How NY’s State Senate Got Woke (It Took a Pace Grad.)

By Kelley Freund
Photography: the Senator’s office and AP/Mike Groll.

It took the Democrats in the New York State Senate seven years to break up a group of their colleagues who had crossed party lines to form an alliance with the Republicans. It took the State Senate more than 200 years to choose a woman as the body’s leader, and to place an African-American woman at the top. But when the State Senate broke through all those barriers at once in January and selected State Senator Andrea Stewart-Cousins ’86, MPA ’08 as the majority leader, it took almost no time to learn what her historic ascent would mean. 

Stewart-Cousins (who represents Greenburgh, part of White Plains, part of New Rochelle, part of Yonkers, and Scarsdale in Westchester County) has long been known as a strong advocate for issues like human rights, quality education, affordable health care, and making government more efficient. And once she took charge, there was no stopping her.

First up, election reform: In an effort to reverse New York’s reputation as a state with one of the lowest voter turnouts in the nation, the Senate passed a series of bills to modernize and expand voter registration. Then they voted to remove barriers to women’s health care rights, establishing laws to ensure that insurance companies cover FDA-approved contraceptive products and prevent employers’ religious beliefs from infringing on women’s health care decisions.

That was followed by the Child Victims Act, which reformed New York’s outdated statute of limitations for child sexual abuse, and after that was legislation to combat gun violence, which allows people to seek a court order that requires weapons to be removed from people at risk of hurting others or themselves. All of this came within 20 days of Stewart- Cousins opening the 2019 Senate session. What does it mean that such legislation passed so quickly? “It means the state elected the right people who are ready to get to work,” Stewart-Cousins says in an interview with Pace Magazine.

Had you known Stewart-Cousins as a child, you might not have expected her to end up taking on the tough fights. She grew up in New York City public housing in the 1950s (first in Manhattan, later in the Bronx) as a very shy child. She had severe eczema and spent a lot of time in emergency rooms due to asthma. Her father was a World War II veteran who served in a segregated Army and returned home to a segregated America—opportunities available to white veterans were not open to him. Likewise, Stewart-Cousins’ mother, who typed 100 words a minute, couldn’t get a job at large corporations because of her race.

As a result, Stewart-Cousins saw few role models for people like her. So she limited her career aspirations to what she saw other women of color doing. When she found herself a single mom, at 19, she took a job at the New York Telephone Company, where she would meet her husband of 28 years, the late Thomas Cousins.

“But I always loved words,” she says. “I really wanted to be a journalist.”

When the telephone company broke up, Stewart-Cousins enrolled in the journalism program at Pace University. It was there that a routine class assignment gave her a first look at politics. Geraldine Ferraro, the first woman nominated as vice president for a major political party, was in New York for Election Night 1984, and Pace Professor Dennis Hurley sent Stewart-Cousins to cover the story for the election edition of the Pace newspaper.

“There I was, among all these national reporters,” she says. “Ferraro lost, but it was an incredible experience. At the time, I was just doing my assignment for class and I really wasn’t into politics. But it might have planted the seed. It’s imprinted indelibly when I recount my story.”

Stewart-Cousins was not a traditional student. While she was completing her class assignment on that election night, her family, now with three children, was back at home. The majority of her college education was completed as an adult and as a working parent—and she found that Pace was the perfect school for supporting and educating students like her.

Stewart-Cousins went on to apply for an internship at a weekly paper and then worked for a daily newspaper. She still had not caught the politics bug, but then, in 1991, a friend asked for help campaigning for city council in Yonkers. After her friend was elected, she recommended Stewart- Cousins to the city’s mayor, who asked her to come aboard as Yonkers’ first African-American director of community affairs. Stewart-Cousins hadn’t ever

In 1995, Stewart-Cousins won a seat on the Westchester County Board of Legislators, where she served for 10 years and helped create and pass landmark legislation including the county’s first human rights laws. She first ran for State Senate in 2004, losing by just 18 votes, but captured the seat two years later. She was elected by her colleagues to serve as leader of the Senate Democratic Conference in December 2012, becoming the first woman to lead a legislative conference in New York State history. And while her three children were able to watch their mother go back to school to earn a degree in the 1980s, now her four grandchildren are watching their grandmother make history.

“I’m able to bring a perspective in my role as majority leader that has not been here before,” she says. “I bring my life experience.”

That experience includes a history of having to fight for what was fair. As a young mother, she protested changes to daycare subsidies that would have left her unable to work and feed her son had she not had help from her mother. And when she worked for the telephone company, a class-action lawsuit allowed her and other women of color to move from their jobs as operators into sales and marketing positions. “By the time I got into government, I had seen enough of what government could do to create barriers. But I also realized that same government could remove those barriers and create opportunities,” Stewart-Cousins says. “So I decided I was going to be on the ‘create opportunity’ side. Dealing with injustice and discrimination and removing barriers so people can fulfill their potential is extremely important to me. That’s why I do this. You can change people’s lives for the better.”

How did she manage that through this past winter’s historic legislation? Stewart-Cousins credits her staff and colleagues. But those same people credit her communication skills and ability to listen. In 2017, for instance, she prevented several Democratic senators from defecting to a rogue group, the Independent Democratic Conference (which eventually disbanded), simply by speaking with them one-on-one, behind the scenes.

“Majority Leader Stewart-Cousins is a great consensus builder,” says State Senator Shelley Mayer (D-Westchester). “She has a special ability to diffuse conflict through her empathy and understanding. The majority conference is composed of state senators representing, at times, very different districts. Her authority is reinforced through her ability to make each conference member feel heard and their perspective understood as we work to find common ground.”

A sense of humor also helps. When she opened a news conference in January, Stewart-Cousins issued a plea for Republicans to take up the Democrats’ bills—much as she often did when her party was in the minority.

“I’m just kidding,” she said a beat later, with a beaming smile.

Stewart-Cousins has come a long way from the shy kid with asthma who was scared of big crowds. “It’s important that people understand that, whoever you are, at some point, you can change,” she says. You can continue to grow. Even if you’re painfully shy as a teenager. I got out of that, and here I am now. Education should be perpetual. You should be working on yourself all the time, and you should take advantage of opportunities to see yourself grow. And that’s what happened to me.”

But Stewart-Cousins isn’t the only one who’s changed. The swift passage of significant legislation earlier this year represents a shift in New York’s government.

“We’ve never seen a time like this,” Stewart-Cousins told a New York radio program back in January. Her conference has an unprecedented number of new members (15) and more women than have ever served in the chamber (14). The conference also welcomed their first Salvadoran, Iranian, South Asian, Chinese American, Colombian, Costa Rican, and Muslim senators.

“The amount of diversity within our conference is incredibly reflective of New York,” Stewart-Cousins says. “By virtue of the fact that we walked into this session this strong, this diverse, and started doing the things New Yorkers wanted within the first few days—well, if people don’t believe that this is change, they’re just not looking.”

Kelley Freund is a freelance writer based in Virginia.