Andrea Stewart-Cousins lost her first bid for the New York Senate by 18 votes in a 2004 contest not officially called for months, the longest unresolved race in state history.
Undaunted, she ran again in 2006—and won by more than 1,800 votes.
Stewart-Cousins has come a long way since that challenging start. She is the first woman and first African American woman to serve as president pro tempore and majority leader of the New York Senate. The NCSL Leaders’ Center recently sat down with Stewart-Cousins to learn more about her path to leadership and the lessons she has learned along the way.
What inspired you to pursue a leadership role in the Legislature?
I came in at a very tumultuous time. There were all kinds of changes in the leadership of the state of New York. And while I was sort of plodding along, just trying to prove that I was worthy of this ascension into the Senate, it turns out my colleagues were looking for leadership, and they turned to me. I was surprised, but it’s worked out. I’ve now been the leader of my conference for 10 years, and I’ve been the majority leader since 2019. Every year is different, but every year has been an adventure and a privilege.
Now that you’ve got a few sessions under your belt as leader, what lessons have you learned?
I’ve learned that nothing is easy. But I always know that where there is a will, there is a way, and if you want to get something done, it will happen. I am also very happy to work with people who are consummate public servants.
I have a super majority, which is the largest in the history of our chamber. But sometimes it’s almost harder to have a super majority, and things don’t necessarily all happen in the way you want it, when you want it. However, if you really focus on what’s important, you can chip away slowly at these hard, important issues and get where you want to go.
You should bring your A-game every day with the understanding that you are there representing voices that otherwise would never be heard without you being there for them.
Is there a leader you view as a role model?
When I first got into government, there were very few women in politics, let alone in leadership. However, now-retired (U.S. Rep.) Nita Lowey was certainly somebody that I looked to for support and wisdom. There was also the late Lois Bronz. She was the first African American woman to be chair of the Westchester County board of legislators. This woman never got angry, no matter what you said, what you did, you never, ever saw her show that she was upset. The fact that she was always able to maintain a sense of professionalism and decorum was amazing to me. And I learned a lot from her in terms of navigating difficult situations as well.
There was also a woman on the other side of the aisle, Cecile Singer, who was an assemblywoman. I never thought of her as somebody who I couldn’t collaborate with, even though she was a Republican. She exemplified trying to figure out how to work across the aisle.
What advice you would give to other chamber leaders, or to those who may be stepping into leadership roles following the election?
Don’t forget why you’re there. Please remember that you are representing not just yourself, not just your agenda, but you are representing many different people who just want you to go there and do your best every day. And that’s what you should do. You should bring your A-game every day with the understanding that you are there representing voices that otherwise would never be heard without you being there for them. If you remember why you’re there and who sent you there, you’ll do just fine.
What are your hopes and dreams for the state of New York?
I think New York has a very, very important role to play. We are looking at challenges that I think have not been seen in generations. I won’t say not in my lifetime, because I did live in a world where, for example, you didn’t have (reproductive) choice. I did live in a world watching people hosed because they tried to vote. I did live in a world where people were marginalized and demonized and criminalized. I think New York has an opportunity to point the way in a lot of these areas. And that’s why we really doubled down and codified Roe v. Wade, and we continued to tackle gun violence problems. We were the first state to have a package of bills that would—hopefully, at least—stem the violence by raising the age to have semiautomatic weapons.
We just passed the John Lewis Voting Rights Act here in New York, because we actually want people who are eligible to vote to be able to vote. It’s a right as well as a privilege, and we want to treat it that way. So I am hoping that we will be able to lead so that others will follow, and we will actually see the United States of America continue to progress.
What would surprise people to learn about you?
I meditate daily, usually about 15, 20 minutes a day. I start my day off with that quiet time, meditation and prayer. It helps me be able to face whatever hits me that day. People have often asked me how I’m able to stay so calm, and I credit my ability to meditate and just find that quiet place.
What book have you read recently that’s had an impact on you?
There’s a little book called “As a Man Thinketh,” by James Allen, that I always go back to. It just reminds me of the fact that the way you approach the world matters. There’s also a book which I want to read called “Four Hundred Souls.” It’s a history of the African American community written by 80 authors and 10 poets that looks at the African American journey in this country from the 1600s forward. I like that it’s broken up into bites, so that I don’t have to sit down and read everything, but I can read about different periods from the perspective of some of the most talented writers in the country.
Taylor Huhn is a senior programs specialist in NCSL’s Leaders and International Program. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.