New York State

The demise of ‘three men in a room’

These days, Andrea Stewart-Cousins says everyone gets a seat at the table.

Andrea Stewart-Cousins

Andrea Stewart-Cousins Kevin P. Coughlin/Office of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo

One of Albany’s most infamous traditions is the “three men in a room.” As the legislative session draws to an end, the governor, the state Senate majority leader and the Assembly speaker sit down behind closed doors, away from the rank-and-file legislators, and hash out exactly how the session is going to end – which bills get passed, and which get thrown away with yesterday’s trash.

But this year, things were different. With Andrea Stewart-Cousins as Senate majority leader, not only was one of the three “men” a woman, but – as Stewart-Cousins insists in the following interview – there wasn’t much of a “room” to speak of at all.

What’s your leadership doctrine, so to speak?

I’ve only had one other Democratic majority leader, and that was Malcolm Smith, so I don’t compare my style to his style or anyone else’s style. I have an incredible group of people and I try to figure out what’s important to them. The way we work is by working on policy together. There is not some big confusion about what we’re doing and what we’re not doing. Everybody sits at the table.

How did a freshman senator get to take a leading role on rent reforms?

This was such a big issue for state Sen. Zellnor Myrie and his family. This is what he came to Albany to do – to make sure that people had an opportunity to stay in their apartments. That is why I was so happy, along with state Sen. Brian Kavanagh, to ask Myrie to co-chair the housing working group because I knew how important it was. He was thrilled and he told me that he would not let me down. Sen. Kavanagh and Sen. Myrie – and all the senators in this group – really worked hard, hearing everyone, doing hearings, having everybody involved, so that by the time we said that we were ready to go with a legislative package, we were ready to go with the package.

Did you, Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie meet privately that much this past session?

There weren’t that many of those meetings in general – take the budget as an example. The governor puts out his budget and the commentary about his budget comes in the form of our one-house bill. There were things that everybody agreed on and then there were things that were tweakable. There’s a level of staff that talks about things where we’re close to an agreement. Then there’s the secretary level, where my chief of staff, the speaker’s chief of staff and the secretary to the governor get together. By the time it gets to the room, quote-unquote, it’s probably gone through several layers and it’s at this point where there has to be a real conversation about whether or not a proposal can move forward.

Would you say it was less than 10 times you met privately with the speaker and governor?

Just three people? Yes.

So what’s it like to be the first woman “in the room?”

I’d never been in the room, so I don’t know if it’s different, but I think that the fact that I’m in the room changes a lot of dynamics over the room. (Laughs.) I think I’ve been pretty clear about what happens prior to the room. I don’t remember anyone before actually talking about that. People were very happy with the mystique of this room.