4 things to know about Crystal Peoples-Stokes

Assemblywoman Crystal Peoples-Stokes
Assemblywoman Crystal Peoples-Stokes
Mike Groll/AP/Shutterstock
Assemblywoman Crystal Peoples-Stokes has been named majority leader of the state Assembly.

4 things to know about Crystal Peoples-Stokes

The incoming Assembly majority leader has to keep Democrats in line.
December 18, 2018

When, in 2019, it comes time for state Assembly Democrats to schedule debates, cast votes and push for their priorities, Buffalo Assemblywoman Crystal Peoples-Stokes will be the person they will need to find. Her Dec. 17 appointment by Speaker Carl Heastie as majority leader places day-to-day operations of the Assembly under her control time when Democrats are planning to do big things in Albany. As a member of the leadership, the legislator will have an outsized voice in her ninth term in shaping legislation and shepherding it through the Assembly while also offering some geographic balance for a Democratic caucus that is overwhelmingly centered downstate.

That is in keeping with the tradition that the majority leader of the Assembly comes from upstate. She succeeds newly-elected Rep. Joe Morelle, a Rochester Democrat who served as majority leader for three terms. However, Peoples-Stokes differs from previous majority leaders in that she is not only African-American, but will be the first woman to serve as majority leader. She will have a leading role in making that happen in the Assembly by keeping Democrats in line. Here are the most important things to know about her biography, record and past political alliances:

She is a leading proponent of marijuana legalization

Peoples-Stokes has pushed for the legalization of recreational cannabis since 2013 when she first introduced the Marihuana Regulation and Taxation Act. That bill – along with a companion bill in the state Senate – would do more than just make it legal to buy, sell and smoke cannabis. It would also recognize how communities of color have been affected by prohibition. “I think that the records should be sealed, upon legalization, of people who have previously been convicted and I also think there should be a significant amount of resources invested in those communities that have been disenfranchised as a result of mass incarceration,” she said in an interview earlier this year. Gov. Andrew Cuomo has now come out in favor of legalization, but he has yet to specify what sort of regulatory scheme he prefers. With Peoples-Stokes now as majority leader, she will have a bigger platform to promote her plan.

Cuomo might owe her some favors

Peoples-Stokes has been a reliable Cuomo ally, in the public eye and behind the scenes. She was the co-chair of his 2014 reelection campaign along with Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr., giving his campaign some needed political cover with minorities. In the past year, she played a vocal role in pushing for a woman to replace disgraced former state Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, who resigned after accusations of sexual misconduct. Peoples-Stokes endorsed Attorney General-elect Letitia James at a time when she was becoming closer to Cuomo politically.

That’s not the only way that Peoples-Stokes helped Cuomo recently. An effort to reform the state procurements process also came to a halt in the Assembly this past year after she refused to move two bills forward in a committee that she chairs. Though she has said the bills needed more work, some observers say she was really just trying to please Cuomo, who garnered some political benefit from the impasse. He was able to blame the Legislature for inaction on procurement reform while retaining control over state contracts despite calls for reform following the Buffalo Billion bid-rigging scandal. It remains to be seen how closely Peoples-Stokes will work with Cuomo moving forward, but it appears that she has earned some good will.

Western New York’s Assembly champion

Now that Democrats are in control of both houses of the state Legislature, Peoples-Stokes importance has skyrocketed in regional politics. She will be the leading state legislator from the area. This will be a big change for a region that usually elects Republicans. It previously had five state senators in the majority, but now its only senator in the majority is Democrat Tim Kennedy. Peoples-Stokes has solid regional credentials. She grew up in a bipartisan household in Buffalo, attended local public schools and got both her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Buffalo State College. She worked briefly as a teacher and then at the Buffalo Urban League and Citizen Action before turning towards politics. As an assemblywoman she has sponsored successful bills that added nurses to public schools, cleaned up a toxic waste site and poured millions into local community development projects.

While concerns still remain about whether the region will get its due under one-party rule in Albany, the selection of Peoples-Stokes as majority leader is assuaging some critics. “To have someone like Crystal, who really gets Buffalo and all of Western New York and upstate,” Dottie Gallagher, president of the Buffalo Niagara Partnership, told The Buffalo News, “Is probably the best leverage we’re going to have to have any upstate influence over Albany. That may be slightly overstating it, but I don’t think so.”

She has been a majority leader before

Peoples-Stokes served from 1993 until 2002 in the Erie County Legislature, serving her final four years as majority leader. Hot issues of that time included how to handle a sluggish economy and county budgets affected by state changes to Medicaid. There was also a changing of the guard going on in New York Democratic circles at the time. A former secretary of the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, Andrew Cuomo, was seeking support in Erie County to run for governor. Peoples-Stokes, meanwhile, was making moves against incumbent Assemblyman Arthur Eve. ''I give him all due respect for his length of service and the sacrifices he has made,'' she told The New York Times during a heated 2000 Democratic primary. ''But that doesn't automatically make him the elected official to stay in power for life. I'm also running because the social agenda of the ‘60's is old and should be over with. We have to focus on economic issues now.'' She fell short of unseating Eve that year, but she would win her first term in the Assembly two years later.

Zach Williams
is a staff reporter at City & State.