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Bronx Assemblyman gaining support to succeed Sheldon Silver

ALBANY – Bronx Assemblyman Carl Heastie, using his ties to New York City political leaders and labor groups, gained key political support across the city’s boroughs Thursday to quickly vault into the lead to become the likely next speaker of the Assembly.

But Heastie’s rapid mobilization of Democratic lawmakers, mostly from New York City, left some lawmakers openly grumbling that Heastie and his supporters had not adhered to a process that Assembly Democrats publicly insisted, after outgoing Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver’s fall from power this week, would be more deliberative.

The controversy – that backroom dealmaking overtook the much-touted considered, inclusive process – was perhaps just a mere stumbling block to Heastie’s rise from an unknown outside the Bronx to one of the three most powerful government officials in the state.

An array of city Democrats from outside the Bronx, including lawmakers from Manhattan, Queens and Brooklyn, jumped to Heastie’s side on Thursday. Heastie and his backers held a pre-victory celebration at a Bronx Democratic dinner Thursday night.

Heastie, first elected to the Assembly in 2000, on Wednesday had won the backing of a growing list of lawmakers, including veteran Brooklyn Assemblyman Joseph Lentol, who dropped out of the speaker’s race Thursday afternoon when it became clear his fellow borough Democrats were siding with Heastie.

If the campaigning continues as it did Thursday, Heastie would become the state’s first African-American Assembly speaker. His backers include a number of influential unions – he is the Assembly’s labor committee chairman – and New York Mayor Bill de Blasio.

Heastie, who in the past has expressed distrust of the media, has not returned calls for comment all week.

Queens Assemblywoman Catherine Nolan, hoping to become the first woman speaker in the state, insisted Thursday evening that Heastie’s growing support does not mean the race is over. “I’m pressing on. We committed to an open process and I’m going to go as far as I can under that open process,’’ Nolan said in an interview.

Assembly Majority Leader Joseph Morelle, a Monroe County Democrat and the sole upstate candidate, was in New York City again Thursday trying to land supporters in the heart of the Assembly Democratic conference. Sixty-one of the 105 Democrats in the Assembly are from New York City. The Assembly has 150 members.

After deposing Silver on Tuesday night, lawmakers went to great pains to insist to the media that the process of choosing a new speaker was going to be deliberative. They talked of a process that would last until Feb. 10, when a floor vote would be held, and that all the speaker candidates were to make their case behind closed doors early next week to the full Democratic conference.

“That was the deal. Everybody gets to hear the same thing at the same time in conference,’’ said Assemblywoman Crystal Peoples-Stokes, a Buffalo Democrat. “Some in the reform caucus say they want to hear what it is they’re going to change.”

Asked if she would be concerned that a winning candidate could be announced so quickly and before the agreed-to process played out, Peoples-Stokes said, “I actually don’t know why they would do that. I don’t think that would help them at all.”

Earlier in the day, more than two dozen lawmakers, nearly all of them new to the Assembly in the past five years, penned an open letter to the speaker candidates, seeking a range of possible changes to the procedures and operations of the Assembly.

Buffalo’s other Democratic Assembly member, Sean Ryan, one of 29 lawmakers signing the letter, said he has not committed to any candidate because he wants to see their responses to the group’s ideas. “We’re still engaged in a process and that’s the process we set out after much deliberation,” Ryan said.

While the letter suggested the members wanted answers before committing to a speaker candidate, several of those signing it by nightfall had moved to Heastie’s column. Lawmakers all week have been saying there is a tricky time in any internal legislative leadership fight – when to sit on the fence and when to jump to someone’s camp.

The string of scandals that has hit the Assembly in the past decade, and most recently with Silver’s arrest last week on federal corruption charges, suddenly had rank-and-file Democrats coming out of the woodwork Thursday calling for internal changes to push the Assembly into something resembling a transparent, deliberative body no longer so heavily dominated by one politician.

But Assemblyman Charles Lavine, a Long Island Democrat and chairman of the house’s ethics committee, said lawmakers need to be deliberative and public hearings should be held when considering changes in the operations and rules of the Assembly.

“In discussions with many Assembly members over the last days, it becomes obvious that the word reform has many meanings and seems, like beauty, to be in the eye of the beholder, ranging from new district office furniture to term limits to the return of member item discretionary funding,” Lavine said of what is commonly known as pork barrel spending.

Given the numbers, the campaign to succeed Silver is a downstate fight. The Buffalo area has just three members in the Assembly Democratic conference; Brooklyn alone has 20 members.