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Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, who has represented the 35th State Senate District since 2007, has a challenge this year from political newcomer Khristen Kerr, a Republican.
It is the first time the Yonkers resident has had general election competition since 2014 in a district that favors Democrats three to one; the district lines will change next year, as Stewart-Cousins returns to represent Pleasantville and Mount Pleasant as a result of redistricting.
“In these times especially, we really do need experienced leadership. We need progressive leadership,” Stewart-Cousins said. “We need people who have the courage to fight back.”
Kerr, who most recently served as a trial preparation assistant in the Bronx District Attorney’s office, said concerns about crime and bail reform laws championed by Stewart-Cousins spurred her to enter the race.
“What I saw first-hand were the victims who were not getting justice,” said Kerr, an Elmsford resident. “Andrea Stewart-Cousins and others are not listening to (New York City) Mayor (Eric) Adams. They are not listening to the DAs and the ADAs saying, ‘Look, you’ve got to change this.’”
Stewart-Cousins, who has served as majority leader since 2019, said her top priority is inflation and building the state’s economy. She touted recent investments by chips manufacturers, including a recent $3 million expansion at the SEEQC facility in Elmsford and a $100 billion investment by Micron in Poughkeepsie, spurred in part by federal legislation signed this summer.
“We are continuing to, I think, be leaders in terms of economic development on the quantum levels but also on the local levels as well,” she said.
The legislature accelerated a $1.2 billion middle class tax cut to be implemented next year instead of 2025 to provide relief sooner to families.
“COVID recovery is still a real thing, and so we will continue to work on stabilizing the economy and making sure that people have what they need in order to participate in the economy,” Stewart-Cousins said.
Kerr, an electrical engineer by trade who has also worked as a New York City public school teacher, said she believes tax revenues collected in municipalities are not benefiting local communities.
“It’s going up to Albany, and not all of it is coming back to us,” Kerr said. “Where is all this money going? It doesn’t seem to be coming back.”
She questioned the decision to raise the state’s minimum wage to $15 per hour, floating the idea of a lower it to about $10 an hour for small businesses. Kerr criticized the creation of a $2.1 billion excluded workers fund, which allocated funding to New Yorkers ineligible for federal benefits during the pandemic, including undocumented immigrants.
Kerr said she was a registered Democrat until 2020, but felt the party became too radical, especially regarding public safety.
“My father was a police officer, my husband is a retired police officer,” Kerr said. “When you don’t have law and order everything is so chaotic. You can’t walk down the street without being afraid of being mugged.”
Kerr said the legislature had “good intentions” in passing bail reform, adding that eliminating cash bail makes sense for people charged with minor crimes. But the state went too far in letting dangerous criminals back onto the streets.
“Certain people who are low-income defendants may not have the money to pay for bail,” she said. “But you can’t just release everybody from jail, especially with a long rap sheet.”
Kerr also opposes Raise the Age legislation, passed in 2017, which increases the age someone can be prosecuted as an adult to from 16 to 18 years old.
Stewart-Cousins also said crime is a top issue confronting the state, but has pushed back at claims that bail reform is to blame. She points to rising rates of crime across the country, including in states run by Republicans. The reform was meant to ensure non-violent offenders do not languish in prison awaiting trial because they cannot afford bail.
“We are not trying to incarcerate people because they’ve been accused of a misdemeanor and cannot pay bail,” she said.
Stewart-Cousins said it is up to the prosecutor to charge the crimes appropriately and for the judge to set bail for suspects accused of more serious offenses.
She also touted laws passed to fight gun violence, including strengthening background checks for gun purchases and red flag laws.
One of Stewart-Cousins’ priorities when taking over as majority leader was to codify Roe v. Wade into state law. In 2019, the legislature approved legal abortion through 24 weeks. The Reproductive Health Act also allows abortion until birth if the mother’s health, including mental health, is deemed to be at risk.
Kerr is generally pro-choice and opposes the kinds of abortion bans enacted in some Republican states, but supports restrictions later in pregnancy. She is when restrictions should take place.
“How can you say, from conception to nine months, that that is not a child?” she asked. “I think it’s too extreme, so we need to figure out something that is reasonable.”
Kerr also believes expanding school choice and banning the teaching of Critical Race Theory and sexually explicit materials in public schools. She pointed to Florida’s Parental Rights in Education bill as a model.
Both candidates said that they oppose mandating the COVID-19 vaccine for schoolchildren. Stewart-Cousins said she is open to revisiting the issue if the data changes, while Kerr believes it “should always be up to a parent,” though she supports vaccines for children.