The Stony Brook College Democrats hosted New York State Senate Majority Leader and Temporary President Andrea Stewart-Cousins in Frey Hall on Wednesday, April 17 to talk about her career in politics.
After she was reelected late last year, Stewart-Cousins became the first female Senate Majority Leader in New York’s history.
Stewart-Cousins expressed her gratitude for the university hosting her and said that she would be talking to University President Samuel L. Stanley Jr. before she left for the day.
“I know that when you [graduate,] you are going to be pathfinders and leaders,” Stewart-Cousins said, referring to Stony Brook students.
Stewart-Cousins spoke about growing up in public housing and attending public school in New York. She said her family faced many hardships because of their race.
“My parents were victims of a segregated society,” Stewart-Cousins said. “My dad was a WWII veteran purple heart, bronze star — served in a segregated army and came back to a segregated America … My mother could type 100 words a minute, but because she was black and a woman she couldn’t work in a corporation.”
At the age of 17, Stewart-Cousins, a single mother, dropped out of college to start working. “Women, people of color did not move up, period,” Stewart-Cousins said. “If you did, it was an anomaly. It was not the norm.”
When Stewart-Cousins moved to Yonkers, New York in the 1990s, the city had just been hit with a lawsuit saying that they needed to desegregate its public housing.
If the city did not desegregate, it would be fined $1 million a day. Some government leaders said they were willing to pay this fine rather than desegregate. Of the three candidates running for office at the time, two said they would appeal this and one said they would comply.
Stewart-Cousins said the issue of segregation pushed her to get involved. She ended up working for mayoral candidate Terence Zaleski who was pro-desegregation. When Zaleski won, he brought Stewart-Cousins on as his director of community affairs.
In 1996, Stewart-Cousin’s political career began to gain steam when she beat out the incumbent for a seat on the Westchester County Legislature, where she stayed for a decade.
Stewart-Cousins then ran for State Senate in 2004 against Nicholas Spano, a 19-year incumbent who was the assistant majority leader on the Republican side.
“I cared so much about things that I couldn’t do at a county level, I knew I had to do it,” Stewart-Cousins said. Unfortunately for her, she was defeated by just 18 votes.
She said the strength of the young people who supported her gave her the courage to run again in 2006, and that time she won by over 2,000 votes. She has held the same seat ever since. In 2018, when the Democrats won an outright majority in the Senate, she became the New York State Senate Majority Leader.
Stewart-Cousins said she believes that young people are at the forefront of change.
“It is you — who haven’t been jaded, who have not understood where you can’t go and what you can’t do, who have not been able to buy into when something is impossible,’’ Stewart-Cousins said. “It’s you, that created someone like me.”
She added that young adults today are more organized and focused. “You seem to understand that this a journey that has to be undertaken, and that the stakes are really, really high,” Stewart-Cousins said.
“I hope you are inspired to do the little things, and the big things,” Stewart-Cousins said. “And to have sustained attention on what needs to be done.”
Tanesia White, a freshman environmental design, policy and planning major said the event was inspiring. “She touched on topics people shy away from,” White said.
Part of the reason Stewart-Cousins came to visit was to fulfill her promise to Sayidana Brannan-Douglas, the vice president of SBU College Democrats and a longtime family friend.
“I promised I would come out before she [Sayidana] graduated,” Stewart-Cousins said. “And she said this is it, this is it. You’ve got to come. I’ve only got a couple months then I’m done.”
Brannan Douglas, a senior technological systems management major, said it was an honor to host Stewart-Cousins.
“While I have heard her speak numerous times in the past, it was so special to have her come to the campus I have been for four years,” she said. “To have her be such an inspiration to and share that with students I go to school with who are also politically active, to have her pass her message on to these Stony Brook students.”
Correction: April 22, 2019
Sayidana Brannan Douglas was mistakenly identified as a technology system management major. Brannan Douglas is a technological systems management major.