With the rise of female lawmakers of color in Albany, will "three men in a room" soon be over?

Judy Sanders - Office of the Governor

It’s long been a staple of how Albany operates: A few men gather behind closed doors to decide all the major legislative and budgetary decisions each year. Even in a reliably blue state like New York, there has never been a female governor or leader of a majority conference, leaving women out of those discussions. And for decades, the “three men in the room” were all white – although former Gov. David Paterson and current Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie did make history as the first African-Americans in each role.

While women of color have yet to break through, they’ve gotten closer in recent years as their ranks have grown. Many of them say they first got into politics to give a voice to the voiceless. And these lawmakers have banded together to support each other, creating the Women of Color Subcommittee of the New York State Black, Puerto Rican, Hispanic and Asian Legislative Caucus in 2015.

“We wanted to create a group where us as women can come together collectively where we can discuss issues that impact our districts – specifically women of color – because we represent a voice up there for them,” said Assemblywoman Latoya Joyner, who is the co-chairwoman of the subcommittee along with Assemblywoman Maritza Davila. “At times you may feel like you’re the only one advocating on one topic, but then you realize you have a group of women who feel just as passionately on those topics and so it adds another voice and credibility behind you, which I think is important in politics.”

These women have started to have an impact. One health care advocate said women of color in the Assembly were instrumental in getting the Safe Staffing for Quality Care Act to the floor for a vote last year for the first time. The legislation, which was passed easily in the Assembly, stalled in the state Senate.

“Most women are nurses and that law impacts women. I do believe that helped moving that bill,” Joyner said. “There’s now a segment and a voice of women legislators who are more than willing and able to champion those issues and having someone able to speak from experience is always the best preference.”

Last year, the group went to Rochester to tour each other’s districts and see what issues need to be confronted. They are setting up other visits to see what struggles women upstate face compared to downstate.

While women represent 51 percent of the state’s population, they are still underrepresented in the state Legislature. There are currently 58 female lawmakers in the state Legislature, or 27 percent of the 213 total members of both houses. Since 2012, the number of minority women in the state Senate has increased from three to five. In the Assembly, they have grown from 11 to 21 – with largest increase coming in the past election cycle. In 2014, there were 13 minority women in the Assembly.

Several lawmakers said the threat of President Donald Trump, who was criticized as a sexist and a racist, have prodded more women of color to get involved in politics, building on efforts by organizations such as the National Organization for Women to get more of them to run for office.

“I do think (women of color) have the ability to change the direction that some legislation goes,” Assemblywoman Crystal Peoples-Stokes said. “I think there are more women’s issues being discussed in the Legislature than ever before and not just because of women in color, but women in general.”

Both Peoples-Stokes and Assemblywoman Rodneyse Bichotte also attributed some of the gains for women of color in the Assembly to Heastie. After former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver was arrested on corruption charges and forced to step down, many Assembly members described the conference as more democratic under Heastie’s leadership, allowing younger members like Bichotte to rise more quickly.

“In my first year as a freshman three months in, I was appointed as the chair(woman) of the Oversight of Minority- and Women-Owned Business Enterprises Subcommittee and that hasn’t been done ever,” Bichotte said. “When I first started, I’ll tell you, when I wanted to reach out to speak to the speaker, his chief of staff would say, ‘You don’t need to speak to the speaker, you speak to me.’ I didn’t understand that. I was coming in as a freshman thinking, ‘Oh, we all won.’ I didn’t know there was this hierarchy in which I can’t even speak to my colleague.”

State Senate Democratic Conference Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins is proof of the changes in New York politics – as well as how far women of color still have to go. Not only is she the first female legislative leader in Albany, she’s also the first black woman in such a role as well.

“I think women of color who have certainly been marginalized for so many years, so many generations, are now coming into their own and getting support in places and ways that have never been available before,” Stewart-Cousins said.

But Stewart-Cousins knows all too well that the state Legislature has yet to achieve true equality.

“I think studies have shown that the impact of women can really be felt when there’s at least 30 percent in legislative houses and the reality is, say in the Senate, we’re nowhere near that,” Stewart-Cousins said. “That’s been a really, really hard thing to get to. So, the reality is our voice in terms of really impacting legislation is not where it should be.”

Last June, the Assembly was debating a package of bills, including one that would’ve codified in state law the U.S. Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision. During the debate, Republican Assemblyman Ron Castorina described abortion as “African-American genocide,” prompting a number of Assembly Democrats to walk out of the chamber.

“We all stood up together, because they know how this had affected the chamber. They walked out with us and it was certainly a very camaraderie type of effort to see everyone standing together with us,” Bichotte said. “Because our presence is that big, the effect really touched everybody inside the room and outside the room.”

Stewart-Cousins has also criticized Albany’s tradition of “three men in a room.” While she and Assembly Minority Leader Brian Kolb have lobbied to be included in the discussions, Stewart-Cousins said the lack of women in the room is particularly detrimental to female New Yorkers. Stewart-Cousins’ clout has been further eroded by recent defections from the mainline Democratic conference to the state Senate's Independent Democratic Conference, which is allied with the Republicans.

“All the men are in the room and I think this limits the perspective in terms of the conversation that could be had with a feminine perspective,” she said. “The fact is 51 percent of New Yorkers are women and you have a lack of women in a room in which such huge decisions and huge budget policies (are made).”

While there is more work to be done, these lawmakers say there’s an optimism and hope for change that wasn’t there a few short years ago. Their voice, which was all too often ignored or overlooked, is now growing louder.

“Many times because of the marginalization that has gone on for so long, when we talk about really making a difference and removing barriers, it is generally on such a fundamental level that everybody’s lives are improved,” Stewart-Cousins said. “You can’t underestimate the impact (of) what women of color know and bring to the table in terms of the level of experience, which could generate a very positive effect for society as a whole.”