Albany’s ‘Wonder Twins’ Form a Power Duo, Challenging Cuomo’s Influence

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ALBANY — For the better part of the last decade, the State Capitol was a house divided: Democrats led the Assembly, Republicans ruled the Senate and most everything got stuck in between.

Then came the blue wave of the 2018 midterms, putting Democrats in control of the entire Legislature, and giving the state’s top Democrat, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, a chance to enjoy the power of unity. The change has been profound: In January alone, the Legislature, led by the Assembly speaker, Carl E. Heastie, and the Senate majority leader, Andrea Stewart-Cousins, passed sweeping bills on abortion, gun safety, voting rights and immigration rights.

But a strange thing has happened amid all this one-party harmony: Ms. Stewart-Cousins and Mr. Heastie have formed a fast kinship, creating a powerful allegiance that has already challenged Mr. Cuomo’s outsize influence here.

They have both declared their commitment to reasserting the authority of the Legislature, after eight years of Mr. Cuomo strong-arming Assembly and Senate leaders into compromises, and taking credit for those accomplishments.

Their united front speaks to a possibly momentous shift in Albany, not only in the faces of its leaders — they are the first pair of African-Americans to lead New York’s legislative chambers together — but also in its reputation for a capital mediated, manipulated and dominated by Mr. Cuomo.

All sides downplay any rivalry between the executive and the legislative branches. But there have nonetheless been signs of discord as recently as this week, after Ms. Stewart-Cousins on Monday appointed a prominent critic of Mr. Cuomo, Senator Mike Gianaris of Queens, to a board with the power to veto a deal to bring Amazon to Queens — one of the governor’s signature efforts.

By day’s end, Mr. Cuomo’s office had called Mr. Gianaris a “flip-flopping opponent” and Ms. Stewart-Cousins’s decision “shortsighted.” The governor spent much of Tuesday repeating his attacks in various radio interviews, chastising the Senate, in particular, not to “play politics.”

Ms. Stewart-Cousins and Mr. Heastie counter that they are just doing their jobs. The two have been collaborating for more than a month, syncing their legislative schedules, meeting privately in the Capitol, talking almost daily and coordinating press strategies. During the holidays, they were in touch so frequently that Mr. Heastie later jokingly apologized to Ms. Stewart-Cousins’s daughter for interrupting their mother-daughter time.

“We’re just so happy to be with somebody that we’re like,” Mr. Heastie said. “It’s like we’re the Wonder Twins.”

The two share photographs of themselves together on Twitter, and shower the other in praise. When an abortion rights bill passed on Jan. 22, Ms. Stewart-Cousins was effusive about Mr. Heastie, calling him “my friend, my partner and my ally.” Mr. Heastie returned the affection, noting the “absolute joy and pleasure” of working with Ms. Stewart-Cousins. They were flanked by gleaming placards announcing their unity — placards that seemed clearly aimed for an audience in the executive chamber.

“The New York State Senate and Assembly,” one such poster read. “Working together to move New York forward.”

Mr. Cuomo, in turn, has been left in the unfamiliar position of jockeying for attention, as his position has shifted from that of back-room deal maker — successfully bringing the Republicans to the table on issues like same-sex marriage, the minimum wage and paid family leave — to that of public cheerleader for his and the Legislature’s shared agenda.

On Monday, he invited reporters to the Red Room, his ceremonial chambers, for his fourth news conference in two weeks — more than he did in all of 2018 — and used the opportunity to warn the Legislature about potential conflicts between his goals and theirs in budget negotiations.

“You have politics and then you have government. You have legislative proposals and then you have what’s the reality,” Mr. Cuomo said, predicting coming budget gaps. “Welcome to government.”

He had issued similar warnings privately before: One of the governor’s aides suggested earlier this month that Mr. Cuomo would not invite legislators to bill signings if Mr. Heastie and Ms. Stewart-Cousins did not coordinate more closely with him, according to three Democrats familiar with the conversation.

Administration officials have also expressed concerned about the legal language used in some bills, and have asked the Legislature to set those bills aside until the problems can be worked out.

Douglas Muzzio, a professor of political science at Baruch College, said the new “bicameral esprit de corps” was both impressive and a marked departure from Mr. Cuomo’s first eight years in office.

Before, Mr. Cuomo “was essential to any activity that the two houses ventured upon,” Professor Muzzio said.

“Now the dynamic has changed,” he continued. The Legislature’s Democrats “seem to have gotten together and are on this legislative rampage.”

Nowhere has that rampage been more evident than in the myriad bills Ms. Stewart-Cousins and Mr. Heastie have advanced since the legislative session began — often pre-empting the governor’s efforts to take credit for the state’s new progressive push.

On Jan. 15, for example, Mr. Cuomo laid out his agenda for the year in his State of the State address, which included a call for the state to introduce a slate of voting reforms. He did not mention that the Legislature had already passed bills enacting those same changes just the day before; all that was needed was his signature.

The same was true of a set of bills to protect transgender people and ban conversion therapy of gay minors, passed just that morning.

The governor has also appeared to be hunting for ways to one-up the Legislature’s actions.

At an event in early January, after Ms. Stewart-Cousins and other legislators promised to finally pass a bill to safeguard abortion rights, Mr. Cuomo vowed to go one step further and enshrine abortion rights in the State Constitution — a move that even the bill’s sponsors said they did not consider necessary.

Mr. Cuomo’s office said the governor has long supported the bills that the Legislature has passed and that the two branches have a good relationship. His aides said coordination was improving as the legislative session continued.

“The Legislature and the executive have different constitutional roles, but there is no doubt that we’ve been working hand in glove,” said Richard Azzopardi, a senior adviser, pointing to “victories that the Democrats have been fighting for years.”

Ms. Stewart-Cousins also denied that the public displays of collegiality between herself and the speaker were intended to send any message other than of a unified, functional Legislature raring for action.

“I just thought, and I’m sure the speaker thought, that it would be good that we do our job, which is to pass legislation,” she said. “That just makes sense.”

“Obviously the governor is a very important partner in this, because it’s up to him to sign off on the legislation,” she continued. “Everybody’s got an important role to play here, but without passing laws, there aren’t any.”

Mr. Heastie, too, denied any attempts to overshadow Mr. Cuomo.

“It has nothing really to do with the governor,” Mr. Heastie said, adding, “The stronger or the closer that the relationship that Andrea and I have becomes, it’s not to anybody else’s detriment.”

Still, even as Ms. Stewart-Cousins and Mr. Heastie waved off any suggestion of friction, they acknowledged that their alliance was intended to send a message.

“We understand, both of us, how important it is that we get this right. That we are at a critical juncture. That we are both historic in our roles,” Ms. Stewart-Cousins said. “It’s always harder when you’re the first, and certainly it’s important that you not be the last, and that you lay a path.”

Unsurprisingly, Mr. Heastie concurred. While there may be bumps in the road — particularly as the details of the state budget are negotiated in March — he said he did not foresee any major differences in the now-united legislative agenda.

“On major policy things,” he said, “I can’t foresee any daylight between us at this point.”

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