NEW YORK NOW – A new dynamic in Albany may be on the horizon.
After Gov. Kathy Hochul formally took office Tuesday, she met behind closed doors with legislative leaders from both the State Senate and Assembly, setting the tone for a new relationship between the two branches of state government.
Until Democrats took control of the State Senate two years ago, Albany had been governed by the so-called “three men in a room,” referring to former Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the previous cast of legislative leaders — both of whom were men.
Now, for the first time in state history, two women and one man will be in the room where major pieces of legislation are negotiated, like the state’s $200 billion budget.
When Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, D-Westchester, was elected as head of the State Senate in 2019, that idea seemed far off. Now, that’s changed.
“It’s good. It absolutely feels good,” Stewart-Cousins said. “It’s a collaborative tone. It’s a sense of, whatever has to be done, we will do the work to make the lives of New Yorkers better.”
Stewart-Cousins, also the first woman to serve in her role, has often been a strong advocate for more women in positions of power in state government.
Before Democrats took the majority in the Senate, she publicly criticized the fact that only men were directly involved in state government’s major decisions. Speaking at an Albany-esque budget meeting known as the “mothership,” she called out those men.
“Apparently the mothership is the only place that this mother will appear negotiating the budget,” Stewart-Cousins said in 2015.
That’s no longer the case, with Stewart-Cousins representing the Senate in the last three budget cycles. She said Tuesday that, under Hochul, she sees hope in changing the culture in Albany, which is infamous as a haven for sexual harassment and public corruption.
“I think it’ll be a different culture in general, because the commitment is to make sure that government is not only working, but it’s transparent and that the workplace is a safe place,” she said. “We will continue, I think, to see the change in our culture which I’m very happy about.”
Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, D-Bronx, said the same when he spoke with reporters Tuesday, joking that he was happy that, as a man, he’ll be in the minority when both legislative leaders meet with Hochul in the future.
“I’ll say this is probably the happiest time for me to be in the minority,” Heastie said. “I think anytime that a glass ceiling has been broken, I think it’s good for all of us. I think it’s good for us as a country, as a state … I think it’s a strong message to send today.”
Both Heastie and Stewart-Cousins signaled that working with Hochul would be in stark contrast to her predecessor, who left office amid several allegations of sexual harassment, claims that he’d mishandled COVID-19 data for his own political gain, and more.
That could open the door to new ethics reform in Albany, where lawmakers have struggled in recent decades to create an ethics enforcement agency that’s devoid of political influence. Few are happy with the current agency, called JCOPE.
The state Legislature has considered changes to JCOPE and ethics enforcement in recent years, but nothing substantial has gained support from a majority of lawmakers to pass.
“There’s a lot of legislation about making changes to JCOPE. I think we are looking at all of it,” Stewart-Cousins said. “We want to make these institutions make sense. If they don’t make sense, then there’s no point having them.”
It’s unclear how Hochul feels about JCOPE, but she said Tuesday that trust in government would be a top priority for her time in office, however long that will be. She’s already said she’ll run for a full four-year term next year.
“I want people to believe in their government again,” Hochul said. “It’s important to me that people have faith. Our strength comes from the faith and the confidence of the people who put us in these offices.”
Part of that trust comes from addressing Albany’s problem with public corruption and sexual harassment, both of which are considered pervasive in state government.
In the last decade, New York has seen the resignations of a governor and attorney general, and the indictment of two of the state’s legislative leaders over claims of misconduct.
Hochul said Tuesday that she’s going to strengthen the state’s requirements on sexual harassment training and ethics protocols through executive order — both of which the previous administration didn’t do.
“To me, it’s very simple,” Hochul said. “We’ll focus on open ethical governing that New Yorkers will trust.”
And with new partnerships between Hochul and the state Legislature, the time could very well be ripe for a new wave of reform that could make another dent in Albany’s persistent problem of public integrity.