Paying homage: Westchester Black Women’s Political Caucus attracts New York politicians
New York leaders ingratiated themselves with the Westchester Black Women’s Political Caucus on Sunday in Yonkers, as the organization celebrated its 45th anniversary and showcased its rise to power.
Lt. Gov. Brian Benjamin, representing Gov. Kathy Hochul’s administration, called the Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, a longtime caucus member from Yonkers, “the woman who saved New York’s democracy.”
Stewart-Cousins earlier said the nation looks to Black women, including as attorney general and other positions of leadership. She is the first Black woman to lead the state Senate, and Letitia James is the first Black woman to serve as state attorney general.
In Yonkers, the crowded Castle Royale ballroom adorned with chandeliers reflected the historic trajectory.
The event, celebrating the founding of the organization in 1976, showcased the nonpartisan organization’s rise from small home meetings around Westchester County, to a political force in local and state politics that works to get Black women into office.
Now, the organization has a litany of “firsts” to office, including in key positions in county and state government.
“We know there’s a lot of money and power in this room,” said Lisa Marie Nero, a caucus member and event organizer. “But we’re here to celebrate these Black women from Westchester County.”
Honoring the caucus leaders
The caucus honored retiring county legislators, school board trustees and community leaders, many of whom were the first Black women with their titles.
Seated on stage, the group of older Black women overlooked tables of local, state and federal elected officials who wrote checks and took selfies to commemorate the anniversary.
The power concentrated within the caucus wasn’t always this way, though.
In 1976, the Westchester Black Women’s Political Caucus started in Joan Mosley’s Greenburgh home. Then, she and Joan Scott, the co-founders, brought Black women together to coordinate and devise strategies in “beehive meetings” to change elected offices that were overwhelmingly made up of white men.
They organized against local issues such as segregation in Yonkers, as well as supporting international sanctions against apartheid South Africa and fundraising for Jesse Jackson’s historic run for president in 1984.
In doing so, the caucus grew, with five chapters across the county. On Sunday, they honored two members from each chapter.
“We decided that we were called upon to do the job,” former state Sen. Ruth Hassell-Thompson, a founding caucus member from Mount Vernon honored for her work, told the crowd on Sunday.
“We’ve been inspired by the women who have come before us, and we continue to be inspired by the women who will come after us.”
The event also functioned as a stop for candidates to build support in Westchester for local races this year and as all statewide seats and all state legislative seats will be on the ballot in 2022.
Along with local legislators in attendance, Westchester County Executive George Latimer, up for reelection on Nov. 2, sang at the event.
Yonkers Mayor Mike Spano touted the event being held in New York’s third largest city.
New York City Councilwoman Vanessa Gibson, the presumptive Bronx borough president, and Bronx District Attorney Darcel Clark also attended.
Democratic Reps. Mondaire Jones and Jamaal Bowman, both of whom represent parts of Westchester, were there, too.
In a pre-recorded video speech, Hochul, who is campaigning for election in 2022, celebrated the caucus’ legacy despite being unable to attend. But it was Benjamin who navigated Sunday’s event.
The former state senator from Harlem touted Hochul’s record just a few months into office, saying economic and racial justice are essential to the administration.
“We need real results on the ground for our people,” he said. “I look forward to working with all of you to make sure that this administration does what we need to do on behalf of our Black women and Black people everywhere.”
Event organizers initially listed as attendees Eric Adams, New York City’s presumptive next mayor, and James, who is eyeing a run for governor. Both didn’t appear to show, though.
The loudest applause went to Stewart-Cousins, who in many ways embodies the caucus’ push into halls of power.
In an impassioned keynote speech, she said the nation now looks to the power of Black women to save democracy.
James has launched several investigations into former President Donald Trump’s organization for criminal misconduct and uncovered allegations of sexual harassment by former Gov. Andrew Cuomo. Stewart-Cousins’ office said she hasn’t endorsed anyone.
With standing ovations, Stewart-Cousins outlined her own life, from seeing her parents excluded from the G.I. Bill and certain jobs because they were Black, to moving her own family to Yonkers and seeing segregation that would ensnare the city in federal lawsuits over education, housing and jobs.
After helping her longtime aide, Symra Brandon, become the first Black woman elected to Yonkers City Council in 1991, Stewart-Cousins became the city’s director of community affairs. In 1995, she won a seat on the Board of Legislators.
A decade later, she joined the state Senate, going on to become the first woman and Black woman to lead a party in the Legislature. In 2019, she made history again as she headed the Senate’s Democratic majority.
Throughout her career, she added, the caucus provided an outlet to change government, from registering voters to being shot-callers in office.
“That’s what these women do,” she said, “This is who we are. Imagine that.”
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