The New York state Legislature started its 2019 session Wednesday with Democrat Andrea Stewart-Cousins becoming the first woman to lead the Senate, a historic moment that follows big gains by her party in the November election.
Stewart-Cousins, of Yonkers, takes over the Senate as a record-high 70 women are serving in the 213-seat Legislature.
"We are going to break down some more barriers," Stewart-Cousins said, speaking of an agenda filled with long-time liberal priorities, such as election reform, new campaign finance limits, the elimination of cash bail and the new rules giving child molestation victims more time to file lawsuits or seek charges against their abusers.
Carl Heastie, a Bronx Democrat, was elected speaker of the Assembly for a third time. Like Stewart-Cousins, Heastie is black, making 2019 the first time in state history in which both chambers have been led by African-American legislators.
"It's 240 years overdue," Sen. David Carlucci, D-Rockland County, said of Stewart-Cousins' election. "It sends a strong message that we're in a new age."
The Legislature's formal start kicks off 61 session days spread over a six-month work period expected to be dominated by debates over marijuana legalization, congestion tolls in Manhattan and making it easier for New Yorkers to vote.
Senate Republicans controlled the 63-seat chamber for the past decade thanks to a faction of renegade Democrats who voted with the GOP conference. The November elections put Democrats back in power, giving them a 40-23 edge over Republicans.
With Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo starting his third term, progressive issues top the agenda in Albany. In welcoming fellow Assembly members, Heastie pointed out many initiatives that are now state law — including $15 minimum wage and paid family leave — and others expected to be enacted during the session started out in their chamber.
"We proposed these bills before they were popular because it was the right thing to do," Heastie said.