Democrats unanimously back Heastie for speaker - The Buffalo News
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Democrats unanimously back Heastie for speaker

ALBANY – Bronx Assemblyman Carl E. Heastie, bypassing more senior members in a rapid internal power campaign, on Tuesday will become the first African-American speaker of the New York State Assembly.

Heastie, a 47-year-old Democrat first elected in 2000, was unanimously endorsed by his fellow Democrats during a closed-door conference at the Capitol on Monday evening. That followed a furious behind-the-scenes campaign effort by Heastie, who pushed ahead for the top Assembly post while many lawmakers thought they had signed on to a more deliberative process that was not to conclude until a floor vote next Tuesday.

On Tuesday, Heastie will take over for Speaker Sheldon Silver, D-Manhattan, who led the chamber since 1994 but lost the confidence of his Democratic Conference after last month being charged with corruption by the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Manhattan.

Silver, 70, to the amazement of some lawmakers, not only came to the Capitol on Monday, but also attended the private meeting among Democrats in which they embraced a new speaker. Lawmakers said Silver, who has insisted he will remain on as a member of the Assembly, also voted in private for Heastie.

The full Assembly is set to vote on Heastie on Tuesday morning, but with 105 members of the Democratic Conference in the 150-member house, selection of Heastie during those proceedings is a mere formality.

Heastie declined to speak to reporters Monday after the Democratic vote but said he was “humbled” by the support.

After an earlier private meeting with Assembly Democrats who created a self-proclaimed “reform caucus” to push for structural changes with the chamber’s operations, Heastie was also his characteristic no-comment self. “It wouldn’t be a private conversation if I told about the conversation,” he said when asked about the meeting.

“The judgment of the conference is I lost,” said Assemblywoman Catherine T. Nolan, D-Queens, who joined the Assembly 30 years ago. On Monday afternoon, during the middle of the private Democratic Conference, Nolan became the last of four other veteran lawmakers interested in the speaker’s post to step aside in the face of the political juggernaut put together by Heastie.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo chose to stay away from Albany on Monday and use a speech at New York University to again highlight the Capitol’s ethical lapses. He laid out a set of proposals, some of them already previously made, to try to improve the reputation of the state government – or, more precisely, the Legislature.

Cuomo accused unidentified lawmakers of going to Albany to “make money” through extra per diem payments on top of their salaries and said there should be further restrictions on how politicians can spend their campaign account funds. He said there needs to be “total disclosure” of lawmakers’ outside incomes, such as any connections their law firm clients might have to the state, and to end pensions for politicians convicted of corruption charges. Some of these proposals have been made by lawmakers and outside groups for years, but never gained traction among top Albany officials.

Cuomo said he wanted an ethics package as part of the state budget or he would hold up its on-time passage. The budget is due March 31.

Cuomo also said he had no role in the Assembly’s choicek of Heastie.

The urgency by Heastie and his backers to quickly end the campaign for speaker came into full view Monday. Despite about a foot of snow in the Albany area and elsewhere, Democrats made it to the Capitol for the crucial conference meeting to back Heastie.

Heastie had to make it up the snow-clogged Thruway from the Bronx, delaying by several hours his scheduled meetings with Democrats.

Earlier, Assemblywoman Deborah J. Glick, D-Manhattan, called on her colleagues to respect the deal they struck last week, which she said was to let the campaign for speaker to stretch out until next Tuesday to give candidates more time to make their case. She also said there have been “troubling” questions raised the past week. In a letter to constituents, she did not elaborate on those questions, but many assumed she was talking about media reports on a now-defunct state anti-corruption commission having investigated Heastie’s miscellaneous campaign fund expenditures and his relatively high per-diem payments. (Per diems are a daily reimbursement provided to lawmakers to cover food, housing and other costs when they are on the road, such as in Albany.)

But Assembly Majority Leader Joseph D. Morelle, a Monroe County Democrat, said there was no reason to wait. Morelle was a candidate for the job until last week, when he dropped out to support Heastie.

“I think in many people’s minds a consensus has been arrived at and we want to get back to the work of the people,” Morelle said.

In a historical asterisk, Morelle will be interim speaker from the time Silver resigned the job at 11:59 p.m. Monday until Heastie is elected Tuesday.

In advance of his meeting with “reform caucus” Democrats, Heastie released a plan he said he would adopt as speaker, including a new Office of Ethics and Compliance to help better ensure lawmakers abide by ethics laws and rules. Heastie also said he would embrace a new system to bring more transparency to the per-diem process in the Legislature and work with State Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli to “strengthen reporting requirements and oversight of per-diem reimbursements.”

Heastie said he would also not make any outside income if elected speaker and would seek a cap on the outside income of other Assembly members. He added that he would consider plans floated over the years to create a full-time Legislature – presumably with higher pay than their base salaries of $79,500 – and possibly to ban all outside income by members of the Assembly.

Heastie now finds himself as the Assembly’s lead negotiator with Cuomo and Senate Majority Leader Dean G. Skelos, a Nassau County Republican, in the upcoming talks over the state’s budget and an array of policy matters, from major proposals affecting the state’s 700 school districts and their teachers to how to spend $5 billion in unexpected of cash from legal settlements with financial institutions.


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