Andrea Stewart-Cousins

Felder Won’t Pick Sides Until After April 24

Today’s news of a new-and-improved reunification deal brokered by Gov. Andrew Cuomo between the IDC and so-called “regular” Senate Democrats gives even more power to a single individual – Brooklyn Sen. Simcha Felder – who already proved during the recent budget battle that he’s quite comfortable in his lynchpin role, even if that means holding up proceedings to get what he wants.

Even if this latest peace deal between Senate Minority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins and IDC Leader Jeff Klein holds when lawmakers return to Albany after the Easter/Passover break next week, and even if the Democrats win both the April 24 special elections (the Westchester County race is really the deciding factor there, since the Bronx seat seems a safe bet), the Republicans will still have control of the chamber as long as Felder, a conservative Democrat, continues to caucus with them.

During a brief telephone interview this afternoon, Felder told me he “doesn’t see the benefit” of making a decision right now as to which side he’ll be on when the dust settles on April 24.

“If and when it happens, I’d have to think about it,” Felder said when asked who he’ll be sitting with in Albany. “I don’t want to think about it right now. That’s how I handle my life. I compartmentalize decisions that I have to make today rather than something I may have to decide a few weeks from now…If they don’t win those two seats, they don’t have the majority anyway. I’m not moving just to be a loyal Democrat, which I’ve always said I am not.”

The governor’s office has added a 4 p.m. event to his schedule with Stewart-Cousins and Klein at Cuomo’s Midtown Manhattan office, presumably to formally announce the details of this latest deal.

Felder said he doesn’t feel pressure to make a decision one way or another from Cuomo, who clearly is feeling pressure himself – likely from the primary challenge launched by Cynthia Nixon, who has made control of the Senate a focus of her campaign thus far – enough pressure, that is, to want to accelerate the peace deal between the warring Democratic factions that was struck late last year.

“We’ve talked about issues, but not about this recently,” Felder said, adding that he feels some “anticipatory pressure” about his impending decision, but that doesn’t mean he’ll be rushing into anything any time soon.

As for the deal for loosening state Education Department regulations for yeshivas (Jewish religious schools) that he got by holding up the state budget agreement last week, Felder said he is semi-satisfied.

“I think it’s certainly helpful, but it’s not what I wanted,” the senator said. “I think that it’s very rare that you get what you want…I don’t think you’ll find anyone who will say that the situation isn’t better than it was before. I think anybody who wants to be fair, and I’m being conservative, would say there’s a fifty percent improvement.”

The Senate Republicans should not feel confident, however, that the yeshiva deal was sufficient to keep Felder’s loyalty going forward. In fact, the senator told me he was not at all happy to see Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan predicting during an interview on WCNY’s The Capitol Pressroom that Felder would be staying put, and also downplaying his obviously outsized role in determining the budget outcome – not to mention the battle over the majority.

“I’ve love to say: Just drop dead and go somewhere else,” the senator said. “But that’s me back in first grade.”

That said, the Democrats should be careful what they wish for, too, when it comes to Felder. It’s not a foregone conclusion that if he returns to the Democratic fold that they would have sufficient votes to pass the sorts of progressive bills that activists who are paying attention to this fight expect them to take up if reunification goes through.

For example, there’s no way Felder, an observant Jew, would ever vote “yes” on the abortion rights bill. And he’s simply not movable on that issue, much like former Bronx Sen. Ruben Diaz Sr., another conservative Democrat and deeply religious man, (he’s a reverend), could not be counted on as a “yes” on pretty much anything abortion related.

“It’s not about the issues they talk about,” Felder said of the Democrats who are pushing for unity in the Senate. “Those are the issues that might motivate the average person on the street, and they want those people to be excited so they can get what they really want, which is money and power.”

Stewart-Cousins Knocks ‘Rogue Democrats’ In The IDC

Senate Minority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins decried the “rogue Democrats” in the eight-member Independent Democratic Conference, saying at a news conference on Monday they were “enabling the Republican agenda” in the state Senate.

“I think now is the time to be very, very clear which side of the American dream you are standing on: The dream side or the nightmare side,” the Yonkers Democrat said.

Her comments, made at a news conference in which mainline Democrats unveiled a “resistance” agenda to bolster liberal gains made before the election of Donald Trump as president, come days after yet another lawmaker moved to the IDC: Queens Sen. Jose Peralta.

The IDC in the last several months has gained three members, along with Marisol Alcantara and Jesse Hamilton.

Still, the mainline conference has been frustrated with the numerical majority the party holds in the chamber. Republicans remain in power with the help from Brooklyn Sen. Simcha Felder, a Brooklyn Democrat who sites with the Senate GOP.

“The reality is people vote for Democrats and when people vote for Democrats is because of a myriad reasons,” Stewart-Cousins said. “There’s a philosophical agreement with that party to represent certain values when they come to the chamber.”

The IDC has worked in a majority coalition with the Senate GOP and shared power of the chamber’s presidency for two years.

The IDC, formed in 2011 and led by Bronx Sen. Jeff Klein, has successfully pushed through a variety of liberal measures, including increases in the minimum wage and a 12-week paid family leave program.

Stewart-Cousins: Free College? Senate Dems Want That

Senate Minority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins is using Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s free college tuition plan as yet another example of how much more the governor might be able to accomplish if only his fellow Democrats controlled the upper house.

“Senate Democrats have led the fight to make a quality higher education affordable to all New York students, and our Higher Education Ranking Member Senator Toby Stavisky has carried a bill to accomplish just this goal,” Stewart-Cousins said in a statement. “This is perfect example of why the Democrats that comprise a majority of the Senate should unite. It is clear that initiatives like this would pass in a Democratic Majority.”

Stavisky’s legislation has been kicking around since at least 2013. The Senate Democrats, Stewart-Cousins noted, just this past May authored a white paper on college affordability (or the lack thereof), which was also a big deal in the 2016 presidential race – hence, Cuomo’s appearance today with Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who made free tuition a cornerstone of his campaign.

The Senate Republicans haven’t said anything about the free tuition plan yet, but the Legislature would need to approve it, and – notably – the administration has yet to say specifically how it plans to pay for it.

As Cuomo increasingly seeks to position himself at the national level, potentially with an eye on a future White House run, by embracing a host of liberal policy proposals, look for the Senate Democrats and their allies to keep up the “we could accomplish so much more together” drumbeat, even though at this point it’s pretty much a done deal that the Republicans and the IDC have renewed their power-sharing relationship.

The college tuition proposal is the first of what will likely be a string of pre-State of the State policy announcements leading up to the governor’s regional speeches next week. Cuomo today provided an on-line registration portal for members of the public who might like to attend those speeches, revealing the dates and general locations where they will be delivered, but not specific times or locales.

Cuomo wasted no time in starting to drum up public support for this proposal, sending out an email touting this “first-in-the-nation” plan and how it is an effort to build on his administration’s efforts over the past six years to “ease the burden on middle class families throughout New York.”

“From cutting property taxes to alleviating student loan debt, we’re continually striving to improve lives and increase economic opportunity for middle class New Yorkers,” Cuomo wrote. “This year, we’re taking another big step toward that goal: Today, alongside Senator Bernie Sanders, I unveiled a plan to offer free tuition at SUNY and CUNY two- and four-year colleges. New York is the State of Opportunity and a college education must be accessible to all, not a luxury that only the wealthy can afford.”

There’s a link where email recipients are urged to show their support for the governor’s free tuition proposal – a handy way to collect supporters’ names for future contact (and perhaps fundraising appeals as the 2018 re-election campaign gears up).

To UFT, Stewart-Cousins Pitches Democratic Senate

Senate Minority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins in remarks to the United Federation of Teachers on Wednesday said a Democratic majority in the chamber would help “uplift” teachers in New York.

“The Democrats are just one seat away from actually being the policy makers but that one seat and those policy exchanges will mean so much in uplifting your profession, uplifting your morale, uplifting your ability to take care of the young people we should all pledge to uplift,” Stewart-Cousins said.

The Yonkers Democrat vowed to back an increase in education spending and touted her conference’s opposition to education policy measures that sought to link teacher evaluations to Common Core-based test results.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo had included the policy in his budget proposal, which was deeply opposed by the state’s teachers unions. In the end, the Board of Regents agreed to a moratorium on linking evaluations to tests based on the standards.

Stewart-Cousins described the measures as “test, test, test.”

“We stood with you, we didn’t vote for that. We weren’t taking that,” she said to cheers. “We understood there was more to be done than just demonize or criticize you.”

This year, Cuomo has not linked a boost in school spending to education policy. Nevertheless, lawmakers are trying to get more money than the $960 million Cuomo proposed.

“We understand we have to increase education aid,” she said. “We understand that we have to make good on the promises for our children’s future.”

Stewart-Cousins Boosts Cuomo On Paid Family Leave

Last month, Democratic Senate Minority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins was skeptical of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s initial paid family leave proposal.

“It’s not ours. Ours was the one we were supporting, but I think there’s still work that can be done,” the Yonkers Democrat told reporters in Albany. “I think we will come up with something that can be done and move this conversation in a positive way.”

But after Cuomo altered the original proposal in his 30-day amendments that provide a boost in benefits to workers, Stewart-Cousins is now on board, appearing at the first of two rallies Cuomo held at either ends of the state to back the measure.

“You know why we’re here. This is something that we have been fighting for for so many years,” Stewart-Cousins said at the rally in Harlem earlier on Wednesday. “Now, with the leadership of the governor, with the leadership of the Assembly and my Democratic conference in the state Senate, we are at this place.”

In her remarks, Stewart-Cousins framed the issue as a “values” concern.

“What’s more family values than paid leave?” she said. “If we enact paid family leave, it will be the most robust program in the country.”

Cuomo’s proposal would provide for up to 12 weeks of paid leave for a worker to care for a sick loved one or a newborn.

After some paid leave advocates quietly voiced concerns, Cuomo in his 30-day budget amendments this month changed the proposal so that workers can receive up to 66 percent of their weekly pay, up from 50 percent, once the plan is fully phased in.

The program would be paid for with a $1 surcharge on paychecks.

“We just have to pull my Republican friends along,” Stewart-Cousins said at the rally.

The Senate GOP has been reluctant to embrace the measure, but Cuomo’s plan is also at odds with Assembly Democrats, who backed a paid leave bill that would expand the temporary disability insurance fund.

Senate Dems Blast Defund Planned Parenthood Measure

ascDemocratic Senate Minority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins on Thursday blasted a measure proposed by a Republican assemblyman that would block state funding of Planned Parenthood.

The bill proposed by Assemblyman Steve Katz, who is due to retire at the end of the year, stands little chance of clearing the Democratic-dominated chamber.

But Stewart-Cousins said the bill introduced this week by Katz is an example of how abortion rights are under fire not just nationally, but in New York as well (Planned Parenthood supporters, too, have pointed out the organization provides a range of health services to women).

“We have been told repeatedly that there are no threats to reproductive rights here in New York State, yet legislation and efforts to de-legitimize women’s health organizations prove that our rights are very much under attack,” she said in a statement. “This bill caters to the fearmongers and anti-choice extremists who refuse to acknowledge the facts about Planned Parenthood.”

Stewart-Cousins on Monday attended a rally with Family Planning Advocates of New York, where she urged passage of legislation that would strengthen abortion rights in New York.

Sen. John Bonancic at that rally told reporters he would support the Reproductive Health Act, a bill that would enhance abortion rights and codify Roe v. Wade in state law, becoming the first Republican lawmaker in the Senate to do so.

Nevertheless, Stewart-Cousins linked the Katz legislation to Republicans overall in New York and their stance on abortion.

“This essential organization provides vital, life-saving screenings and support to millions of women throughout New York State, and for New York Republicans to ignore this fact demonstrates just how out of touch they truly are,” she said. “I hope that people understand these facts and finally join with the Senate Democrats to pass the Reproductive Health Act.”

Stewart-Cousins: ‘Like Groundhog Day’

For Senate Minority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, the latest conviction of a state lawmaker is deja vu all over again.

In a radio interview Thursday with WCNY, Stewart-Cousins said her Democratic conference would continue to push for new ethics legislation — including the closure of the LLC “loophole” in campaign finance law as well as the creation of a full-time Legislature that limits outside income.

But she acknowledged the pattern of arrest, followed by conviction, rarely leads to robust reforms in the Legislature.

“It’s almost like Groundhog Day around here,” she said on The Capitol Pressroom, adding, “Constantly the Senate Republicans have really just ignored them and continued on the way this has been going.”

The chances of major structural changes to the Legislature in 2016 seem nil for the moment. Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan shot down questions about a potential move toward a “full time” Legislature that would boost pay, but cap what lawmakers can earn outside of government.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo, too, has thrown cold water on the idea, noting that it would need a constitutional change.

But Stewart-Cousins said there should be an acknowledgement for those who enter the public sector that they won’t earn as much money as they would elsewhere. In other words, it shouldn’t be about the pay check.

“We live in a great country,” she said. “There are millions of ways to make money in this country. Public service isn’t one of those places.”

In Letter, Stewart-Cousins Pushes For Community Schools Aid

Senate Minority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins on Tuesday released a letter to Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia calling for a boost in funding for community schools in New York.

The letter comes as Elia, who took over the top post at the Department of Education this summer, has called for increased attention and resources be diverted to underfunded and low-achieving school districts.

In her letter, the Yonkers Democrat writes that community schools, which provide an array of services for community members in addition to schooling, are “critically important” for children and should have additional funding allocated to them.

“These schools would provide a high quality, culturally relevant curriculum; health, social and emotional services in high needs communities for both students and their families; and sahre best practices across the state and nation,” she wrote in the letter. “While still relatively new in New York state, the community school program has already demonstrated its value here and nationally by increasing student performance and reducing level of violence, bulling and other problem behaviors.”

The Yonkers Democrat is due to speak later this evening with Board of Regents member Judith Johnson at the Westchester for Change forum on educational inequality. She is expected to focus on community schools benefiting at-risk kids in her remarks.

Senate Democrats earlier this year pushed for a community schools grant program that would provide wraparound social services and empower the education commissioner to award competitive grants to eligible school districts that use existing buildings for community-based hubs.

10 20 15 Community Schools Letter to Commissioner Elia by Nick Reisman

Stewart-Cousins Teases Skoufis Senate Run

ascDemocratic Senate Minority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins on Saturday teased the possible state Senate run of Assemblyman James Skoufis this past weekend while speaking with the Orange County Democratic Committee.

Stewart-Cousins was in Orange County to give the keynote address at the committee’s annual gala, an appearance that comes as Democrats have stepped up their criticism of Republican Sen. Bill Larkin, whose seat they consider to be a potential pickup opportunity next year.

“This is my foray up here because of my good friends, but also because of the promise of the future,” she said in her remarks. “I believe that the day where we have Democratic senators from Orange County is fast approaching.”

Stewart-Cousins then turned and nodded at Skoufis, who was sitting about a foot away in the front: “So, it’s good to be here, James. So nice to see you.”

The Hudson Valley district is due to be one of several battleground districts next year as Senate Republicans hold on to a narrow majority in the chamber.

Larkin plans to run for re-election, and the Senate GOP’s political arm has called the effort to oust him “odd and misguided.”

Gillibrand, ASC Appear At Gun Trafficking Roundtable

gillibrandU.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, along with state Senate Minority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins on Friday participated in a roundtable discussion to address how to crack down on gun trafficking.

The event, held in New Rochelle, also highlighted Gillibrand’s bill that would make gun trafficking a federal offense.

“I am proud to work with all the members of law enforcement, advocates, and community members who participated in today’s roundtable meeting and share the goal of cracking down on gun trafficking to keep illegal guns off our streets,” Gillibrand said in a statement. “I am not willing to throw my hands in the air and say nothing can be done while lives are being senselessly lost due to weapons being in the hands of criminals.”

The discussion also comes as Gov. Andrew Cuomo pushes for federal action on gun control in the wake of the shooting death of administration lawyer Carey Gabay and the mass shooting this month at an Oregon community college. More >