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New Assembly Speaker’s openness pleases Democratic rank, file

ALBANY – Assembly Democrats complained in their closed-door conference about how Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo was linking several controversial, nonbudget policies to appropriations in the state budget now under negotiation.

To the delight of his colleagues, new Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie took Democrats’ complaints public last week.

In private talks, Assembly Democrats were not happy that Heastie and his fiscal advisers were considering a proposal to hike state aid to public schools by $1.4 billion in the coming year – not a lot more than what Cuomo proposed.

In response to his colleagues, Heastie bumped that number up to $1.8 billion and, taking it a step further, angered Cuomo by removing the big school aid jump to major education policy changes the governor wants, including tougher teacher job performance evaluations.

It has been a short ride for Heastie, following his early February rise to the Legislature’s top Democrat. In the last month, he has ruffled the feathers of the Cuomo administration and offered illustrations of his long distrust of – and distaste for – reporters.

Yet, where it matters most for him – in the hearts and minds of his fellow Assembly Democrats who put him in power – Heastie is quickly coalescing his influence with a new style: listening directly to all rank-and-file Democrats, not just the veterans, and acting on their wish lists when he can.

Whether his “member-driven” style will lasts, or even whether Heastie’s budget demands to Cuomo will become reality, are matters for the near and long-term future. But for the time being, and it is only a blink on Albany time, Heastie is scoring important points with his Assembly Democrats.

“This speaker has been very responsive to his members,” said Assemblyman Anthony Brindisi, a Utica Democrat, who on Friday was tapped by Heastie to be on a budget conference committee to negotiate some aspects of the health components of the fiscal plan.

The conference committees don’t do the major, trickiest work of the budget. That is left to Cuomo, Heastie and Senate leaders. But many members covet the conference committee slots because they get a more direct hand in some aspects of the talks. And, for Brindisi, who came to Albany in 2011, it would have been all but unthinkable for a junior member when Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver ran the house.

Assembly Democrats relatively new to Albany – 40 percent of the conference has been elected since 2010 – complained in the past of staff sentries who got in the way of their efforts to reach Silver. One Democrat in January compared it to a high school class, where they played the role of freshmen and Silver and veteran members were the senior class.

“There were more layers you’d have to go through in the past if you wanted to try to accomplish something,” Brindisi said. “With the (new) speaker, you can reach out to him and he gets right back to you.”

Of course, after a contested election, the Bronx Democrat has few choices but to satisfy his colleagues, particularly in the early part of his leadership. But he has insisted his style will be based on consensus-building and giving a greater voice to all members of his conference, relying less on Albany’s most consistent coin-flipping decision-maker: seniority.

Heastie made that clear last week with the selection of the newest members of the Regents, the state’s education-policy-setting panel that the Assembly, through its larger numbers, selects during a joint session with the Senate. With rank-and-file members getting heat from both parents and the powerful teachers union about Common Core and other Regents-created controversies, Heastie pushed through the election of four new regents and ousted such longtime regents as Western New York’s Robert Bennett. Heastie personally tapped Catherine Collins to replace Bennett, despite Assemblyman Robin Schimminger’s strong insistence to keep Bennett. Schimminger was elected to the Assembly in 1976.

Tangling with Cuomo

The budget, though, presents Heastie’s biggest test as a new leader.

When Heastie took over, the Cuomo administration had the general view that his inexperience – coupled with fractured elements in the Democratic conference following the contested race for speaker – would make him an easy roll in budget talks.

Heastie has privately and publicly has been sending signals that his members aren’t going to allow him to cave to whatever Cuomo wants.

During an interview last week with New York Now, a statewide public television show, Heastie said the public and reporters “should be gravely concerned” about Cuomo’s ratcheting up tactics in which controversial policies he wants are linked to spending the Legislature wants.

The Legislature “should not have to negotiate a budget under threats,” Heastie said. Hours later in Rochester, Cuomo told reporters that Heastie wants more power for lawmakers.

“We have something called the constitution … If the speaker doesn’t like the constitution of the state of New York, he could try to change the constitution,” the governor said.

Assembly Democrats said Heastie’s fight with Cuomo on that issue is not a solo one.

“The speaker is taking his cues from the conference,” said Assemblyman Walter Mosley, a Brooklyn Democrat. He said Cuomo’s holding hostage appropriations to his policy wishes “does a disservice to the Legislature because we’re here to do just that – legislate – and iron out differences.”

It has not gone unnoticed in Albany that while Heastie has elevated the standing of newer, more junior members of the Democratic conference, he has also not punished those who either challenged him for the top leader’s job or their supporters. Committee chairs, many of them longtime members, kept their jobs along his with challengers in the speaker’s race, including Queens’ Kathy Nolan, chairwoman of the Education Committee, who still was the public face of the Assembly during the regents voting last week.

“I think members feel like they’re all carrying this responsibility together,” said Mosley, a Heastie supporter in the speaker’s campaign. “I think older and younger members are feeling reinvigorated in the sense that they really see themselves being part of this process.”

Statewide ramifications

Whether Heastie is a weak or powerful leader has ramifications far beyond the hallways of the Capitol.

Democrats lead the left-leaning Assembly, and New York City-based lawmakers dominate conference, although they are not always the most cohesive group. To the extent that Heastie can keep the different geographic, gender, racial and other factions of the Assembly Democrats together will go a long way to influencing everything from how much money is steered to schools, social programs and health programs like Medicaid, to how much attention is paid to upstate issues.

Education spending is the heart and soul of the budget for many lawmakers. Cuomo proposed to increase school aid by $1.1 billion, but only if his teacher evaluations and other policy changes are embraced. Heastie proposed to Assembly Democrats an increase over that, but not as large as members wanted. After members made their push, Heastie upped the amount to $1.8 billion, and jettisoned the Cuomo policy ideas.

“That’s the way a leader should go. He should listen to his members and try to make their desires real. That education funding is clearly an example of that. People were highly opposed to that small number,” Assemblywoman Crystal Peoples-Stokes, a Buffalo Democrat, said of the first Assembly school funding plan. “It got increased, and people are feeling good about it.”

The Assembly education plan, which will now be negotiated with competing proposals from Cuomo and Senate Republicans for the fiscal year that starts April 1, gives more money to all schools than Cuomo’s plan, but it pays special attention to lower-income, urban districts, like the ones represented by most Assembly Democrats.

Also included in the Assembly budget plans is a $1.5 billion pot for upstate areas outside Western New York in a program modeled after the Buffalo Billion initiative. That is a plan Cuomo proposed in his budget.

But, in the New York City-dominated Assembly Democratic conference, it was not necessarily a priority for many downstate lawmakers.

Assemblyman Brindisi, however, said Heastie listened to pleas from himself and several other upstate Democrats to support the funding for beleaguered upstate cities like Utica and Rome that he represents. Some upstate Democrats pitched the idea in a closed-door Assembly Democratic conference, Brindisi said, and Heastie two weeks ago talked with him about the matter outside the Assembly chamber in the Capitol.

“This speaker has been very responsive to members. He’s done a great job of making us feel involved in the process,” said the Mohawk Valley Democrat.

No loss of influence

In Albany, happy rank-and-file members equate to political power for a legislative leader.

Silver’s style was based on a combination of factors: longevity, control of campaign purse strings to help vulnerable or new members, control of the reapportionment process, dividing and conquering a diverse Democratic conference and a willingness to take political hits when lawmakers got into some kind of trouble. Silver also made clear, newer members say, that one lawmaker’s seniority could easily kill an idea raised by a junior member.

Peoples-Stokes, who has praised Silver’s leadership but quietly backed Heastie when it was clear Silver could not hold onto his post, said she has seen no evidence that Assembly Democrats have lost influence in budget talks because of a new leader.

“Carl’s inexperience being a leader of Assembly Democrats is not going to be a negative because the conference is so strong,” the Buffalo Democrat said. “The members are empowered and because we are, he is.”