Assembly leadership turning to low profile - The Buffalo News
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Assembly leadership turning to low profile

ALBANY – In the how-to-rise-to-power ways of Albany in the past, you do favors for people during the day and hit the restaurant and social scene at night.

Carl E. Heastie has done some of that, but he can just as likely be found off somewhere playing basketball, watching movies or hanging out by himself.

“I don’t really know anything about him,” one upstate lawmaker said last week of the Bronx assemblyman who is expected to become Assembly speaker soon, perhaps this week, succeeding Sheldon Silver who agreed to leave after being charged with corruption by the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Manhattan.

Seemingly by design, Heastie has not been a visible and loud force in the Albany power structure.

He doesn’t talk much on the Assembly floor. He doesn’t run to reporters. In fact, he thinks in this new media age, reporters are more concerned with being first than correct.

“I don’t trust reporters,” he once said.

Heastie, 47, also has not kept the legislative bill drafting office busy since he was elected 14 years ago. In the last four years, for example, Heastie has been prime sponsor of nine bills signed into law – out of 2,775 total bills that became law during that time period.

Heastie says he does not care about getting credit for sponsoring popular or headline-grabbing legislation. As chairman of the Labor Committee, he said, his style is to share bills with members of the panel and let them take the credit.

“It doesn’t have to be a Heastie bill,” he said.

That kind of sharing attitude, it turns out, can go far with rank-and-file lawmakers when trying to quickly build support to become the next speaker.

In an interview with The Buffalo News, Heastie described himself as quiet, a relentless practitioner of consensus building and, well, normal.

“I’m just an average guy who in my spare time likes sports and spending time with my daughter,” Heastie said.

Not considered spare time would be the effort he has taken to get to know leaders of political clubs, including Buffalo’s Grassroots, or running the once-rollicking Bronx County Democratic Party. It was the kind of geographic outreach by a man who must have had something more in mind than representing the 83rd Assembly District.

‘He runs the show’

Heastie helped organize a shake-up in the Bronx Democratic Party in 2008, ending a near-civil war, and landing him the powerful title of party chairman. A year later, his good friend, Ruben Diaz Jr., a fellow member of the Assembly at the time, became Bronx Borough president.

“When he took over, everyone came together,” Diaz said.

The two men, friends for 20 years, had adjoining offices in a Legislative Office Building across the street from the Capitol. “We went to the movies Tuesday nights and played a lot of basketball,” Diaz said.

Heastie’s position in a sport that the two men still play regularly in the Bronx: point guard.

“He runs the show,” Diaz said.

Elbow thrower?

“No, that’s me,” Diaz responded.

Heastie is a dog lover. The New York Times reported that Heastie settled two cases brought by neighbors who said his pit bull terrier, Spot, attacked them.

Want to make an early good impression on the man looking to become the next member of Albany’s three-men-in-a-room power club? Challenge him to a game of trivia about Prince, the singer and performer.

He is a single father of a 5-year-old daughter, whom he spends much time with and has brought to Albany on occasion. He shares custody with a woman to whom he was not married.

His closest friends say he is funny and great in math, noting he can regularly solve a Rubik’s Cube in 20 seconds. He’s an accountant by training and received a bachelor’s degree in applied mathematics and statistics from the State University at Stony Brook and an MBA in finance from City University of New York’s Baruch College. He was a budget analyst in the New York City Comptroller’s Office.

Heastie is so much a math geek that he has regularly sponsored bills to require that students in New York be compelled to take a class about the stock market and “financial literacy.”

Heastie’s legislative record, despite his years in Albany, is not a booming one.

He helped lead efforts for an increase in the minimum wage, penalties for “wage theft” by employers and expanded taxi service to the Bronx and other outer boroughs often ignored by yellow taxis.

Heastie has been successful getting some industry-helper bills passed, such as permitting certain beer wholesalers to sell picnic, snack and pantry items and an insurance industry-backed bill pertaining to prescription drug dispensing.

Still, of the 7,398 bills introduced by lawmakers since this year began, the number Heastie introduced? Zero.

The consistent description of Heastie from colleagues: quiet.

Heastie does not argue that point, but says he talks when it matters, like behind closed doors with his colleagues when they are discussing details of the state budget.

“I’m an even-keeled guy,” he said, adding that some people take his quiet ways as being aloof. “I’m still a little shy with the media. I’m just kind of quiet.”

His friend and basketball partner Diaz said Heastie “listens to all points of view, then he decides how to proceed.”

Heastie’s northern Bronx district includes a range of incomes but is heavily middle class.

Rare visitor to upstate

State demographic data show that the 83rd District – which includes parts of the Williamsbridge, Edenwald, Eastchester and Wakefield neighborhoods – is 72 percent black and 22 percent Hispanic. It runs up to the Westchester border on the north and on the east curves along to follow the shape of Interstate 95 as a boundary.

Heastie has a Twitter account but rarely posts anything. He follows Twitter accounts of politicians, unions, singers, sports and just New York City-based media outlets. Click on the “news” icon on the Assembly home page – which lawmakers fill with news releases and photos of themselves – and there is a rare find for Albany: It is empty for Heastie.

His most recent financial disclosure form shows him making up to $20,000 as an adjunct professor at Monroe College in the Bronx, with up to $20,000 in stock holdings. He also had, for the 2013 calendar year, between $20,000 to $50,000 in credit card debt and a debt consolidation loan of up to $20,000. Lawmakers do not have to file precise dollar amounts.

His signature on the disclosure form shows a healthy flourish on the first letters in his first and last name.

Heastie also regularly brings home among the highest annual per-diem payments for travel and lodging expenses while on state business, hitting more than $23,000 in 2014.

Media reports already have surfaced over the past year that he was among the lawmakers examined by a now-defunct anti-corruption commission in Albany for thousands of dollars in unitemized campaign expenses. The lawmaker has said all his expenses strictly followed New York campaign finance laws governing unitemized expenditures.

What does he know about upstate?

“I will not lie,” Heastie said. Not a lot.

Born and raised in the Bronx, Heastie has some statewide experiences on issues as Labor Committee chairman. But he also said he has traveled a number of times – he didn’t give the exact number – to Buffalo. The purpose on several trips was making contacts and getting to know African-American leaders and political club insiders.

On one occasion – in 2007 – he traveled to Buffalo to attend the Buffalo Bills game. He wore a Dallas Cowboys shirt.

“That’s the one area that I dislike about him,” Diaz Jr. joked of Heastie being a die-hard Cowboys follower.

But he has gotten involved in some Buffalo issues. In 2011, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and the Western New York delegation were lined up behind an effort called UB 2020, which was a plan to greatly grow the University at Buffalo, restore more full-time faculty members and permit special tuition increases for the campus.

The final plan expanded the tuition hikes to all SUNY campuses and additional levies for the four SUNY campus centers, including Buffalo.

In the spring, the plan was in serious trouble in the Assembly. Heastie was the sole minority legislator who stood up during a private meeting of the Assembly’s Democratic Conference to oppose the university plan. It was an ugly meeting in which then-Assemblyman Mark J.F. Schroeder, a Buffalo Democrat and now city comptroller, stormed out in protest.

“I recall it,” Heastie said.

His concern: that higher tuition would force higher debt levels for graduating students, something he believes is a problem not addressed in the United States. “That was my only concern,” Heastie said.

Assemblywoman Crystal D. Peoples-Stokes, D-Buffalo, a backer of the plan, approached Heastie and explained the bill’s importance and how it would help minority students get more access to more classes. Compromises were made to keep lower-income students from getting hit by the tuition increases.

‘Full circle’ on UB 2020

Heastie not only changed his mind, Peoples-Stokes said, but got the bill through the Assembly by convincing members of the Black, Puerto Rican, Hispanic and Asian caucus, a powerful voting bloc in the Assembly.

“Carl coming full circle helped make UB 2020 a reality,” Peoples-Stokes said. “I will never forget how helpful he was in getting the caucus to support it.” She said the episode speaks well for Heastie’s ability to be not only willing to change his mind on policy matters, but also to use his influence to make something happen.

“That spoke volumes for his ability to lead,” she said.

Heastie said he relishes the times when he can bring disparate sides together – a feat he will practice every day if he becomes the speaker of such a diverse group of Assembly Democrats that often fight along geographic, racial, gender and any assorted number of other divisions.

“It’s the type of person I am, even in graduate school,” Heastie said. “I like to be a consensus builder.”


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