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Capitol Watch: Glass ceiling in Albany gets cracked open

January 26, 2019

ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) — In New York state government news, the gender mix of Albany’s often-criticized “three men in a room” method for reaching spending and legislative agreements has been shaken up.

Andrea Stewart-Cousins, the new Senate majority leader, joined Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie and Gov. Andrew Cuomo for a meeting of fellow Democratic leaders at the Capitol this week.

Until Cousins stepped into Cuomo’s second-floor office Wednesday, such statehouse confabs typically involved three men because men had always held the top three most powerful positions.

Meanwhile, actor and director Ben Stiller is thanking the governor for supporting state tax breaks for the film and television industry, and more state budget hearings are on tap.

A look at stories making news:

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THREE PEOPLE IN A ROOM

The all-male, behind-closed-doors negotiations involving the governor, Assembly speaker and Senate majority leader were criticized for decades by editorial writers, reformers and good-government groups.

But “three men in a room” was doomed when Democrats regained control of the Senate in the November elections. Stewart-Cousins, Senate minority leader since 2012, took over as majority leader when the Legislature convened earlier this month, making her the first woman and first African-American to lead the 63-member Senate.

Stewart-Cousin, 68, was feted during her chamber’s opening day of the 2019 legislative session. Two weeks later, her first meeting with Heastie and Cuomo as a member of Albany’s power trio didn’t make headlines, despite the seismic shift it represents in New York politics.

Melissa Derosa, secretary to the governor, took to Twitter to mark the occasion, posting a photo of Stewart-Cousins, Cuomo and Heastie seated at a conference table in Cuomo’s office. DeRosa’s tweet read: “First leaders meeting of the year. Amen.”

Stewart-Cousins “is singlehandedly redefining the power structure in Albany,” said Sonia Ossorio, president of the New York City chapter of the National Organization for Women. “It’s the shattering of a huge glass ceiling.”

Stewart-Cousins, who represents parts of Westchester County, said her first meeting with Cuomo and Heastie as Senate majority leader “was sort of a spontaneous thing” without an agenda. The significance of that brief inaugural sit-down didn’t hit her initially, but probably will someday, she said.

“I didn’t have any particular thoughts other than the work at hand and the fact that we’re going into a budget cycle and we accomplish as much for New Yorkers as possible,” she said. “I’m happy to be in this position at this kind of historic moment and this reawakening of civic involvement.”

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STATE BUDGET HEARINGS

Public hearings on Cuomo’s $175 billion budget proposal resume this week in Albany. Hearings were held last week on environmental conservation and human services.

This week’s hearing schedule: higher education on Monday, public protection on Tuesday and transportation on Wednesday. A total of 13 hearings will be held, with the last two — economic development and taxes — scheduled for Feb. 12.

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UPCOMING

The Democrat-controlled Legislature is expected on Monday to approve the Child Victims Act, which would extend the time frames for sexual abuse victims to pursue civil and criminal cases in the future, and create a one-year window allowing victims to sue over past abuse claims.

Also expected this week: action on gun control legislation. Both chambers are likely to take up bills that would strengthen state gun laws, including a measure that would authorize teachers and school administrators to ask a judge to evaluate a child they believe is a threat to themselves or others.

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STILLER AND CUOMO

When Cuomo signed into law voting reform measures long sought by New York Democrats, he was joined at Thursday’s ceremony by Ben Stiller, who directed the 2018 Showtime series “Escape at Dannemora,” about the two murderers who broke out of Clinton Correctional Facility in 2015. One was fatally shot by a U.S. Border Patrol SWAT officer; the other was captured after being wounded by a state trooper.

Cuomo arranged for Stiller’s crew to film spend a total of 12 days filming scenes for the eight-part series at the maximum-security prison near the Canadian border in northern New York.

With Cuomo sitting beside him during the bill-signing ceremony held at the governor’s Manhattan office, Stiller complimented Cuomo for supporting state tax breaks for film and television productions shot in New York. Stiller’s production has applied for film-tax credits, state officials have said.

Stiller, a New York City native, said filming in the North Country gave him a feel for what it’s like living in that part of the state, then mentioned “the economy, which is in trouble up there.”

Cuomo has insisted upstate’s business outlook has improved since he took office in 2011, although population trends and economic statistics show much of the region still lagging behind downstate areas.

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