Opinion

New York state Senate Democrats need new leadership

Kevin P. Coughlin/Office of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo

If New York state Senate Democrats want to start getting serious about taking back control of the chamber, it is imperative that Andrea Stewart-Cousins step down as leader of the conference before the Legislature convenes in January.

Stewart-Cousins herself provided the reason why in a statement released this week following her re-election – a clueless missive that proves how blithely unaware she is that that “leader” isn’t a passive noun – it’s an active verb.

“With Donald Trump’s election, the need for a strong Senate Democratic Conference which works to protect New Yorkers’ rights and values has never been more vital,” Stewart-Cousins said. “That is why we need all Democrats in the state Senate to work together.”

I grew up in the state Legislature where I started working when I was 16 years old. While he was teaching me to fish, I asked a widely respected former deputy minority leader why he wasn’t running for the top spot after a former leader resigned. He told me, “What’s the point of being minority leader?”

It’s a question that Stewart-Cousins should be asking herself. During two terms as conference leader, Stewart-Cousins, who represents Yonkers, has failed to unite her conference nor has she worked to elect enough new Democrats to the Senate – a huge reason why the Democrats have failed to retake the majority in a state where the party has a 2-to-1 registration advantage.

A third term likely won’t be the charm for Stewart-Cousins, and if the latest news reports about her lack of engagement are true, the woman does not have the ability to broker an agreement to put her conference back in power.

A spokesperson for Bronx Democratic state Sen. Jeff Klein, who leads the Independent Democratic Conference that has been caucusing with Republicans since 2012 and just picked up two new members in recently elected Marisol Alcantara and Brooklyn state Sen. Jesse Hamilton, said this week that he hasn’t heard from Stewart-Cousins for a month 

That’s mind-boggling, especially when you consider that Stewart-Cousins’ district in Yonkers shares a boundary with Klein’s district in the Bronx and lower Westchester. If she was serious about having a Democratic majority in the state Senate, Stewart-Cousins could have walked from her home over to Klein’s with bagels the morning after the election. Over coffee, they could have commiserated over Hillary Clinton’s loss and what it meant for New Yorkers. 

With her foot in the door, Stewart-Cousins could have opened negotiations with Klein on what a Senate majority would look like. And if she really had, she could have kept negotiations going in one of those 24-hour meeting places we have scattered around New York City where political deals are historically worked out: diners.

Instead, there has been 30 days, and counting, of silence from Stewart-Cousins, which means that she didn’t even have the social grace to call Klein and wish him a happy Thanksgiving.

I’m curious what adviser suggested to Stewart-Cousins that giving Klein the cold shoulder was going to win them over? Or did she just lose his cell phone number? 

I doubt that Senate Republican Majority Leader John Flanagan of Long Island lets a single day go by without checking in with Klein to make sure that the man critical to his controlling the Senate majority needs anything. I’m sure Klein is on Flanagan’s speed dial.

That’s called politics. And if Stewart-Cousins can’t manage that with her next-door neighbor, I can’t imagine she’s been trying much harder swaying Democrat Simcha Felder of Brooklyn, who votes with the Republicans, back to her side.

Stewart-Cousins could take a lesson from Gov. Andrew Cuomo. He lived on the telephone even before mobile phones were ubiquitous. Cuomo calls to joke and tease, or just to check in, but he is always building bridges.

Stewart-Cousins did meet with the governor this week. She said it was a “good” meeting – yet nothing came of it. That does not build a lot of confidence in someone who aspires to be one of the three people in the room negotiating the state budget. 

The problem is not just Stewart-Cousins. Her re-election as leader means that talented members of the Democratic conference have all but given up taking the majority – content with a status quo that has delivered on very little of their policy agenda beyond what Cuomo deems important.

Unfortunately, if Flanagan is re-elected majority leader when the Senate convenes in January there is nothing in the rules that would allow for another vote even if the Democrats finally get their act together.

Klein has proven to be a deft politician. He convinced his Republican partners to vote for raising the minimum wage and gun control legislation. I’m sure that as Senate majority leader he would give Stewart-Cousins some kind of appointment to help her save face if she were willing to step down so that New York could prepare for the storm that is coming.

Eddie Borges is a visiting fellow at Metropolitan College of New York.

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