Every vote counts—but some count more than others.
Some lawmakers know firsthand the rigors of a protracted recount that comes down to a handful of ballots and a little luck.
That very experience taught the state Senate Democrats’ new minority leader, Andrea Stewart-Cousins, to value every vote—and each and every member of her conference. So it was with great anticipation and relief that, on a subfreezing afternoon in Albany, Stewart-Cousins and her colleagues welcomed their conference’s 27th and final member, Cecilia Tkaczyk, who after a harrowing three-month-long recount had finally prevailed.
One by one Democratic senators sauntered into the chamber, chatting with one another or checking their phones before the session began. A cozy group, they clustered around one another’s desks to catch up on gossip or make plans for dinner. Across the chamber, where a governing majority of Republicans and breakaway Democrats sits, the room was largely empty.
Stewart-Cousins entered the Senate just before 3 p.m., her eyes darting around the room to see whom she could greet. She wore a slate gray wool dress accented with pearls and a dark leopard print silk scarf that snaked around her shoulders like a Hudson River tributary.
Tkaczyk sat patiently in the Senate sergeant at arms’ office, located in an alcove to the side of the chamber, as her colleagues awaited her official swearing-in. Only the day before, election workers had opened the final batch of 99 outstanding ballots, which would secure Tkaczyk an 18-vote victory over her Republican challenger, George Amedore.
When Tkaczyk finally stepped onto the floor and took the oath of office, her colleagues rose and applauded. Stewart-Cousins stood behind them smiling, then stepped aside as a cadre of photographers swarmed Tkaczyk and her family, capturing their triumphant moment.
As her son squinted at the flashes, Tkaczyk excused herself, saying, “I have to go find my seat.”
Stewart-Cousins marveled at the long-awaited addition of another member to her conference.
“Eighteen votes is poetic justice,” she said. “I’ve been on the other side of those 18.”
* * *
Stewart-Cousins’ offices are immaculate. Her district office in Yonkers contains only a few mementos from her days as a county legislator in Westchester and early campaigns for state Senate.
Her two Albany offices—one a snug hideaway on the third floor of the State Capitol, the other a spacious corner office on the ninth floor of the Legislative Office Building—have desks, leather couches for lounging and soft, pale gray carpeting.
She prefers her ninth floor office to the one in the Capitol.
“I think this is a little more comfortable,” she said. “I want people to feel comfortable when they come and speak with me. And the members are here. It’s convenient for them.”
Stewart-Cousins’ fellow conference members feel comfortable with her too, praising her personality and vaunting the historic nature of her position.
“She’s the first woman to ever lead a legislative conference in New York State history. That’s a big deal,” said state Sen. Mike Gianaris, the Democrats’ second-in-command. “She brings a very dignified presence to the conference. Her instincts are very good, and she’s a unifier. The conference is very much unified behind her.”
Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who had campaigned with Stewart-Cousins before he was elected attorney general and governor, called her a “very competent, able person” and said it is “exciting” that Democrats have picked the first female leader in state history.
Even her colleagues on the other side of the chamber praised the Democrats’ selection of their conference leader—something they haven’t always done.
“Andrea Stewart-Cousins is universally liked and respected by her Senate colleagues,” Senate Republican leader Dean Skelos said in an email. “She was an outstanding choice to lead the Democratic conference, and she seems to be adjusting very well to her new role. Andrea knows that my door is always open to her, and I will continue to work hard to ensure she has a voice in the important work we’re doing in the state Senate.”
Democratic state Sen. Liz Krueger, thinks Stewart-Cousins’ selection may someday spur change through the entire Legislature.
“I hope it’s going to spark a culture shift in the Capitol, which is still very much a boys’ club,” Krueger said. “She’s also the first Democratic conference leader in about a century whose district lies entirely outside the New York City limits—and that, I think, also reflects where our conference is going.”
It took 20 years for Stewart-Cousins to get there.
She was born and raised in New York, attended Pace University and earned a teaching certificate in business education from Lehman College. But in 1992 she veered into government service when she took a job as director of community affairs for the City of Yonkers, where she created art walks and a citywide celebration known as “Riverfest.”
Three years later she made her first bid for elected office, taking on a powerful county Democrat in a primary. Much to the surprise of local politicos, she won, earning a seat in the county Legislature.
Stewart-Cousins’ fellow senator, freshman George Latimer, who was then the newly elected minority leader of the county Legislature, took notice.
“It was a big victory. It sent earthquake tremors,” he said. “She knocked off a guy with substantial power. She’s a very bright woman, articulate, with a winning personality. The things you see today were there.”
Stewart-Cousins served in the county Legislature for a decade, creating a human rights commission with subpoena power that still exists today, helping to revitalize the Yonkers waterfront and presiding over contentious hearings on equal rights and on gun control.
Sensing an opportunity to bring her expertise to Albany, in 2004 she challenged state Sen. Nick Spano, who occupied a relatively safe Republican seat.
The campaign was grueling, and the three-month recount process was even worse.
Stewart-Cousins lost the election by a mere 18 votes—remarkably, the very same margin that decided the Tkaczyk race—after Republican lawyers challenged scores of absentee and affidavit ballots.
Then U.S. Senator Hillary Clinton, who lived in Stewart-Cousins’ district and was a key early supporter, comforted her during the loss.
A framed photo in Stewart-Cousins’ Yonkers office with Clinton immediately following that election preserves for posterity that significant juncture in her life. “What she was saying to me there was, ‘I’m so proud of you,’ ” said Stewart-Cousins. “I really couldn’t believe she was saying that. I told her I’m so proud of her. It was a shared moment.”
Stewart-Cousins’ supporters, who included state Sen. Gustavo Rivera, her deputy field director at the time, were “deeply disappointed.” He called the race a “formative” experience.
“One thing I learned [from] the race was to make sure that you don’t make a fool of yourself,” he said. “She could have been crestfallen, angry, and she wasn’t. She was the way she usually is. She said, ‘We did everything we needed to do, and we’re just going to have to get back and do it in two years, and I need your help again.’ We knew we were turning the corner.”
Two years later Stewart-Cousins defeated Spano and was on her way to the state Legislature. Spano would later be indicted on tax charges.
Latimer called Stewart-Cousins’ first campaign against Spano “inconceivable” and her second, one of the five biggest upset victories he has ever seen in politics.
“This woman ran close against an iconic figure in a district that was not majority black,” he said. “I don’t know how many of my colleagues could do that. These are tough races. They smack you around pretty good, and you get outspent. She had the intestinal fortitude [to] lose by a fingertip of a vote and still have [the] tenacity to try it again.”
* * *
A black mug inscribed with the words “Where Life Takes You” sits on Stewart-Cousins’ Yonkers desk, not far from the photo of her with Hillary Clinton. Although the catchphrase comes from a large Yonkers development project’s opening, Stewart-Cousins has adopted it as her personal motto.
“I like the slogan, because who knows where life takes you?” she said. “My career has certainly been unexpected and unpredictable.”
Stewart-Cousins joined the state Senate in 2007. In the next election cycle Democrats swept into power for the first time in more than 40 years, but their majority was short-lived. A coup by a group of Democrats disrupted Albany during the summer of 2009, temporarily giving power to the Republicans.
As a result of the fray, then Senate Majority Leader Malcolm Smith lost his title and much of his power to former state Sen. Pedro Espada and state Sen. John Sampson, who became Democratic conference leader.
Though the majority swung back to Democrats when the coup was resolved, Republicans retook control of the Senate in 2011. In the aftermath Sampson volunteered for the thankless job of Senate minority leader.
After Democrats won more seats than the GOP in 2012, Sampson had hoped to retain his leadership post, but the party’s numbers did not translate into a majority because Republicans allied themselves with a breakaway group of independent Democrats to retain control.
Sampson bore the brunt of the failure.
“We had two years of experience under John to see how he could negotiate with the Independent Democrats, and it didn’t get us to [a] majority,” said state Sen. Kevin Parker, who ended up abstaining from the vote. “People felt like we needed to do something different. The definition of insanity was to do the same thing over and expect a different result. It almost seemed pointless to go in the same direction.”
Sampson privately told members after the election that he was unsure about staying on as conference leader. He would later put his name forward, but his ambivalence prompted members to contemplate yet another transition.
In early December Democrats began floating the names of their colleagues in private conversations over the phone and in one-on-one meetings. Along with Stewart-Cousins, senators discussed Ruth Hassell-Thompson, Eric Adams, Adriano Espaillat, Parker, Bill Perkins and Gianaris as possibilities.
Several senators specified key qualities and preferences they wanted in a leader, as if they were honing in on a desirable online dating profile. Their new leader must have integrity, be well-respected, preferably a woman from outside of New York City and someone who wasn’t actively running for another office in her home district.
Stewart-Cousins said she had not thought about pursuing the role of leader, but senators called her and asked her to consider it.
“Frankly, I was not seeking the position,” she said. “During the weeks running up to the election, I had several members call, saying they didn’t want to commit to anybody before they knew what I was doing. I heard that over and over again.”
Gianaris, who had been the architect of a successful election cycle as the head of the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee, thought about vying for the position but quickly decided against it. Telling colleagues that his strengths lay elsewhere, he threw his support to Stewart-Cousins.
“It was clear to me that Andrea Stewart-Cousins was the best choice to move our conference forward in a unified fashion,” he said. Some senators mentioned that Gianaris would make a great deputy, but he insists there was no talk of a Stewart-Cousins-Gianaris ticket. “She made her choices as she saw fit, after I was supportive. It was not something the two of us had agreed upon ahead of time.”
Sampson privately told his colleagues he would seek another term, but the conference began to coalesce around Stewart-Cousins.
“It was a cross section of people,” she said. “My name had been popping up for a while, but toward the vote it gained momentum. When people started seriously asking them to support them, a lot of people being asked would circle back to me.”
Stewart-Cousins had several key allies throughout the caucus, including newer members Rivera and Latimer and more senior members Gianaris and Krueger, who pushed her to run.
“I certainly had spoken with her many times, encouraging her, asking, ‘Is this something you want to do?’ ” Rivera said. “I am certainly glad that she decided to do it.”
Stewart-Cousins, Sampson and Hassell-Thompson were among those interested in the position. But some senators suggested Hassell-Thompson’s behavior as conference chair in the past session disqualified her.
“Sen. Hassell-Thompson’s heavy-handedness, her rudeness and her lack of respect for her colleagues while leading the conference was one of Sen. Sampson’s biggest mistakes,” state Sen. Rubén Díaz Sr. wrote in his “What You Should Know” column in December after the leadership vote. “By sitting idle and letting Sen. Hassell-Thompson do as she pleased, he angered many who, little by little, started to show their frustration and began to organize against Sen. Sampson.”
Unable to gain momentum, Hassell-Thompson, who declined to comment for this article, ultimately threw her support behind Sampson.
Many senators said they wanted to change the way their conference negotiated with Republicans and the governor, and how Senate Democrats were perceived across the state.
“Members were frustrated that even if we didn’t get into [the] majority, the perception was ‘Democrats, they can’t govern. They’re a bunch of misfits who can’t stay out of trouble,’ ” state Sen. José Peralta said. “That isn’t who we are. We shouldn’t be all painted with [the] same brush.”
“It was more of an image issue,” he added. “Who can help us lift this image, erase this image of what we have today? Andrea fit the bill nicely. She represents her constituency well. She’s part of a growing, emerging demographic in the state, and when you add a little bit of icing on cake, we could make some history. Why not support the first woman leader?”
State Sen. Joe Addabbo cited Stewart-Cousins’ “professionalism” and the likelihood that she could improve relations with Jeff Klein’s Independent Democratic Conference. “When she speaks, she speaks credibly, not just to hear herself, and she has something substantive to say,” Addabbo said. “Leadership was always going to plague our conference no matter what issue we would talk about. The issue was raised whether we would be better off negotiating with the Independent Democratic Conference if we did not change leadership.”
The minority leader campaign picked up in mid-December, about a week before Democrats would meet to choose their leader. Stewart-Cousins only needed 14 votes to win the post. When Democrats met in downtown Manhattan on Dec. 18, she received 20.
Multiple sources said that Sampson was surprised by the results. He did not return several calls for comment.
Most Democrats praised Sampson for his service to the party during a volatile period in state history and insisted that the conference just needed a change. “John [Sampson] held us together under the most difficult circumstances a Senate minority leader has ever faced, and helped us weather some real storms, but our conference has changed substantially in the three years since he took the reins, and leadership changes happen,” Krueger said. “I think Andrea’s election simply reflects an emerging consensus among most of our members on where we are and where we’re going.”
Privately, some members expressed reservations over a number of unresolved scandals, including a federal probe into Sampson’s involvement with the selection process of the Aqueduct racino in Queens. But others said that Aqueduct never came up during discussions.
“John is very well-regarded. That’s what made this a difficult thing to do,” Gianaris said. “It wasn’t about John Sampson. It was a need to make a statement that our conference is moving in a different direction.”
* * *
Stewart-Cousins has spent a little over a month in her new post, and the beginning of session has been unusually busy.
She has emerged as a key partner for the governor on progressive issues. Cuomo made passing the Women’s Equality Act, which she championed six years ago, a prominent goal in his State of the State address. And Stewart-Cousins introduced the governor during the bill signing ceremony for the strictest gun control legislation in the country.
“I think that the governor clearly has an agenda, and our conference has an agenda, and this session [they] seem to be complementary,” she said. “I don’t think anybody has come here to have their voices muted. There’s a desire to have voices at the table. There’s been a clear difference in terms of my presence, the fact that at this point I am a visible partner.”
Her colleagues in the conference agree.
“It’s a huge error to mistake her elegant presentation for anything other than a really strong spine,” state Sen. Daniel Squadron said. “She’s been setting the tone this year on the gun bill. She was able to make a big difference for the conference. She’s been doing a really good job getting the conference engaged and unified. Her tone has been respectful and very clear, and she has a vision for where the conference should go.”
Peralta says Stewart-Cousins is a “breath of fresh air” and is more engaged with members than Sampson was. “Where John may have approached members from time to time, she asks on a day-to-day basis, ‘What’s happening? Is everything well with you? Do you have any concerns? What issues are bothering you? What issues do you want to push?’” he said. “She is more hands-on than John was. That’s not knocking John. There are different styles to how he ran the conference and how Andrea runs the conference. Because she’s more hands-on, things don’t fall through the cracks.”
But some members who supported Sampson appear disengaged from the new leadership.
Sampson himself regularly attends conference meetings but spends much of his time in the Capitol during session talking on a rotary phone just outside the Senate floor instead of socializing with members. Díaz said that Sampson’s outspoken views sometimes make him a maverick. Several senators privately mention that he has long been a loner.
Espaillat remains interested in a congressional seat after nearly defeating Rep. Charles Rangel last year, and Adams is actively running for Brooklyn borough president. Adams also raised eyebrows among fellow Democrats when he took a committee chairmanship that Skelos and Klein offered.
What kind of influence Stewart-Cousins will have when the Legislature tackles the budget and progressive issues on the governor’s agenda, including a minimum wage increase and campaign finance reform, is an open question.
“You have to have a leader who represents all the Democrats, and it remains to be seen whether she will be able to run the conference,” said state Sen. Diane Savino, one of five members of the Independent Democratic Conference. “How do you hold all your members in one direction? That was always the problem.”
Democrats are aware of the challenges they face while they are in the minority this session.
“You want someone to be a vigorous leader,” Latimer said. “I know she can do that, and she’s capable of doing it. But she has to prove it to 200-plus other legislators. This is not a business for the weak of heart. The Republican majority has been there a long time. They’re very well-schooled. They know how to debate. They know nooks and crannies of the budget. Klein is a very smart, very shrewd guy. You don’t put a pretty face in front of guys like this. You have to put in somebody [in whom] you have confidence.”
Stewart-Cousins says she is up to the task.
“We’ve been able to have people look at our conference in a different way,” she said. “We’re at a crossroads, and it was important to have a conversation on policy on trying to serve the people of New York. And I believe that we have been very clear—our first priority is the people who have sent us here. And with every day, we’re here to do the people’s business.”
A previous version of this story said that Andrea Stewart-Cousins first challenged Nick Spano in 2006. She first ran against him in 2004.
Tags: Adriano Espaillat, Andrea Stewart-Cousins, Andrew Cuomo, Bill Perkins, Cecilia Tkaczyk, Charles Rangel, Dean Skelos, Democrat, Democratic Senate Campaign Committee, eric adams, George Latimer, Gustavo Rivera, Hillary Clinton, Independent Democratic Conference, Jeff Klein, Joe Addabbo, John Sampson, José Peralta, Kevin Parker, Legislature, Liz Krueger, Malcolm Smith, Michael Gianaris, Nick Spano, Pedro Espada, recount, Republican, ruben diaz sr, Ruth Hassell-Thompson, Senate