Andrea Stewart-Cousins

Stewart-Cousins: Ahem, What About Me? (Updated)

Senate Democratic Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins is (not surprisingly) displeased by the fact that she and her fellow minority leader, Assembly Republican Leader Brian Kolb, are being left out of the backroom budget talks that again include IDC Leader Jeff Klein, even though he no longer has a power-sharing deal with the Senate Republicans.

After the governor revealed at his Red Room cabinet meeting that the four-men-in-a-room budget talks established when the IDC and GOP split control of the chamber would continued, Stewart-Cousins responded by suggesting the time has come to get rid of this secretive negotiation process altogether.

“As we discuss ways to clean up Albany and reform state government, a perfect place to start is the much maligned three/four men in a room​ budgetary process,” Stewart-Cousins said in a statement. “In the past we had been led to believe that membership was based on constitutional roles and not simply the whims of the governor.”

“Since membership has now been expanded, I would hope all legislative conference leaders will be ​included, giving all New Yorkers a voice in the budget. The more diversity and light we can shine on this process the better it is for everyone.”

After the GOP won its slim – but complete – majority in the 2014 elections, Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos and Klein renegotiated the relationship between their two conferences so that it’s something less than their previous status, but something more than the minority-majority relationship between Skelos and Stewart-Cousins.

Cuomo said Klein in being included in this year’s leaders meetings – the first of which is taking place right now – due to his “relationship” with Skelos, and the fact that he can deliver the votes of his five-member conference, which gives the GOP some breathing room in the closely-divided chamber.

The three men in a room process was the subject of some very public criticism by US Attorney Preet Bharara, who mocked the practice in a speech delivered the day after the arrest on corruption charges of former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, and said it is the root of Albany’s many problems.

“I have a little bit of a hard time getting my head around this concept of three men in a room,” Bharara said while speaking at New York Law School. “Maybe it’s just me. I’m an immigrant from India, which is overpopulated, so for me, it’s like a billion men in a room.”

“…Why three men? Can there be a woman? Do they always have to be white? How small is the room that they can only fit three men? Is it three men in a closet? Are there cigars? Can they have Cuban cigars now? After a while, doesn’t it get a little gamey in that room?”

Bharara told The Buffalo News in a subequent interview that he keeps the book “Thee Men in a Room” by former Sen. Seymour Lachman on his desk and has met with the ex-Democratic lawmaker to discuss the frustrations he experienced while serving in Albany.

UPDATE: Stewart-Cousins is getting some backup here from Citizen Action of NY. The organization’s executive director, Karen Scharff, released the following statement:

“It’s hard to understand ​Governor Cuomo’s ​reasons for excluding the only woman legislative leader from a seat at the decision-making table. Leader Stewart-Cousins has been a champion for New York’s working families and ​is the leader of 24 senators while Senator Klein only leads 5. Governor Cuomo should open the process so that the voices of all leaders, and the voters that they represent, can be heard.”

Senate Democrats Release Windfall Proposals

Senate Democrats this week unveiled a package of proposals for spending the state’s $5.1 billion surplus that includes tax relief for the poor, the purchase of body cameras for law enforcement and a $1.1 billion infrastructure program.

“The funds from our state’s current surplus must be directed towards spurring future economic growth across New York State while giving those who work hard a fair shot at improving their standing in life,” Senate Minority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins said in a statement.

The Senate Democrats also want to spend $400 million on a mixed-income housing program and $325 million for construction of new affordable housing.

Additionally, the conference backs using $75 million in tax credits for the New York State Homes & Community Renewal program that would offer additional credit above the current $56 million cap.

For body cameras, the conference would spend $50 million in reimbursements to state and local law enforcement, with $300 million being spent on local infrastructure improvements.

For the Tappan Zee Bridge, $275 million would used to help pay for its replacement as a loan without interest.

“Through smart investments in our hardworking families and local communities we can create greater opportunities for all New Yorkers and build a more enduring, thriving and fair economy,” Stewart-Cousins said. “These surplus funds must be utilized to help low-wage workers, invest in affordable housing, rebuild our state’s infrastructure and prepare for the challenges of the future as these are all common sense ways to grow the economy and ensure New York State thrives in the years ahead. I encourage my colleagues in the Legislature to join with the Senate Democratic Conference to ensure these funds are utilized to lay the foundation for our state’s future economic prosperity.”

New York gained the $5.1 billion through windfall settlements with major financial institutions.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s $142 billion budget would use some of the settlement money to help pay for the Tappan Zee Bridge as well as expand broadband Internet service in urban and rural areas of the state.

Senate Democrats: Pass Ethics Bills Now, Not In Budget (Updated)

Senate Democrats on Monday unveiled a package of ethics reform legislation that would cap outside income, strengthen disclosure requirements and close a loophole in campaign finance laws that guarantees unlimited contributions from limited liability corporations.

The ethics push comes as Gov. Andrew Cuomo has vowed to push his own ethics overhaul legislation in the budget negotiations – even if it means a late spending plan – which would be the first of his tenure as governor.

“I know the governor is frustrated, we’re frustrated,” said Senate Minority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, a Yonkers Democrat. “I think the most important thing is to make sure the people of New York know the people who they sent to work for them, are actually working for them.”

Should lawmakers and the governor fail to agree to ethics legislation, a shutdown of state government could be triggered.

“I’m hoping we don’t have to hold up the budget for it,” Stewart-Cousins said. “Obviously, a lot of work has to be done. We’re hoping to grease the wheel by supporting the fact that ethics is of paramount importance and has to happen.”

The latest iteration of ethics reform comes after Manhattan Democrat Sheldon Silver was arrested last month on corruption charges. Silver was forced to resign as speaker of the Assembly – a post he had held since 1994.

Stewart-Cousins at a Capitol news conference said the bills her conference is proposing should not wait for the budget process to be completed, but instead be taken up now.

“We firmly believe that we need to pass these ethics reforms now,” she said. “We need to pass our bills now. It shouldn’t have to be part of the budget conversation at all, to be quite honest.”

Cuomo has fended off criticism that the Silver arrest shows the shutdown of the anti-corruption Moreland Commission was premature, saying the panel worked the way it should have.

The panel was shuttered after Cuomo struck a deal with the Legislature on new ethics and anti-corruption measures in the state budget last year.

Stewart-Cousins this afternoon said the panel’s closure was beside the point.

“I always say had we as the Legislature taken up that charge when it was clearly before us, there would be no need for a Moreland Commission,” she said.

Updated: Senate Republicans weighed in.

“Rather than issue press releases and grandstand, Senate Republicans are working with the Governor and the Assembly to get real results and real reforms that improve our state’s ethics and disclosure laws,” said Senate GOP spokesman Scott Reif.

Stewart-Cousins Fires Shot Across Cuomo’s Bow On Education

In a rare public break with Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Democratic Senate Minority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins blasted the “demonizing of our teachers” in a statement released on Thursday morning.

Stewart-Cousins, a Yonkers Democrat, called for increasing resources — aka more money — in the state budget for school districts and not “scapegoating teachers.”

“There has been too much demonizing of our teachers lately. As a former teacher, I understand firsthand the obstacles that many New York educators are facing and the resources they so desperately need in order to help our children,” Stewart-Cousins said. “Schools’ resources must be based on the school district needs. While we all agree that there are more improvements to be made to our education system, scapegoating teachers will not provide those improvements.”

The comment comes as Cuomo seeks to create a more stringent teacher evaluation system statewide, a delay in teacher tenure and a strengthening of charter schools through increased per pupil tuition spending.

The governor backs a plan that would provide tax credits to those who make donations to public and private schools — a move that is opposed by the state’s teachers union.

Cuomo’s budget calls for bonuses for teachers tied to good performance reviews.

The governor is proposed a $1.1 billion funding increase in education spending in his $142 billion budget, but much of that money is tied to adopting his measures.

Stewart-Cousins, a Yonkers Democrat, is knocking Cuomo’s education reform push as Speaker Sheldon Silver is being pushed out of the Assembly’s leadership post on Monday.

Uncertainty over the future of the Assembly’s leadership push is leading to concerns among education advocates that the governor’s proposals won’t have a strong opponent in the budget negotiations.

The fight over education policy this legislative session is really an extension of the election year, when Democrats were backed by the statewide New York State United Teachers union and Senate Republicans were supported by wealthy proponents of charter schools.

Stewart-Cousins: More Time To Be Spent On Ethics Reform

Senate Minority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins in an interview on Capital Tonight Thursday evening said expects more time to be spent on ethics legislation following the arrest of Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver.

“We’re were talking about the budget, but now we’re going to spend more time on talking about ethics reform and things that are quite frankly sad and disturbing,” the Yonkers Democrat said.

Stewart-Cousins, however, would not weigh in on whether Silver should step down as speaker as he faces five counts of corruption and fraud filed by U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara’s office.

“I think Preet Bharara said it best people are presumed innocent until proven guilty,” she said, adding that the leadership of the Assembly is up to the Democratic conference in that house. “They’re going to do what they’re going to do.”

Stewart-Cousins also said the now-shuttered Moreland Commission only came about because lawmakers refused to go along with ethics reform, even as her mainline conference was largely aligned with Gov. Andrew Cuomo, especially when it came to public financing.

“I can’t predict what we would see or would not see,” she said. “But the reality is the Moreland Commission was a creature of the governor because of the Legislature’s refusal — certainly in my house on the Senate side — to do any ethics reform.”

To be fair, the Assembly didn’t go along with all of Cuomo’s reform agenda, either, which led to the formation of the anti-corruption panel that would be closed less than a year later following a deal on ethics legislation.

“There were things that two houses agreed on on certain ethics reform, certain campaign finance reform, could never get a hearing on,” she said.

Senate Dems: Ready To Pass Ethics Legislation

The Democratic conference in the state Senate backs a passing new ethics and campaign-finance law changes “immediately,” Minority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins said in a statement released Tuesday.

The call comes as Gov. Andrew Cuomo says he would not consider backing a legislative pay increase for state lawmakers if they fail to approve long-sought changes to the state’s campaign-finance laws, including the creation of the public funding of political campaigns and the closing of the so-called LLC loophole.

Cuomo also wants to see lawmakers approve restrictions on outside income.

The governor in an interview on Monday said that even with the carrot of a pay increase dangling in front of lawmakers, the Legislature is balking at the reforms he’s pushing.

“The Senate Democratic Conference has consistently called for common sense ethics and campaign reforms and we agree with Governor Cuomo in his call for passing these initiatives immediately,” Stewart-Cousins said in the statement. “As with all progressive legislation, including the NY-SAFE Act, the Compassionate Care Act, and Marriage Equality, the Senate Democratic Conference stands ready to provide the necessary support to ensure passage. Ethics and campaign finance reforms should not be a partisan issue. We will continue our fight to clean up Albany and pass strong ethics reforms and we look forwarding to working with any state leader who will join us in these efforts.”

Senate Republicans, poised to take the full majority at the end of this month in the chamber, released a statement last week indicating they would support additional reform measures, but did not provide much detail.

Talks over the weekend on a special session stalled, though state lawmakers have not ruled out coming back to Albany in a post-Christmas special session.

Stewart-Cousins Re-Elected Senate Minority Leader

From the Morning Memo:

Andrea Stewart-Cousins was re-elected on Tuesday the leader of the Senate Democrats following a vote in Albany by her conference.

The Yonkers Democrat, first elected to the Senate in 2006, was unanimously re-elected to lead the conference, save for Bronx Sen. Ruben Diaz Sr., who was neither present for the vote or cast a proxy vote, a Senate Democratic spokesman said.

The first woman to lead a legislative conference in Albany, Stewart-Cousins in a phone interview said she has no plans to shake up the Senate Democrats’ leadership team, meaning deputy leader Mike Gianaris remains her top lieutenant.

“If it’s not broken you don’t fix it,” Stewart-Cousins said. “We have been able to work well together. I think we’ve worked well together in terms of leadership. We have a cohesive leadership team that is very, very focused on why we’re here.”

Democrats came up short in last month’s elections, losing three key upstate races and failing to unseat incumbents who hold all of the Long Island Senate districts.

Still, Stewart-Cousins said she was happy the progress the conference has made under leadership.

After all, she took charge of the Democratic conference following several years of leadership turmoil. Democrats ousted Brooklyn Sen. John Sampson in favor of Stewart-Cousins, one of the first Democratic leaders in the Senate to not represent one of the five New York City boroughs.

Sampson now faces embezzlement charges, and his immediate predecessor as Democratic conference leader, Malcolm Smith, is under indictment for attempting to bribe his way onto the New York City mayoral ballot as a Republican.

Sampson won his primary challenge, Smith lost to Sen.-elect Leroy Comrie.

But Stewart-Cousins says her conference has stabilized over the last several years, which has also seen a group of breakaway Democrats form a coalition with Senate Republicans, essentially denying the party a governing majority in the chamber.

“I think we’ve moved through the storm and each of us individually and together are stronger,” she said. “This is a great group of committed people and I think we’ve gone a long way to prove that. We’ve grown as a conference, we’ve grown as individuals. We’re certainly ready to govern, we’re cognizant of the realitty that we have a lot of offer.”

She also reiterated her priorities for next year, including continuing to boost the women’s agenda — passage of which seems doubtful with Republicans fully in charge of the Senate — as well as infrastructure spending and reforming the state’s criminal justice system.

Stewart-Cousins and her Democratic colleagues were in Albany on Tuesday to push for the creation of a special investigator to probe deaths of unarmed civilians by the police.

But whether all state lawmakers return this month for a special session for a potential legislative pay raise remains to be seen.

Stewart-Cousins said time does appear to be running out to convene both houses by next week.

“I’ve not been privy to any conversations about a special session; of course if there is one we’ll be there,” she said. “As the clock ticks on with no definitive time, it seems like it’s more difficult to pull it off before the end of the year.”

Stewart-Cousins Doesn’t Take Pay Raise Position

Senate Minority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins on Tuesday wouldn’t take a position on a pay raise for herself and her colleagues, though did note that the Legislature has gone 14 years now with a salary hike.

Stewart-Cousins told reporters at an Albany news conference earlier this morning there are more pressing matters, however, such as increasing the state’s minimum wage yet again.

But she stressed that a salary hike for legislators shouldn’t be linked to the minimum wage, which Senate Republicans have not shown a willingness to back following the 2013 agreement.

“What we have done as a conference is continue to say this is not driven by pay raises for us,” she said. “We were looking for pay raises for working people. We’d like to see us address a number of issues including a hike for minimum wage workers who won’t see an increase to $9 until the end of next year. I’m certainly not linking the two, but we certainly have more to do.”

The conference has a whole has not held discussions about a legislative pay increase, she added. The current lawmaker pay is $79,500.

Still, New York City lawmakers are seen as more willing to back a legislative pay increase given the cost of living in the city is greater than the upstate regions.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s office has said a pay raise without “meaningful” ethics reform that could address outside income of state lawmakers as well as per diem reform is a non-starter.

But a Cuomo administration official in recent days has thrown cold water on the idea of a special session this month.

“There have been no meaningful discussions,” the official said. “With the current timetable an agreement does not seem likely.”

Stewart-Cousins On Her Sons ‘Interacting’ With Law Enforcement

Democratic Senate Minority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins has talked with her now-grown sons about interacting with police and law enforcement, saying she’s told them to “go through it” and that they “don’t win” in confrontations.

“You tell them that it’s OK, just whatever it is, go through it,” Stewart-Cousins said. “

Stewart-Cousins was on CNN this afternoon to discuss the ongoing fallout from a Staten Island grand jury not indicting NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo in the choking death of Eric Garner.

Stewart-Cousins is the highest-ranking African-American elected official in New York.

“I’m a parent. I have three children, two of them men, and they’re all adults now, happily,” she said in the interview. “But certainly both of my sons have had interactions with law enforcement and they were told that they don’t win in those kinds of confrontations.”

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio in recent days has also discussed talking with his son Dante about interacting with police.

But Stewart-Cousins in the interview said the anger and frustration from minorities isn’t about specific individuals

“The reality is that it’s not necessarily about my children or the mayor’s children, it’s about a system that begins to create respect and equal justice for everyone,” Stewart-Cousins said.

“I’ve got two grandsons, one is a kid who is 12 and he’s a big guy and I think people may perceive him as being someone that he isn’t, older than he is. The reality is that it’s not necessarily about my children or the mayor’s children, it’s about a system that begins to create respect and equal justice for everyone.”

Stewart-Cousins will be a guest on Capital Tonight this evening.

Stewart-Cousins: Dennenberg Issues Won’t Impact Control Of Senate (Updated)

Senate Democratic Minority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins does not expect the recent legal troubles of a candidate running a swing district will hurt her conference’s chances of gaining control of the Senate.

Speaking on The Capitol Pressroom on Tuesday morning, Stewart-Cousins called the allegations that Senate hopeful David Dennenberg bilked his law partners out of $2 million “extremely serious” and said she was cancelling her appearance at a fundraising event for him.

The lawsuit, first reported by The Daily News this morning, is below.

Updated: Newsday reports Dennenberg has dropped his bid for the state Senate.

But she pivoted to the rest of the state Senate map, which she said is shaping up to be a positive one for Senate Democrats.

“I think the important thing for everyone to understand why we are so positive where we are is because we have so many great candidates around the state,” she said.

Dennenberg is running for the seat vacated by Republican Chuck Fuschillo, who left in 2013 to lead the Alzheimer’s Foundation of America.

Democrats remain bullish on several other Long Island Senate seats, including the district being vacated by congressional candidate Lee Zeldin. There, Democrat Adrienne Esposito hopes to break up the Republican hold on Long Island against Tom Croci.

Stewart-Cousins added she expects Gov. Andrew Cuomo to continue his support for Democrats to take full control of the chamber, which is currently led by a coalition of Republicans and five independent Democrats.

Cuomo, however, is considering an endorsement of Sen. Mark Grisanti, a Republican who backed the same-sex marriage law in 2011, after he lost his primary two weeks ago, but retains the Independence Party ballot line.

The governor pledged to back Democrats in the mainline conference when receiving the endorsement of the labor-aligned Working Families Party.

“I think that ultimately the governor will continue what he’s been doing which is support the Senate Democrats being in the leadership,” she said in the interview.

She added Cuomo will likely roll out his endorsements of Senate Democratic candidates “in the midst of his own campaign.”

Republicans at the state level were quick this morning to pounce on the Dennenberg news.

“It’s ironic that the same day Eric Schneiderman announced an ad campaign that absurdly claims that he’s cleaning up Albany, and the day after the State Democratic Party named a witness tamperer its Chair, another Democrat has been accused of corruption,” said Republican spokesman David Laska.

Mike Murphy, a spokesman for the Senate Democrats, hit right back, pointing to the Senate GOP’s own issues with ethics in recent years, including the current case against Sen. Tom Libous.

“This is funny coming from the conference who blocked any chance at passing real ethics reforms, had members leave the Senate facing corruption investigations and has their Deputy under federal indictment,” he said.

Summons and Complaint by Nick Reisman