Andrea Stewart-Cousins is positioned to become the first woman and first African-American state senate majority leader in New York state history after the New Year. Ms. Stewart-Cousins, a Yonkers resident, is currently the Democratic leader in the senate, a chamber her party will now control, with 39 seats out of 63, following the November elections.
It’s the first time Democrats will control the body in almost a decade, and their largest majority ever. (In fact, Democrats have only controlled the upper chamber for three years since World War II).
A few of Ms. Stewart-Cousins’ predecessors have also achieved prominence:
o William H. Robertson (1823-1898) became, in 1874, the senate’s first titular “president pro tempore” (the title “senate majority leader” didn’t come into use until 1939). In 1881, the Bedford native resigned to accept newly elected President James Garfield’s appointment as Collector of the Port of New York, a rich political plum with command of numerous patronage jobs. The appointment kicked off an intraparty battle that ended up destroying a GOP boss. Garfield made the appointment without consulting New York’s two Republican U.S. senators, Thomas Platt and Roscoe Conkling. A power in both DC and Albany, Conkling led the “Stalwart” faction of the GOP, which backed former President Ulysses Grant for a third term in 1880; Robertson was a prominent member of the opposing “Half-Breeds” who backed James G. Blaine at the 1880 convention, which ultimately nominated Garfield). To protest Robertson’s appointment, both U.S. senators resigned their seats, assuming they could regain them soon after, but were defeated in the state legislature. Conkling’s political career was over, and he died after attempting to walk three miles home in the Blizzard of 1888. For his part, Robertson served as Ports Collector until 1885, and returned to sit in the state senate from 1888 to 1891.
o Robert Ferdinand Wagner (1877-1953) became president pro tem in 1911 after the Democrats swept to power in Albany for the first time in almost two decades. The German-born Wagner, who lived in the German-American neighborhood of Yorkville on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, was just 33; a newly elected state senator, Franklin D. Roosevelt, was a member of his delegation. A close ally of fellow Tammany Hall politician Al Smith – who would be elected governor in 1918 and was the Democratic nominee for President in 1928 – Wagner championed reforms to benefit the working class. Following the deadly Triangle Shirtwaist fire in New York’s garment district, he chaired the State Factory Investigating Committee, leading to dozens of new laws regulating labor. After Smith appointed him to the state Supreme Court, he was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1926, holding the seat until resigning in 1949 due to ill health. Wagner was a prominent champion of FDR’s New Deal legislation whose achievements included the Social Security Act, the Wagner-Steagall Housing Act, and the National Labor Relations Act (also known as the Wagner Act), which created the National Labor Relations Board. Wagner’s son, Robert F. Wagner Jr., was elected Mayor of New York City six months after his father’s death, serving from 1954 to 1965.
o James John “Gentleman Jimmy” or “Beau James” Walker (1881-1946) was president pro tem during a brief period of Democratic control in 1923 and 1924. After graduation from New York Law School in 1904, the Greenwich Village native became a Broadway and vaudeville habitué, writing popular songs and marrying a musical comedy singer who helped promote his works. Elected to the state Assembly in 1909 and serving under Al Smith – who became speaker in 1913 – Walker moved over to the state Senate in 1915. Like Smith, Walker was a strong opponent of Prohibition and was a regular at high-end speakeasies such as the Central Park Casino. In 1925, Al Smith and Tammany Hall put Walker forward to run against two-term incumbent Mayor John Francis Hylan in the Democratic primary. The September primary became a proxy showdown in an epic feud for control of the state Democratic Party between the governor and publisher William Randolph Hearst (Hylan’s backer and the inspiration for Citizen Kane). Painted as Hearst’s stooge, Hylan was soundly defeated and Walker assumed the mayoralty on New Year’s Day 1926. Walker’s first-term accomplishments included subway construction, park and playground improvements, and the creation of the Department of Sanitation and a unified public hospital system. His dashing, bon-vivant image matched the heady 1920s Jazz Age. His second term, encompassing the 1929 Wall Street Crash, proved more fraught. In 1931, the state legislature formed the so-called “Seabury Committee” (after lead counsel Samuel Seabury) to investigate corruption in New York City. The committee charged Walker and formally sought his removal. FDR, recently nominated for the presidency, personally chaired the August 1932 public removal hearings as Seabury exposed Walker’s inability to explain large sums of money deposited in his bank account. In taking on Walker and Tammany, FDR was seizing the state party from Smith, and asserting his independence in time for his fall presidential election campaign against Herbert Hoover. Walker was collateral damage, resigning Sept. 1, 1932, and soon boarding the liner S.S. Conte Grande for Europe. He married his mistress in Cannes, France in 1933 and returned to the U.S. in 1935; in his later years he acted as labor-relations mediator for the women’s cloak industry and president of Majestic Records.
o The longest-serving majority leader was Warren M. Anderson (1915-2007), who ruled the senior chamber from 1973 to 1988. Anderson assumed his role in the last months of Nelson Rockefeller’s 15-year governorship; for the remainder of his leadership he was the de facto leader of Albany Republicans and power broker as Democrats Hugh Carey and Mario Cuomo combined for 20 consecutive years in the Executive Mansion. Born in the tiny town of Bainbridge, Chenango County, halfway between Binghamton and Oneonta, Anderson practiced law in Binghamton before joining the Senate in 1953. Defeated for the GOP gubernatorial nomination in 1978, Anderson retired to Binghamton a decade later. A lasting legacy is Interstate 88 linking Binghamton and Albany, known jokingly when it was being built in the 1970s as the ”Warren M. Anderson Driveway” due to Anderson’s strong backing. Today it is formally called the Senator Warren M. Anderson Expressway.
So Ms. Stewart-Cousins, a pioneer to be sure, walks in some noteworthy footsteps.
Photos, from above: Robert Ferdinand Wagner, and Jimmy Walker provided.