The New York State legislative session began with ceremonies and excitement as Democrats claimed their solid majority in the State Senate, and made history with the election of new female leader. They promised to act quickly on a long list of progressive issues, including strengthening abortion rights and expanding voter access.
New York’s Lieutenant Governor Kathy Hochul, in her role as Senate President, was the first to introduce new Senate Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, in her groundbreaking role as the first woman and African American woman leader of the state Senate in the body’s 241 years.
“I’ve been waiting to say these words: 'Majority Leader, Andrea Stewart-Cousins,'” Hochul said, as the packed chamber stood to applaud.
Stewart-Cousins thanked her family, senate colleagues and god above for what she said was an “incredible” moment. And she told the packed chamber that if the Democrats do things right, she won’t be the last woman to lead the Senate.
“We are going to break down some more barriers,” Stewart-Cousins said.
Stewart-Cousins pledged to act quickly to hold anti sexual harassment hearings, strengthening rights for transgender New Yorkers, and making it easier to vote.
“We’re going to implement early voting,” Stewart-Cousins said. “We are finally going to give New Yorkers an honest, functional ethical government that they deserve.”
17 new Senators were also sworn in to office Wednesday, by the state’s chief Judge, Janet DiFiore. They were surrounded by family and friends, as a festive air took over the Senate chamber.
Senator Liz Krueger, an advocate for progressive issues who is beginning her ninth term in office, is encouraged by the changes.
“There’s just this level of excitement,” Krueger said. “There’s also a level seriousness about what this responsibility is.”
“I’ve never quite had that feeling the other 16 years I’ve been here in Albany,” Kruger continued.
Senator Krueger says Senate Democrats plan to move fast, and will likely approve a measure to codify the abortion rights in the 1973 U.S. Supreme Court decision Roe v Wade into law on January 22, the anniversary of the landmark ruling.
Not everyone is thrilled, though, with the new direction of the state government.
Members of New York State’s Right to Life Party picketed outside the chamber against the bill, known as the Reproductive Health Act. Holly Delevan, with the group’s Syracuse chapter, is against amending the state’s later term abortion laws to allow the procedure to protect the health of the mother.
“They are going to abuse it, because they are going to interpret health as how they ‘feel’ about it,” Delavan said. “There’s always adoption."
Supporters deny that the provisions would be abused.
Republicans, who are now in the minority in the chamber and have their lowest number of members in decades, are also discontent. They held a news conference to complain about new rules enacted by the Senate Democrats that they say will limit Republican’s participation on committees. Deputy Minority Leader Joe Griffo says his party will now play the role of loyal opposition, advocating for issues that he says the Democrats might neglect, including holding the line on spending and taxes.
“We’re going to present our vision for New York, and we’re going to express our concerns, and outline where we disagree,” Griffo said. “Philosophically, politically and on policy.”
Meanwhile, in the Assembly, Democrats also began the year by making history, electing Crystal Peoples- Stokes as the first woman and African American woman to serve as Majority Leader.
Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie attended the swearing in ceremony of Senator Stewart-Cousins. Both are originally from the Bronx.
Governor Cuomo was not at the capitol to witness the historic events. Wednesday was the day set aside under the state’s constitution for a governor to give the annual State of the State message. But Cuomo has opted to deliver his address later in the month.
Cuomo did hold a reception at the mansion for Stewart-Cousins and other members of the legislature, where he said he intended to present her with a ceremonial gavel.
“I’m very excited about it,” said Cuomo. “I think she has the sophistication and the touch to do that job, which is a very, very difficult leadership position.”
Cuomo compared the historic developments in Albany to events in Washington, where government is gridlocked and enduring a partial government shutdown.
“What a beautiful juxtaposition, New York versus the nation,” said Cuomo.