ALBANY – They may not have felt it, but about 130,000 people in Buffalo and several suburban communities suddenly gained more of a voice in Albany on Monday afternoon.
That’s when Assemblyman Michael P. Kearns, a South Buffalo Democrat, was officially invited back into the fold as a member of the Assembly Democratic majority conference after three years of being on the political outs.
And in Albany, where majority party lawmakers get their voices heard in everything from legislation to items in the $150 billion state budget, it’s a big deal.
There are some strings attached, sources say, with the usual Albany edict that was given to Kearns: Behave yourself.
Kearns said Monday evening that he is not aware of any conditions placed upon his return. “I conveyed I’m going to vote my conscience, speak my convictions for my constituents,” he said.
The assemblyman said his standing as a member of the Democratic conference will help him advocate more on everything from state school aid for his district to stalled measures he’s had dealing with mortgage foreclosure problems in his district. “I do think it’s a fresh start,” he said.
Kearns ran as an outsider in 2012 during a special election to fill the 142nd District seat after then-Assemblyman Mark J.F. Schroeder became Buffalo city comptroller. Kearns’ theme in that race included a vow to oppose then-Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, D-Manhattan, which left him with little influence in Albany. In 2013, given the political cold shoulder by his fellow Democrats, Kearns left the Democratic conference.
On Monday, he was back in the fold, let in by Assembly Speaker Carl E. Heastie, D-Bronx, to the closed-door caucus for a lengthy session where the Democrats’ state budget priorities were discussed. It is a key time for Kearns to return: The state budget – which will decide how much local school districts get in state aid and a slew of other fiscal and policy matters – is due to be adopted by March 31.
How far out of the influence loop has Kearns been? He has not had a single bill pass the Assembly since he arrived in 2012.
It was not an easy road back. Last June, Kearns told The Buffalo News that he wanted back into the Democratic conference, a group that, as of Monday afternoon, now has a total of 104 members in the 150-member house. There are four current vacancies in the chamber, including the seat held by Silver, who was convicted in December on federal corruption charges.
Last spring, Kearns met with Heastie, who had taken over as speaker earlier when Silver stepped down. When Heastie traveled last year to Western New York as part of his get-to-know-upstate tour, it included a meeting with Kearns. When Kearns left the Democratic conference three years ago, he cited the way Silver handled sexual-harassment allegations brought against Vito J. Lopez, a former Democratic boss and assemblyman from Brooklyn.
Kearns represents South Buffalo, part of Lackawanna, and West Seneca and Orchard Park. A source, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Kearns is on a kind of “probation” for the time being to see how he – and other Democrats – adjust to his return.
Last June, Kearns said he noted he would not rejoin the conference as long as Silver was speaker. Once Heastie took over, he said, there was “a new leader who wants to look at doing business in a different way.”