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Andrea Stewart-Cousins on Being First Black Woman to Lead NY Senate

The Yonkers Democrat is the first Black woman to hold her position.

Andrea Stewart-Cousins on Being First Black Woman to Lead NY Senate
New York Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins speaks at rally on reproductive health act at Barnard College (Credit: lev radin / Shutterstock.com)

This Women’s History Month, we recognize Black women in politics who have made history, broken barriers and shattered glass ceilings. One of those women is Andrea Stewart-Cousins, the New York State Assembly Senate majority leader. She is the first African-American and first woman to serve in that capacity. She began her career in sales and marketing and also worked as a reporter and teacher before pivoting to politics in the 1990s. Stewart-Cousins is a history maker.

You were voted by your peers to lead the New York Senate, the first female and first Black majority leader in its 241-year history. Why do you believe you were entrusted with this position?

I hope that during my years in the Senate and during my years in government, I have always been clear about why I was there. The fact that we are there as public servants to be able to actually serve the public and [at] the same time always be respectful of my colleagues, despite what our differences might be in terms of getting to the right answers for the people who are dependent upon us to serve. I hope it’s also because they value the input of women. I’m not only the first Black Senate majority leader; I’m the first female leader in the history of New York state, because the assembly never elected a woman to do this, either. I intend to do it right so I will not be the last.

You’ve been quoted as saying, “Sometimes, even in progressive places like New York, barriers still exist.” What are those barriers exactly for the state of New York and its residents?

Part of the barriers we addressed right away is that in a state like New York, we still didn’t have early voting. We’re really making it hard for people to register to vote. We would not acknowledge that women’s reproductive rights that are our laws, which predated the federal law needed to be updated, so there are barriers to accessing reproductive care here. There are ways that we in government can make sure that people are able to really optimize their talents, and I’m certainly committed, along with my members, to making sure we are not putting [up] barriers, whether to education, affordable housing, health care, voting, to people really achieving their potential. We finally passed the Dream Act, which acknowledges there are people here who came with their parents and we’ve been educating them, but they had no access to higher education. It’s about removing barriers so people can really access their talent and possibilities.      

In your position, you lead 39 Democrats in the 63-seat chamber, giving you an obvious majority and a powerful negotiating position. What do you plan to accomplish in the next six months?

We are working hard, obviously, on the budget. A budget is not only a financial document, but it’s also a document that shows our priorities. We care about so many of things I’ve listed … were also looking at criminal justice reform. We understand that things like bail, discovery reform and speedy trial reform are important so that people are actually able to have an opportunity and you’re not penalized for being poor unfortunately it happens too often, even in a place like New York. So we will be looking to strengthen our affordable housing, strengthen tenants rights and really be a progressive beacon because that’s what New York is about.

You made headlines when you challenged Gov. Andrew Cuomo in 2017 regarding your race and gender and his inability to “see” you. Reflecting back, was that a watershed moment?

In retrospect, it ended up being a watershed moment for a lot of different reasons. I think for a lot of people who are not used to hearing people speak truth to power, it was surprising; but for people who actually know me, they weren’t surprised because again, part of the success I’ve had is not being afraid to take on tough things, tough topics. Not being afraid to say what needs to be said, hopefully, in a way that will foster thought and conversation and positive action. 

One of the first things you did when you took over the chamber in January was announce hearings on the state’s anti-sexual harassment policies. Has there been any progress?

The state legislature, like so many legislatures, has historically been dominated by mostly men. Unfortunately, in our legislature, sometimes the culture has been sexist. And things that were assumed to be OK were done. At this point in this MeToo moment, we have to make it clear. I, as the first woman leader, have to make it clear that we have zero tolerance for sexual harassment. It has to be clear that we want our state to be a safe workplace for everyone. The sexual harassment hearing is going on as we speak, so we have invited people to come and talk about our policies, strengthening them to where they should be. And if we have laws that need to be strengthened or enacted, we will be doing that. It’s a new day, and women are speaking up.   

In 2018, Gov. Cuomo and three male legislative leaders agreed on reforms to the state’s anti-sexual harassment policies. The process was criticized at the time because it excluded you, the only female legislative leader, then minority leader of the Senate. What was the outcome?

I think people were really concerned. … And the whole idea of the three men in the room, because of the titles they held–governor, majority leader, speaker–and I did not hold any of those titles and because people were apparently unable to see the value of having a woman who was elected in the room despite the fact that she didn’t have one of those major titles I think really underscored the issue. So that is finished now because I actually have the title of majority leader, so going forth, I am invited to the room and will take my rightful place in negotiations.      

What three words would you use to describe yourself?

Woman of faith.

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