Cousins stepped into the ring again when she entered the race for State Senate, but this time, instead of battling the Catholic Church, she faced a no-less-formidable opponent: Nicholas Spano, the Republican incumbent who’d enjoyed immense popularity among his constituents for 18 years. As a relative newcomer, Stewart-Cousins was initially seen as an “energetic” campaigner with little to no shot of getting anywhere near Spano’s numbers.
Albany was in for a surprise.
To go into the details of the race against Spano would take several months, which is how long the election itself took—the longest New York State Senate race since just before the Great Depression. After election day, poll workers spent months counting and recounting ballots, and judges passed decisions on the validity of hundreds of affidavit and absentee ballots, while the campaigns fired accusations at each other ranging from voter intimidation to fraud. In the end, Stewart-Cousins lost by a razor’s edge—a mere 18 votes.
But Spano’s nearly negligible margin over an Albany newcomer signaled a change in the voting base, which was skewing more minority and Democratic, and the New York State Democratic Senate Campaign Committee had believed enough in Stewart-Cousins’ chances to throw its weight behind her.
After the race was called, then-Campaign Committee Chairwoman Liz Krueger told the New York Times, “A woman who, five months ago, wasn’t considered anything but a sacrificial lamb has proven that, in fact, she has statistically tied the giant.”
In short, Stewart-Cousins had arrived on the scene in Albany a bit bruised, but still
In 2006, Stewart-Cousins laced up her gloves again, and campaigned harder, on a platform of cleaning up corruption in Albany. Again, on election day, accusations were raised about voter intimidation. (Stewart-Cousins would add electoral reform to her post-election agenda.) This time, however, the difference in votes increased 100-fold—in Stewart-Cousins’ favor. She beat Spano by 1,800 votes.
At the time, Spano pointed to national frustration with the Republican Party as a reason for his loss. Perhaps related, demographics had continued to shift in the county: The New York Times reported the number of registered Democrats increasing by 62 percent between 1998 and 2006. Stewart-Cousins’ district, 35, would include most of Yonkers, most of Greenburgh, and Mount Pleasant (after major redistricting in 2012, her territory includes less of Yonkers, but added Scarsdale and parts of New Rochelle).
Ten years after the 2004 election and the charges of voter obstruction and fraud, Stewart-Cousins is still frustrated by the fact that, while she’s been able to get a few election reforms passed, including a bill stipulating that poll workers must inform voters of their proper polling place, it hasn’t been all she’d hoped for.
In 2007, she co-sponsored four bills with Krueger aimed at making voter suppression a criminal misdemeanor, banning push-polling, and making it harder to instigate frivolous investigations into voter qualifications. They were never passed.
“I still haven’t been able to get to making voter suppression a crime, but I think you can see it all over the nation, frankly,” says the senator. “There’s not an election that goes by anymore [without] concerns about those kinds of things happening, voter suppression or somehow finding ways to disenfranchise people and voters, et cetera. We all have to be vigilant about democracy. We cannot take it for granted.”
For his part, Spano doesn’t think the accusations of voter suppression caused constituents to lose faith in the electoral process. “People recognize that it was a very…controversial process. People either expected or tolerated the controversy that was part of it,” he says. But election reform was only the tip of the iceberg. Within a few short years, Stewart-Cousins would be tasked with her biggest fight to date.
In November 2012, Senate Democrats held a numerical majority under Conference Leader John Sampson, but were split into warring factions, and were unable to agree on a majority leader. A few weeks later, one of the factions, comprising five breakaway Dems led by Senator Jeff Klein and known as the Independent Democratic Conference, entered into an unprecedented power-sharing agreement with Senate Republicans, effectively hamstringing their own party and reducing the Democrats to a governing minority. Sampson paid for his ineffective leadership with his job.
On December 17, 2012, the State Senate voted to remove then-Minority Leader John Sampson and voted in Stewart-Cousins as the first female to lead a legislative conference in New York State history.
Stewart-Cousins’ election to conference leader was not only a coup for women in Albany’s notorious boys’ club, but a strategic move by Democrats to help reunite the party. Shortly after the election, Aaron Short of City & State wrote that the senator’s colleagues were looking for a very specific profile in their new leader: someone with integrity, who commanded respect, was female, with a district outside of the City, and who had no other active campaign going.
Her former opponent, Nick Spano, who currently runs Empire Strategic Planning, an Albany-based consulting firm, was surprised at Stewart-Cousins’ rapid rise through the ranks within the Senate, but believes she has the personality to be a uniting force. “This will allow her to speak to members without being confrontational,” he says, “and allow her to reach across the aisle.”
For all the fighting the senator does for her constituents and legislation, that disarming personality, the conciliatory way she’s dealt with opponents, makes her an asset to a conference torn apart.
Stewart-Cousins’ colleague Senator Ruth Hassell-Thompson also sees her personality as a reason for why she was elected during this particularly rocky period for Dems. “When she presided over the house [in 2009], even under some very trying circumstances, she managed to always find middle ground, and she was always able to keep tempers that were very contentious from flaring up and affecting our ability to do business,” says Hassell-Thompson. “Not everybody has the capacity to be able to work with too many A-types.” Her selection, says the senator from the Bronx, was a “turning point” for the conference.
For her part, Stewart-Cousins thinks she was chosen because of her experience, her ability to connect with constituents and colleagues at every level of government, and her ability to listen. “I think I’ve been able to bring a level of focus and perspective in terms of upstate, downstate, urban, suburban, big school districts, small school districts, local government, state government. There are a lot of things in my background that really allow me to see the world from a lot of different viewpoints.”
Those who have known her for decades agree. “As a county legislator, I can remember her putting together a program in public housing,” says Brandon. “And it was to make sure that she could keep some of the starting points of how to find a job, how to dress correctly, what it’s like to be a single parent—a support system for young people. And she’s operating out of her own experience.”
As the Democratic leader, Stewart-Cousins says that she’s tried to change the negative narrative surrounding the conference by “showing and demonstrating every day that we hear [our constituents], we get it, we’re serious, we understand the need for accountability, we understand the need for integrity and honesty and transparency and moving a progressive agenda and doing it in a way that brings dignity and pride to New Yorkers.”
Reshaping the narrative is all well and good, but if Stewart-Cousins is looking for a legacy of her time in leadership, Spano says she’ll need to find compromise with the Senate Republicans and the IDC and keep Albany from experiencing the kind of paralysis normally reserved
Writer and political strategist Alexis Grenell says that Stewart-Cousins’ challenge is twofold: to bring cohesiveness to the conference as it now stands and to grow the conference, getting new Dems elected in order to turn a hollow numerical majority into an actual governing majority.
“The measuring stick against which she’ll be judged is not legislative, but electoral,” says Grenell. “She is a highly competent leader. The test of her leadership will be her ability to grow the conference. It will take a monumental effort and she’s up against a deficit in fundraising and a deficit for redistricting. If she can use her rightfully praised diplomacy to negotiate with the IDC, that would be a huge victory.” That is, assuming the IDC wants to negotiate.
[Editor’s Note: In late June 2014, after reporting and writing of this piece was completed, Senator Klein and Governor Cuomo announced a deal, reached with help (and pressure) from Cuomo, organized labor groups, and New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio, by which Klein and Stewart-Cousins would “co-lead” Senate Democrats beginning after the November 2014 elections. While the IDC remains a distinct conference among Democrats, its return to the fold will give the Democrats the ruling majority in the legislature. Of the decision, Stewart-Cousins says, “We always made it clear that we wanted Democrats to work together. We look forward to working with Senator Klein and the IDC as a majority next year fighting for the smart and common sense legislation that the people of New York deserve.”]
Dealing with a fractured conference is a gargantuan task in its own right. Though Albany insiders point to electoral issues as her priority, and despite the relative indifference with which a Senate minority is treated legislatively, and despite having to deal with ethical breaches on the part of certain Democrats (Former majority leaders John Sampson and Malcolm Smith have both been indicted on separate charges of embezzlement and bribery, respectively), Stewart-Cousins insists that policy can’t take a back seat. “There’s no ‘I could do this, but I can’t do that,’” she says. “All of it. You have to do all of it.” It’s worth noting that, since taking office in 2007, she’s sponsored 46 bills that have become law, and since taking the leadership post, has introduced another 50 bills.
Conference problem children and governing minority aside, Stewart-Cousins faces another, less prominently covered, fight. While being chosen as the first female conference leader in the state is a big step forward, the fact remains that she is the first: Of 63 Senate seats, women occupy only 11.
The senator historically has taken a strong stance on women’s equality and health rights, establishing a speaker series for young women in Yonkers, organizing business workshops for women, and sponsoring a Reproductive Health Act to relegate abortion to the public health realm rather than the criminal realm, where it sits now. (The on-the-books criminalization of abortion is a central snagging point in the vote for the Women’s Equality Act, which has been bounced between the Senate and the State Assembly since it was introduced by Governor Andrew Cuomo in June of 2013—a major source of frustration for Stewart-Cousins.) And after multiple allegations of sexual harassment in the legislature surfaced last July, she acknowledged the anti-woman environment in Albany, stating in a radio interview that sexual harassment “won’t be tolerated. It’s not acceptable. This culture cannot continue to exist.”
But while she advocates for women, citizens, and colleagues alike, she tends to demur when it comes to her own experience as a female leader in the Senate. “I am very cognizant of who I am,” she says. “And when I walk anywhere, and certainly in Albany, I hold myself in a certain way. And I believe that that has been helpful in terms of getting respect. I also understand that this environment is very much a mostly male club, a boys’ club, but I know that many of my colleagues, certainly those enlightened men who voted for me, realize that it’s not going to be like that forever, and they’re happy to be part of a transition. But again, I never try and confuse this because it’s never really about me.”
Senator Hassell-Thompson believes that Stewart-Cousins’ propensity for rising above is critical in order to keep the Democratic agenda moving forward and in-fighting in check. Hassell-Thompson refrains from commenting on specific instances of offense, though she will confirm that male colleagues sometimes ignore protocols regarding the introduction of Stewart-Cousins as conference leader. “There are still times when we feel that she is ignored,” says Hassell-Thompson. “There are times when she’s kind of dissed, if you will, but she handles it very well. She doesn’t make a big deal about it. She continues to keep her eye on the goal, and that is to make sure that the Democratic conference is relevant.”
When asked to describe what she thinks has been the common thread that connected that 19-year-old single mother in the Parkside Houses to the history-making Senate leader sitting next to me, Stewart-Cousins stumbles for a little bit, thinking aloud. “I always knew,” she says finally. “I always knew that I had something important to do. I didn’t know what it was, I didn’t know what it looked like, but I knew that there would be something that I had to do. I was in a world where those possibilities were very, very, very limited.”
To get that done, the woman who never imagined a life in politics until she was pulled into it will have to keep fighting, even at times against herself. “I see difficult things, and I found that you can tell yourself why you can’t do this, and you can be afraid to do it, but I always found that once I was willing to face my fears and take the risk, it worked out.”