By Tom Precious
ALBANY -- Senate Democrats elected the first woman in state history as leader of a legislative conference group, removing Brooklyn Sen. John Sampson as their point person in dealings with Senate Republicans and Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
Sen. Andrea Stewart-Cousins, a Westchester County Democrat who represents Yonkers and several other communities, will take over the Democratic leadership just a week after Republicans brokered a deal with five breakaway Democrats to help keep the GOP at least in partial control of the 63-member chamber come January.
Stewart-Cousins, an African-American elected to the Senate in 2006, won backing in a private vote this evening in Manhattan among white and minority members of the Democratic conference. Western New York's sole Democrat in the Senate -- Sen. Tim Kennedy of Buffalo -- was among her supporters.
Cousins said she will use her post to push for a minimum wage hike, new gun control laws and fixing New York's incumbent-friendly campaign finance system. "I look forward to advocating for the progressive agenda that the people of New York have demanded,'' she said in a written statement tonight.
"Senator Stewart-Cousins has been a voice for the underserved and a champion for working families. Today, she earned her place in history by becoming the first female, African-American minority leader in New York state history,'' Kennedy said.
Sampson, who is African-American also, had a bloc of minority lawmakers backing his return to power in January, but Stewart-Cousins was able in the past week to put together a coalition of upstate and downstate senators to remove Sampson from power. The Buffalo News earlier today reported that her backers were convinced they had enough votes for her going into this evening's private meeting in Manhattan.
The Westchester Democrat comes to power at a unique moment in the history of the Senate as Republicans, who did not win enough seats in November to keep power, try to figure out precisely how the power-sharing deal they cut with the five breakaway Democrats will work. Many GOP lawmakers are not in favor of some of what Cuomo calls his "progressive'' agenda, including a likely gun control package, so Stewart-Cousins will be an important ally -- or not -- for Cuomo if she can broker deals with the renegade group of five Democrats to join with the main Democratic conference on issues too controversial for the Republicans to embrace.