Moving on from Sampson, State Senate Democrats elect Andrea Stewart-Cousins

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Stewart-Cousins and the Senate Democrats. (Azi Paybarah)
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The marginalized Democratic conference of New York State Senate has replaced its leader, John Sampson of Brooklyn, with Andrea Stewart-Cousins of Westchester, who will be the first woman in the state's history to lead a legislative conference.

"The whole time we talked about change, we talked about it being a conference decision," Stewart-Cousins told me, standing in the lobby of 250 Broadway shortly after her colleagues held their vote.

In her first interview after being elected, she told me that the group's "partners in government," who she said included Governor Andrew Cuomo, will see the change in leadership as a "a forward-moving, positive" step.

Cuomo, of course, has been anything but a partner to the Senate Democrats since becoming governor. He worked closely with the Republicans when they held the majority and then, after the Democrats seemed to be have won enough seats to take control despite the governor's approval of a Republican-gerrymandered district map, Cuomo endorsed a coalition of Republicans and breakaway Democrats that came together to block the Sampson's regular Democrats from power.

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Adding to the general awkwardness in this situation is the fact that nearly all the chamber's black and Latino members are in the Democratic caucus, which is being kept out of leadership by a coalition that is nearly entirely white. Both Sampson and Stewart-Cousins are black.

Asked if the change in leadership was necessary to improve relations with Cuomo, who usually only mentions the Democratic caucus by way of warning of the "dysfunction" they would bring to the legislative process, Stewart-Cousins said, "I can't see what the problem would be. We're here to do the people's business. ... We are all united in making sure we are working in a way that represents New York."

I asked her about the possibility of passing gun-control legislation if there were a Democratic majority in the Senate.

"Of course, of course, of course, of course," Stewart-Cousins said.

She turned to State Senators Michael Gianaris and Jose Peralta, standing next to her, saying they were "leaders" on the issue because of their proposed bills limiting access to firearms.

"Clearly, the fact that we have tried to do progressive, smart gun control legislation that has not as of yet happened makes our focus redoubled so that we can get it done."

 

Outside the building after the meeting, State Senator Joseph Addabbo told me the conference's leadership issue needed to be settled, and that the Democrats needed to settle it on their own.

"The days of waiting for a phone call from [Republican leader] Dean Skelos and [Independent Democratic leader] Jeff Klein are over," he said.

State Senator Ruth Hassell-Thompson, of Westchester, praised Stewart-Cousins, and said the shift in power to a woman who had little to do with the dysfunctional old days could mark an opportunity for the conference to reach out to Cuomo and five of the Democrats who joined the Republicans to form a majority.

"It's going to be very difficult for any of the excuses the I.D.C. has used in not wanting to come back," she said. "Those excuses no longer exist."

Cuomo might even be slightly disarmed by the Democrats' new leader, she said.

"It's going to be very difficult for the governor to treat a woman the same way he would a man," she said, with a laugh.

Sampson was in attendance at the meeting but did not appear with Stewart-Cousins as she and the conference emerged into the lobby.