ALBANY – At a time when Western New York is losing influence in the State Senate, the region is poised to possibly add a powerful new voice in the 150-member Assembly.
Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, a Bronx Democrat, is nearing a decision on who he will select to become the next Assembly majority leader, and Buffalo Assemblywoman Crystal Peoples-Stokes is on the short list of candidates.
The job brings with it political influence, the ability to have a hand in shaping major policy and a route to deliver financial benefits for Buffalo and neighboring communities.
“If the speaker offers me the job, I would love to have the opportunity," Peoples-Stokes said Monday as she traveled back to Buffalo from Puerto Rico following an annual gathering hosted by a Hispanic legislators’ group that attracts a who’s who of New York State political insiders.
Peoples-Stokes, 66, has been telling colleagues and the media since last spring that she is interested in the job after its former occupant, Joseph Morelle, a longtime Rochester-area Democratic lawmaker, announced he was leaving to run for the U.S. Congress seat that opened after the death of Rep. Louise Slaughter. Morelle easily won his congressional contest last week and is to be sworn in Tuesday.
Heastie, in an interview in mid-October with The Buffalo News, said he has known Peoples-Stokes before they both joined the Assembly.
“She’s an outstanding member, very capable and represents Western New York well. Crystal has always been someone I can rely on and depend on. She is the ultimate team player," Heastie said.
But, the Assembly leader added, there are other members of the Democratic conference that "I can put in the same category as Crystal."
Who gets the majority leader’s job will be determined by one voter: Heastie.
The speaker said he hopes to be nominated again in a mid-December meeting in Albany by his fellow Democrats to serve another session as leader of the Democratic-led chamber. In early January, his re-election is then expected to be formally approved during a vote before the full Assembly.
“When the election (for Speaker) comes on the first day of session, I think decisions will be made around them," he said of the timing of filling the job of majority leader and a number of committee and other leadership posts.
The majority leader’s position is a ministerial one. The occupant is the floor leader, responsible for keeping the Assembly run in as orderly a manner as possible. They round up tardy lawmakers, make sure there are enough majority members on the floor to pass a bill without help from the GOP, and schedule floor debates when bills are considered.
Given the strong personalities in the active legislative chamber, the majority leader is part politician, part psychologist, part air traffic controller and partly a warm blanket for legislators who can get upset about not getting their way.
On Monday afternoon, Peoples-Stokes talked about the job from the Orlando airport, where her Buffalo-bound plane had to return to the terminal after pilots discovered not enough fuel reserves were on the commercial jet.
“I really think I have the qualities that make for a majority leader. The personality, the ability to get along with others. The ability to build consensus," she said.
Several Democrats are also in contention, including Binghamton area’s Donna Lupardo and Syracuse area’s William Magnarelli. One or two downstate lawmakers privately expressed some interest, but by tradition the No. 2 post has gone to a legislator from upstate given the long line of Assembly speakers who have come from New York City.
Republicans are vastly outnumbered in the Assembly and so no GOP lawmaker would be considered.
The consideration by Heastie of Peoples-Stokes comes after last week’s elections that saw the Democrats take control of the Senate, which come January will sharply reduce the political power of Western New York at the Capitol because the region will see its representation in the majority caucus running the Senate go from five members with the GOP in charge today to one when Democrats assume power in six weeks.
Paul Tokasz, a former Cheektowaga-based Assembly member who served as majority leader from 2001 to 2006, said the position is highly coveted among upstate Assembly lawmakers.
“The advantage is you’re in the room when major decisions within the (Democratic) conference are being made … I think it would be a huge advantage for Western New York and the region," said Tokasz, now vice president of government relations at M&T Bank.
Tokasz recalled he was able as majority leader to do everything from successfully pressing for a strategic growth program at the University at Buffalo to helping drive more state money to schools in his districts and cultural arts organizations throughout the area. But he said it is on broader state policies where a savvy majority leader can help shape debates to consider upstate in a downstate-dominated State Capitol.
The position does not have the political cache or influence of the Assembly Speaker or that of the Senate Majority Leader, which is the top position in that chamber. “At certain times, it’s herding cats and it’s making to the extent you can the buses run on time, which is always a challenge," Tokasz said.
The State Legislature is not known for its timely ways. After the budget process wraps up in late March or early April, there is a lull before chaos breaks out in the final few weeks of session in June, when hundreds of bills are getting passed on a daily basis and the Assembly slips into its all-night-session mode in the final days.
The majority leader of the Erie County Legislature at the time, Peoples-Stokes, a member of Buffalo’s Grassroots political organization, in 2000 had a hard-fought Democratic primary contest against then Assemblyman Arthur Eve. Two years later, after Eve retired, Peoples-Stokes won her first term to represent the 141st District, which includes the East Side. The district has about 130,000 residents and is about 60 percent African-American. Last week, she was re-elected with 86 percent of the vote.
The assemblywoman said Heastie was in Puerto Rico during the past week for the annual conference that brings a heavy contingent of New York Democrats to the island. But she said the topic of the majority leader’s job was not discussed.
“I don’t think you can campaign for this … and he’s the only one who can make the decision," she said. She added: “There’s no lobbying you can do for this. You state your interest, which I have done, and you let the chips fall where they may."