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New Class of Democratic New York State Senators Is All Women

For the first time in the state’s upper house 245-year history, the six freshman legislators are all women. One of the women, Iwen Chu, will also be the first Asian American woman to hold a Senate seat.

(TNS) — The incoming Democratic class of New York state senators will be composed entirely of women, a first for any conference in the upper house's 245-year history, and a fitting end to a year of wins for gender representation in state politics.

While the six freshman legislators come primarily from New York City, they span a diverse range of backgrounds. Some are also scoring firsts in other categories, including Iwen Chu, a former Assembly staffer and community activist who will represent Southern Brooklyn. Chu is the first Asian American woman to hold a Senate seat.

Chu recalled her reaction when she learned of the makeup of the incoming class: "Wow, finally."

"We're 50 percent of the population, and we do need those angles and perspectives when it comes to legislation," she said. "We need to be seen."

Their elections come amid a renewed focus on policy matters that have historically been deemed women's issues, including reproductive rights. Democrats in New York and elsewhere ran on protecting abortion access following the U.S. Supreme Court's reversal of the landmark Roe v. Wade decision. There have also been calls for policies that would boost the economic profile of New York women, including universal child care for working parents and higher wages for home care workers.

Gov. Kathy Hochul — who last month became the first woman to be elected to the state's top role — has touted her achievement as one that shattered glass ceilings. And down-ballot, the newly elected state senators are hoping that their combined wins will bring lasting equity to the women they represent.

Nathalia Fernandez, a former Bronx Assemblywoman who made the jump to a Senate seat, said the freshman class is a "testament to the growth of this state and women in these roles, from Kathy Hochul's win to now. It's huge."

One of Fernandez's priorities will be introducing legislation to scrutinize health products specifically for women that may contain carcinogens.

Kristen Gonzalez, an organizer and tech worker who will represent parts of northern Queens, said she ran on a platform of codifying abortion rights and fighting for expanded maternal care, citing the high maternal mortality rate that Black women in New York face.

"It's not just about gender," Gonzalez said, pointing to her age — at 27, she will be one of the youngest members in the Legislature — and the diverse racial composition of the incoming class. "In every bit of legislation, for every system, we need to be looking at how to make it more equitable. It's important to look at how women are disproportionately affected, especially along racial lines."

Lea Webb, a former member of Binghamton City Council, has worked with organizations that train women to run for elected office. But she said just as instrumental to her upcoming term in the Senate is her history with the district: She grew up in the Southern Tier and saw often underserved communities were denied a seat at the table.

"Our responsibility is to really ensure that their needs are being addressed," Webb said, adding that she wants to "center the voices of working families and other marginalized groups in everything from housing to pay gaps, which disproportionately impacts women."

Jessica Scarcella-Spanton, who will represent parts of Brooklyn and Staten Island, said her experiences as a mother raising two children have pushed her to advocate broadly for universal child care. The prohibitive cost meant it was more affordable for her to stay home when her children were young, she said.

"An influx of moms in office will always bring a different set of experiences," Scarcella-Spanton said.

The sixth freshman legislator, Monica Martinez, is a more seasoned politician. She served one term as a senator from Long Island, then lost her seat in 2020 before charting a return in the redrawn 4th District.

The incoming class of Republican senators includes seven men and one woman.

The Senate's all-women freshman class represents a historic moment, Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins noted in a statement.

Stewart-Cousins invoked Rhoda Fox Graves, the state's first woman senator, who won election in 1936 and went on to have a lengthy career in New York politics. Prior to Graves' election, however, women had not even been allowed on the Senate floor, the majority leader said.

"The incoming members of the Senate Democratic Majority show how far we've come," said Stewart-Cousins, a Democrat from Yonkers who made history herself when she became the first woman to lead a conference; in 2019, she became the first woman to serve as majority leader. "I look forward to their results and essential work for all New Yorkers."

(c)2022 the Times Union (Albany, N.Y.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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