Three leaders jockey for power ahead of 2019 session

What will an all-blue state government hold for New York?

Photo of Rachel Silberstein
Senator Andrea Stewart-Cousins is cheered by fellow Senate Democrats after being named as state Senate majority leader on Monday, Nov. 26, 2018, at the Capitol in Albany, N.Y. She is the first female majority leader in either house of the state legislature. (Will Waldron/Times Union)
Senator Andrea Stewart-Cousins is cheered by fellow Senate Democrats after being named as state Senate majority leader on Monday, Nov. 26, 2018, at the Capitol in Albany, N.Y. She is the first female majority leader in either house of the state legislature. (Will Waldron/Times Union)Will Waldron/Times Union

ALBANY — With Democrats in control of the state Capitol, expectations are high this year that they will pass a slew of measures that had long been blocked by the Senate Republicans who lost their majority in November.

But whether an all-blue state government translates to progressive policies will depend on the dynamic of three individuals at the apex of power in Albany: incoming Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, Assembly Speaker Carl E. Heastie, and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo.

The three say they are aligned on passing many measures early in the session, including codification of federal abortion rights, gun control, electoral reform, and closure of the LLC loophole, which enables special interests to circumvent campaign finance limits.

"The differences may be not over whether or not to do something, but how much to do something," political scientist and Hunter College professor Kenneth Sherrill said.

But bitterness lingers over a recently approved and long-awaited legislative pay raise, which rankled many lawmakers because it was tied to a ban on outside income. And with Senate Republican opposition out of the way, Democratic leaders appear more poised than in prior years to challenge the strong-willed governor on cleaning up government corruption.

"There is an appetite in both houses to do oversight. It's something that has not existed for eight years," said former Assemblyman Richard Brodsky. "No one knows how it's going to play out."

The ambitious governor, who came into the role eight years ago as a centrist, has since tried to adapt his image to fit the progressive uprising fueled in large part by opposition to the administration President Donald J. Trump. Cuomo has a reputation for winning battles in budget negotiations and also been able to tout a myriad of progressive accomplishments even as many other bills languished in the Senate.

Still, as he enters his third term, Cuomo must grapple with the anxiety of what comes next.

The "third-term curse," which has dogged many a New York politician, including his father, former Gov. Mario M. Cuomo, lingers in the backdrop as the inevitable questions surface about whether Cuomo will reverse course and run for president in 2020 or stay put — as he insists he will — and possibly seek a fourth term as governor.

But while he continues to deny presidential aspirations, in recent months Cuomo has focused more on Washington rather than on problems at home.

Cuomo delivered two fiery speeches committing to the passage of "the most progressive agenda" the state has seen within 100 days of his third term, citing what he described as an ongoing "federal assault" on New York.

Morgan Hook, managing director at SKDKnickerbocker, a public relations group, said the governor is jockeying for the lead on the progressive victories that are expected to pass in 2019.

Cuomo's pre-session speeches are a way to "get out ahead of both leaders," Hook said. "A lot of the attention has been on the new Democratic Senate, and you can imagine that the spotlight might shift away from Cuomo."

Stewart-Cousins and Heastie did not attend the governor's Franklin D. Roosevelt-themed speech in Manhattan last month, or his inauguration ceremony on Ellis Island on Jan. 1. Their absences may signal a frayed relationship between the leaders.

Also, Heastie, who previously said he favors a "three-way agreement," has been uncharacteristically critical of  the governor in recent weeks.

The rapport between the governor and Heastie soured when a legislative pay committee decided in December to grant state lawmakers an extraordinary 64-percent salary boost, but stripped them of most legislative bonuses and also set limits on their outside income.

Despite the steep increase in pay for lawmakers, Heastie complained that the committee was not authorized to impose outside income requirements.

"It is curious to me why the only branch of government that was told they had to reform was the Legislature," Heastie said in December. "The comptroller has had issues in his office. God knows the governor has had issues in his office."

Some lawmakers are also miffed that their raise, when phased in over three years, will be tied the passage of on-time budgets — a win for Cuomo, who has made it his mission to meet the annual deadline.

While the focus has been the Democratic takeover of the Senate, Heastie will likely remind New Yorkers that the overwhelmingly Democratic 150-member state Assembly and its speaker have been the liberal anchor of state government for decades.

In response to Cuomo's inauguration speech, Heastie's spokesman Mike Whyland tweeted, "These are bills the Assembly has already done and our members have long fought for."

A wild card might be Stewart-Cousins, who until January lead the Senate Democrats through six years in the minority.

The last time Democrats controlled the Senate, 2009 to 2010, was a period marred by corruption and in-fighting, casting doubt on the conference's ability to lead the chamber. Stewart-Cousins' main objective will be to present an image of cohesion and competence for the Democrats.

"The Democratic Senate especially wants to be seen as a functional body that can get things done," Hook said. "They have to put the ghosts of 2009 to rest."

As a suburban Democrat, Stewart-Cousins has often been underestimated, but last year made headlines for her sharp retort to the governor's patronizing advice.

Her leadership style, inclusive and measured, will be propelled by a 39-member majority at a moment of Democratic enthusiasm.

New York voters turned out in big numbers in 2018, unseating six Democratic senators who had aligned themselves with Senate Republicans in the Democratic primary, and flipping eight Republican-held districts in November's election, granting Democrats control of the house by a generous margin.

The leaders meet behind closed doors each March to finalize New York's $168 billion annual budget. Stewart-Cousins, as the first woman and person of color to lead a majority conference, will bring female representation to the budget negotiations that historically had been "three men in a room."

The conference also welcomes 14 new members  — young, progressive, and multi-cultural, and their ideas have the potential to shake up the status quo.

"These new legislators, in particular, are going to want to come back to their districts with substantive accomplishments," Sherrill said. "They are going to be more rowdy and raucous and they are going to want to change the rules in order to give individual members more power."

So far, Stewart-Cousins has been cautious not to over-commit or make declarative statements about overhauling Albany's power structures.

"I've not been in the room," she said. "After I'm in the room, then we will have a conversation about what I think about the experience."