In January 2013, just a month into Westchester State Senator Andrea Stewart-Cousins’ tenure as the first female legislative leader in New York State history, the Senate Democratic conference was in crisis.
Even though members of the party had won a clear majority over the GOP in the previous year’s elections, the delegation was disintegrating. Several high-profile Democrats had gone down in disgrace, and there were ongoing federal probes into Ms. Stewart-Cousins’ immediate predecessors, Senator Malcolm Smith of Queens and Senator John Sampson of Brooklyn, over alleged interference in the bidding process for the contract to operate slot machines at Resorts World Casino.
Two years prior, in the midst of the investigations, corruption charges, late budgets and general disorder in the Senate leadership structure, Bronx Senator Jeffrey Klein had led three of his colleagues to split off from the larger caucus and form the Independent Democratic Conference, and cut a deal with Republican leader Dean Skelos of Long Island to allow the IDC and the GOP to control the body together. In December of that year, Mr. Smith–envisioning a run for mayor of New York City on the Republican ticket–abandoned the delegation he had once led and joined Mr. Klein’s bipartisan coalition.
With the leadership in their hands, Mr. Klein and Mr. Skelos had the power to bestow coveted committee chairmanships on any Democrat who agreed to cooperate with them. Senator Eric Adams, a close associate of Mr. Klein’s who had his eye on the borough presidency of his native Brooklyn, saw nothing to lose and accepted a position as head of the Committee on Aging. And a freshman senator from Queens, James Sanders, told Mr. Klein he would take him up on his offer of the chairmanship of the Committee on Alcoholism and Drug Abuse.
Mr. Sanders’ political infidelity seemed set to unleash a cascade of Democratic desertions. “There could have been many, many more defections. You could see a situation where a whole number of people bolt,” a Senate source said.
As leader of the virtually powerless minority party, Ms. Stewart-Cousins had little to offer Mr. Sanders to convince him to stay. Still, with the coolness and poise that have become her trademark, she talked him into turning down the chairmanship and climbing back aboard the Democratic party boat.
“She doesn’t have much in the way of carrots and sticks. She just has herself,” the insider said. “It was just sitting down with someone and letting them know, ‘you’re new here, and this isn’t a small mistake. This is a defining mistake.'”
With the 2014 elections at hand, and a tentative deal in place for the IDC to reunite with the larger Democratic conference, Ms. Stewart-Cousins today stands on the brink of becoming the first woman–and black woman, to boot–to enter the famous “three (and sometimes four) men in a room” equation that runs New York State politics. She has impressed many with her serene and composed approach to her leadership role–but she will face considerable challenges both before and after she can stand beside Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and Mr. Klein as a true power player in Albany.
“She’s very deliberative, very considerate of the various viewpoints of the members of the conference, and very sober,” said Queens Senator Michael Gianaris, who serves as Ms. Stewart-Cousins’ hand-picked deputy minority leader and as head of the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee, which funds the conference’s candidates. “There are a number of times when things are hectic, both governmentally when we’re in session and politically on campaign fronts, and people get anxious to make a decision and feel rushed. She brings a very good approach to saying ‘hold on, let’s make sure we’re doing this properly.'”
A Senate source put it another way: “Her level of professionalism has been strong,” the source said. “For the thankless job of minority leader, your leadership is weighed on the absence of fuck-ups and crises.”
Ms. Stewart-Cousins describes leadership as a dialogue.
“I think effective leaders have to be willing to listen, they have to be fair, they have to be certainly respectful of the constituency and, in my case, all of my members,” Ms. Stewart-Cousins told the Observer. “What you try to communicate is the bigger vision: that New Yorkers in general will be better served if the people they elect to govern are allowed to do that. And the way to do that is to continue to work together.”
The leader would not characterize her approach as distinctly feminine, but prides herself on being the first woman to head a conference in state government.
“New York state has a history of only having men in that room making decisions. As progressive as New York State has been, we have not been able to break that glass ceiling,” she said. “Just by virtue of being part of that policy-making process I am able to bring a different perspective that has not been there before.”
Part of her dignified appeal as leader is her lack of overhanging ethical issues, a relief after years of chaos and controversy in the Democratic Conference–in her words, a chance to “to just turn the page and move forward.”
“Her integrity is beyond reproach,” said Mr. Gianaris.
In May 2013, a grand jury indicted Mr. Sampson–who Ms. Stewart-Cousins had defeated for the leadership role by a vote of 19 to six– on embezzlement charges. Ms. Stewart-Cousins impressed insiders by immediately expelling him from the conference, and by quietly laying off a number of his hires who a source said had “gained a bad reputation.”
Democrats note that Republican advertising this year focuses not on Ms. Stewart-Cousins’ reign, but on the failings of her predecessors and on the liberal specter of the Mayor Bill de Blasio, meaning that even her opponents can find little to fault her for.
But the leader’s restrained style has not impressed everyone. Senator Ruben Diaz Sr.–a colorful, socially conservative and often contrarian Democrat representing parts of the Bronx–has noted Mr. Gianaris’s greater visibility and suggested that the Queens representative is the true power in the Democratic delegation.
“On the news, who’s the one talking, who’s the one acting, who’s the one going around the state, who’s the one doing all the talking and doing all the campaigning around for candidates, choosing what candidates to run?” Mr. Diaz said, adding he was unsure whether he would ultimately support Ms. Stewart-Cousins. “I like my leader to be my leader.”
Both Mr. Gianaris and Ms. Stewart-Cousins pushed back against that characterization,, though they admitted they work closely together.
“I think there’s no clearer other way to put it than to say Senator Cousins is the leader and I follow her leadership,” said Mr. Gianaris, adding that he speaks to the leader at least 10 times a week.
Mr. Diaz’s voice may be a lonely one, but it is there are scenarios in which it could become relevant. The IDC has agreed to caucus with Democrats — but only if they can hold a majority over the GOP. That depends on a small handful of rogue Democrats like Mr. Diaz falling into line and, less certain, the outcome of November’s election.
Recent polls show Democrats lagging in three crucial Senate races, but Mr. Gianaris is confident his candidates will be in the lead on Election Day.
Even if Mr. Gianaris and his team succeed, questions remain over how Ms. Stewart-Cousins will adjust to the powers and responsibilities of the majority leader role, where it will fall upon her to appoint committee chairs and set the legislative agenda for the body with Mr. Klein. In preparation, Ms. Stewart-Cousins said she has organized seminars to prep herself and her members on the fine points of policy.
“We will be hitting the ground running,” she vowed.
But Ms. Stewart-Cousins will only be co-majority leader of the Senate, her power split with Mr. Klein, who remains a rival. And some critics, like Mr. Diaz doubt she possesses the will to challenge Mr. Klein or Mr. Cuomo –,. comparing the relationship between the governor and the Democratic leader to that of Mr. de Blasio and Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, who secured her position with the mayor’s help.
“I don’t want to see happen the same thing that happened in the City Council, where the speaker of the City Council is the mayor’s rubber stamp. I need a leader that can stand up to the governor and say ‘no.’ Because the governor has used our conference at his pleasure and our conference has been rubber stamp for the governor,” Mr. Diaz said. “Jeff Klein is a very strong leader. So we are going to need a very strong leader to make Jeff Klein comply to what he said he would comply to.”
But another Senate source suggested a fully Democratic government would give Ms. Stewart-Cousins and the governor good reason to get along — they won’t be able to blame Republicans for inaction.
“If we do take the Senate, he owns it. Failures, things going wrong, with a Democratic Senate, it’s on him,” the source told the Observer. “It’s a mutual relationship. She’ll want to be supporting him and he’ll be supporting her because he wants action. Gridlock doesn’t help either one of them. We’re all married, like it or not.”
Mr. Gianaris and Ms. Stewart-Cousins both said they felt that the governor, the Democratic conference and the IDC share enough issues in common–a higher minimum wage, college tuition assistance for undocumented immigrants, public financing of elections and the pro-choice, anti-discrimination Women’s Equality Act–that there will be little friction. Ms. Stewart-Cousins, however, said she was prepared to drop her reserve and take on the other three men in the room–even if, in her words, she is “the one without testosterone.”
“I can only say that I don’t imagine that anyone would think that I would be in the position I’m in without having faced some opposition, and I’ve been not only able to face it and withstand it but overcome it,” the leader said. “I don’t think anyone will accuse me of being a shrinking violet.”