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Bronx Democrat on verge of becoming Assembly speaker

ALBANY – Carl Heastie is an accountant by training, but he didn’t need that level of skill to know that on Friday he had gotten enough supporters to be all but certain of becoming the next speaker of the Assembly as early as Tuesday.

But Heastie is not yet declaring victory, at least not publicly.

“I would really rather not express any of that until I get together with my colleagues on Monday,” Heastie said in an interview Friday evening with The Buffalo News.

Heastie said that as much “as I think the entire state is watching this process,” it is one that is being led and decided by the 105 members of the Assembly Democratic conference. “I’d like to leave it at that,” he said.

Still, Heastie made clear his desire for the job, despite the rising challenges of Albany’s political scene over the past decade. “You have the ability to improve the lives of people. … It is a very, very enticing thing to me,” he said.

Heastie said that one of the first things he would do as speaker is to conduct a tour of upstate.

“I’m not going to lie to the people of Buffalo and say I have vast knowledge of upstate. … It would be my job to go and do a learning tour of what upstate is about,” Heastie said in his first interview with an upstate media outlet since the race to succeed Sheldon Silver began.

The Bronx Democrat on Friday picked up yet more backing from another brief opponent who dropped out of the speaker’s race: Assembly Majority Leader Joseph Morelle of Monroe County.

Hours later, Silver, who lost the confidence and support of his Democratic colleagues after federal corruption charges were brought against him last week, on Friday evening submitted official papers resigning from the speaker’s job, effective 11:59 p.m. Monday.

Heastie, who is unknown to most New Yorkers, did not declare victory Friday, but his statement thanking Morelle for his support had all the sounds of a winning campaign.

“I have asked Joe to remain as majority leader and to play a greater role in that capacity,” Heastie said in language meant to push any remaining fence-sitters to his growing camp of support.

Yet Heastie, for the moment anyway, appears not to want to declare victory before he can formally appear before his 104 fellow Assembly Democrats in a closed-door session Monday at which he is supposed to lay out his vision for the state for the first time.

Officials said that while the vote on the next speaker was scheduled to occur Feb. 10, it could now happen as soon as Tuesday in a floor vote. Democrats heavily dominate the 150-member house, so whoever they select in conference will become speaker after a floor vote.

Heastie’s Democratic supporters were already cheering. And, no doubt, his looming victory is a win for New York City, where everyone from Mayor Bill de Blasio to labor unions were pressing to keep the speaker’s post in the hands of a city lawmaker. There has not been an upstate Assembly speaker since 1911.

“If you’re the mayor of the city of New York, it’s obviously a good thing to have the Assembly speaker come from the city,” said Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr.

The would-be speaker, when asked about good and troublesome aspects of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s budget plans, said he liked some of the infrastructure spending proposals. “I think the education budget might be a little more trouble,” he said, adding he would not elaborate until he has heard more specifics from his fellow Democrats.

It remains to be seen how Heastie’s city-based agenda might conflict with recent budget plans made by Cuomo, who has an on-again, off-again relationship with de Blasio. But the Assembly, even if the disgraced Silver had remained in office, was already going to be butting heads with Cuomo, especially over the governor’s education proposals.

“This is historic,” Diaz said of Heastie’s likely rise to the speaker’s job. “We feel that when people speak of the Bronx, it’s very negative. Negative stereotypes. We’ve always felt overlooked. We feel like, wow, this is finally recognition of the good work that we’re doing.”

In the Friday night interview with The News, Heastie dismissed media reports that have suggested de Blasio was heavily involved in his speaker’s campaign. “Everyone keeps saying the mayor was supporting me. That’s not the case,” Heastie said, adding that the two did not talk until Thursday. “He just said he wanted somebody who would look out for the interests of the city.”

Asked if he foresees wholesale changes in Assembly committee leaders and staff shake-ups, Heastie said that would be “getting way ahead of myself. The conference has not spoken.” But, he added, “When you have a brand-new person after 20 years, everything is on the table until you take it off the table,” and he promised a “top-down examination of what’s going on” in the Assembly operations if he becomes speaker.

Assemblyman Joseph Lentol, a Brooklyn Democrat who stopped campaigning for the job Thursday to support Heastie, earlier in the week said speaker candidates had to, given the climate in Albany, publicly state if they were under any kind of investigation. “I am not under any investigations,” Heastie said Friday.

Assembly Democrats this week had touted a different kind of selection process for Silver’s replacement, one that they characterized as more deliberative and that would not be decided until a vote Feb. 10. It didn’t quite turn out that way, as Heastie mobilized supporters, first heavily across the boroughs – breaking off Democrats who might, for geographic reasons, have backed candidates from Manhattan, Queens and Brooklyn – and then the suburbs and upstate.

On Friday, Assemblywoman Crystal Peoples-Stokes, a Buffalo Democrat who had been urging the candidates to keep to the more measured campaign schedule, backed Heastie. After insisting all week she had not decided on who to back, she said Friday, “I hadn’t said it publicly, but I’ve been supporting Carl from the very beginning.”

Heastie is now poised to become the first African-American Assembly speaker and the first from the Bronx since it became a borough.

The lone lawmaker still in the race is Assemblywoman Catherine Nolan, a Queens Democrat. She has insisted she will take the campaign through to the end of the process, which will include the closed-door meeting Monday afternoon.

A number of other Democrats say they are holding out until Heastie and Nolan answer questions from more than two dozen members of a new “reform caucus” about how they are going to change the operations of the Assembly to make it more transparent, less seniority-driven and more democratic when it comes to everything from office staff sizes to getting bills to the floor for votes. The group of 30 lawmakers is composed mostly of members who have come to Albany in the past five or so years.

The group is due to meet with Heastie on Monday at the Capitol.

In a Friday meeting with editors and reporters of The News, Assemblyman Sean Ryan, D-Buffalo, said he believes that the reform group will grow to 40 members soon. “They say we’ve got to change things; got to modernize things,” he said. “A substantial portion of that body desires change, and I think we’re going to get it.”

Ryan, who has not announced his choice for speaker, has acknowledged Heastie’s momentum, but he said the Bronx lawmaker needs to show an overwhelming number of backers from all divisions in the conference.

“Nobody wants to win with 76 votes,” he said. “Whoever is the next speaker will want to unify the body.”

News Political Reporter Robert J. McCarthy contributed to this report. email: