New York State

What the 2021 class of state lawmakers is bringing to Albany

They are making the state Legislature more diverse than ever.

State Sen. Samra Brouk and State Sen. Jeremy Cooney.

State Sen. Samra Brouk and State Sen. Jeremy Cooney. John Schila

Democrats can claim many firsts among the newly elected members of the state Legislature. Jabari Brisport of Brooklyn is the first openly gay Black man elected to the state Senate. Zohran Mamdani and Jenifer Rajkumar, both of Queens, are the first South Asian Americans elected to the Assembly. Fellow freshman Khaleel Anderson of Queens, 24, is the first member of Generation Z to serve in either chamber.

Two other Democratic firsts also loom large following the 2020 elections. State Sen. Samra Brouk of Rochester, who now holds the seat vacated by retiring GOP state Sen. Rich Funke, is the first Black female state senator elected upstate. Voters in an adjoining district chose state Sen. Jeremy Cooney, who now holds the seat formerly occupied by retiring GOP state Sen. Joseph Robach, as the first Asian American state senator from north of New York City. 

Brouk and Cooney represent progressives’ new dominance in some areas of the state that historically sent Republican white men to Albany.

These newly elected legislators are part of the supermajorities – now in both chambers, with Democratic pickups in the state Senate – that could allow Democratic legislative leaders to override gubernatorial vetoes in the future. Women and people of color now make up a one-person majority in the 63-member state Senate and exactly half of the 150 members of the Assembly – a notable change from recent years when white men made up clear majorities of both chambers.

A City & State questionnaire sent to all 44 new members of the state Legislature offers some insight into who comprises the new class of state lawmakers at a time when the state has been ravaged by a deadly pandemic and its economic effects. They each bring qualities and experiences that add something to the legislative mix.

The legislative lineups highlight the demographic differences between the two parties. All of the Black, Latino and Asian American state senators are part of the 43-member state Senate Democratic majority. All of the Assembly members of color are also Democrats, while the all-white 43-member Republican delegation reflects the predominantly white rural and suburban parts of the state from which they mostly come. Losing five upstate Senate seats to the Democrats in 2020 leaves the GOP with fewer suburban and urban areas of the state to represent a little more than two years after the Democrats won the chamber for the first time in a decade.

The new members vary in political experience. Some among them, like newly elected state Sens. Sean Ryan of Buffalo and Dan Stec of the North Country, have previously served in the Assembly. Others previously worked as staffers to elected officials. Assembly Member Sarah Clark of Rochester has worked for U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand and Elijah Reichlin-Melnick of Rockland County most recently served as a staffer to state Sen. James Skoufis, who represents an adjacent district in the Hudson Valley. Republican Assembly Member Michael Lawler of Rockland County has served as a deputy town supervisor. His new Democratic colleague, Kenny Burgos of the Bronx, was the budget director for the New York City Council.

The legislative process often reflects the policy expertise that legislators bring from their past careers. Incoming legislators include attorneys, military veterans, entrepreneurs, nonprofit executives, public school teachers, activists and former law enforcement officers, including some pretty unique combinations of professional and personal experiences among their ranks. Republican Assembly Member Joe Angelino of Central New York is a former police chief, fire chief and U.S. Marine, all in one. His new Assembly minority colleague Jeff Gallahan of the Finger Lakes once worked as a trained machinist. The new Democrats across the aisle include the Ugandan-born Mamdani, whose résumé includes stints as a foreclosure prevention counselor and as a hip-hop performer named Mr. Cardamom. Republican state Sen. Peter Oberacker of Central New York – a businessman and former town board member who learned charcuterie from his German-born father – is likely the first modern-day legislator with firsthand knowledge of how sausage is literally made.

New members also come from across the political spectrum. This includes a half-dozen new members of the Assembly who want to push the chamber further to the left than the liberal white men they beat during the Democratic primaries. Jessica González-Rojas of Queens and Emily Gallagher of Brooklyn are two examples of left-leaning first-term legislators who support raising taxes on the wealthy over the objections of the governor. Some swing-district Democrats who flipped historically Republican seats in 2018 and 2020, however, are urging a much more conservative approach to plugging the multibillion-dollar budget hole facing the state.

The new Democratic supermajorities guarantee that Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie and state Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins (the first Black man and Black woman to lead their respective chambers) will be calling the shots in the state Legislature this year, but they will be challenged by their own intraparty divisions: Moderates from the New York City suburbs and parts of the outer boroughs now have to contend with an increasing number of democratic socialists and other left-wing lawmakers. New members from upstate also add a new geographic dimension to the tension between New York City and suburban Democrats in the state Senate.

A multibillion-dollar deficit, a deadly pandemic and a three-term governor pushing his own vision for the state will challenge the majority conferences in the coming months. While it remains to be seen how the new state lawmakers will respond legislatively to these dynamics, the 2020 elections suggest a variety of new voices will try to be heard. And they all have the same amount of time to show their constituents what they can do in office before the campaigning begins anew in 2022. That will give Democrats like Brouk plenty of time to prove what a difference they can make in the halls of state power. “I am focused on ensuring that all voices are heard and represented,” Brouk told City & State of her top priority in office. “That means consistently reaching out and building trust across the vast district, in urban, suburban and rural communities.”