By Andrea Stewart-Cousins, New York Senate Majority Leader & Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee Board Chair
I won my first election in 1995 to serve as the Yonkers representative to the Westchester County Board of Legislators. That victory made me only the second African American woman to be elected from Yonkers, a city just north of New York City where the majority of residents — in the 1990s — were white.
I quickly became aware that my constituents continuously mistook me for the first African American woman elected in Yonkers, a good friend of mine. I realized that if I wanted to set myself apart — and spare my voters some embarrassment — I’d have to distinguish myself. I’d have to create a brand.
That’s how I discovered my signature scarves. I wear one every day. An American flag scarf when celebrating our country, a pink scarf when supporting women’s reproductive health and a kente cloth for Black History Month. After 25 years, if I walk into a room without one on, it’s all anyone wants to talk about!
I’ve always wanted my constituents to recognize me as someone who was advocating for them, who they could trust and was here to help. I’ve invested so much time and energy into fighting for my community, contributions that are too often ignored or taken for granted when they’re made by Black women. That’s why when you find what sets you apart you have to capitalize on it, advertise it, and be it.
The scarves help me stand out, but after decades of advocating for people, I’m proud to say it’s the passion behind my fight that I’ve become known for. As a young single mother in my 20s, I fought against cuts to daycare subsidies that would have left me and many others unable to feed our children. Decades later, when I was first elected to the state Senate, I got there by beating a Republican who’d been in the legislature for almost 30 years. No one thought he could be defeated — certainly not by someone like me — until we fought like hell and did it. I joined the legislature and pushed for fairer education funding, abortion rights, same-sex marriage, common sense guns laws, and so many more progressive things. And in 2018, I helped defeat the Republican majority in the New York Senate that had stymied progress for almost 50 years.
Last year we had one of the most successful legislative sessions in New York history. We secured the lowest middle class tax rates in generations and passed a permanent property tax cap. We held groundbreaking hearings on sexual harassment and passed legislation saying that this scourge has no place in New York. We stood up for our immigrant brothers and sisters during a scary time. We passed laws that recognize the real dangers of climate change. We passed the Child Victims Act and delivered justice to so many abuse survivors. We passed groundbreaking affordable housing and rent control laws. We passed common sense gun laws, and worked towards reforming our justice system, and improving the voting process.
Today, I’m one of the only African American women ever to lead a state legislative chamber in America, and the first woman to lead either chamber here in New York. Thankfully, I don’t need a scarf anymore to be recognized when I walk onto the chamber floor, and I didn’t need it to pass life-changing legislation.
I’m always aware of the fact that I’m representing so much more than myself. I’m proud of my accomplishments and how far I’ve come. And the signature scarf didn’t hurt.