New York Assembly facing historic change in leadership

ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) — The contest to succeed longtime New York Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver was supposed to be an open process, giving lawmakers two weeks to mull their options.

Instead, it’s looking increasingly likely that the decision will be made before Silver’s resignation from the post takes effect Monday night, an outcome that would dash the hopes of some lawmakers and reformers who pushed for a departure from Albany’s usual backroom politics.

Assemblyman Carl Heastie of the Bronx has emerged as the clear favorite from a field that just a few days ago featured five contenders. Three of them quickly backed out and threw their support behind Heastie, who would be the first African-American speaker in New York.

Now there is only one other opponent, Assemblywoman Catherine Nolan of Queens, who would be the first female speaker in state history.

Nolan insisted late in the week that she’s in the race to win it, and said she doesn’t want her colleagues to make a snap decision or revert to the Assembly’s tradition of secret deals.

“The conference agreed on a process to reflect a new openness,” Nolan said. “Otherwise it’s the same old Albany.”

Silver was forced out of the leadership post, one of the most powerful jobs in New York government, after 21 years. That followed federal charges alleging he collected nearly $4 million in kickbacks over a decade for his influence on real-estate legislation and medical grants. He predicted he’ll be exonerated but resigned the leadership position as of Monday. He plans to keep his Assembly seat representing lower Manhattan.

Majority Leader Joseph Morelle of Rochester is set to become acting speaker until all 150 Assembly members vote on a permanent replacement, now as early as Tuesday given Heastie’s quick consolidation of support.

That would be earlier than a timetable setting a Feb. 10 vote as part of a process meant to allow lawmakers to fully consider candidates for the job. Good government groups had even hoped the contenders would agree to a public forum that would give voters a chance to learn about the lawmakers who hope to lead the chamber.

Then Morelle — following Assemblyman Keith Wright of Manhattan and Joseph Lentol of Brooklyn — backed off their announced interest and endorsed Heastie amid the Bronx lawmaker’s energetic efforts to win backing for his bid.

“Carl already worked pretty hard ahead of me,” Lentol said late Thursday afternoon after dropping out.

Even though the process appears to be speeding up, Citizens Union Executive Director Dick Dadey said there is still time for alternate candidates to address the public.

“It’s the Assembly’s decision to make, but there should be a public forum that is open so voters can understand who is running for speaker and why,” he said.

Heastie, 47, was chairman of the Assembly Labor Committee for the past two years. First elected in 2000, he is a former budget analyst for the New York City Comptroller’s Office with a bachelor’s degree in math from the State University at Stony Brook and an MBA from Baruch College. He also leads the Bronx Democratic County Committee. In his online biography, he says he was the prime sponsor of stiffer penalties for employers who steal staff wages and a principal negotiator in raising the minimum wage, which is currently $8.75 an hour, rising to $9 next year.

Heastie’s January campaign filing showed a balance of almost $26,000. His state financial disclosure shows only negligible outside income as an adjunct professor at Monroe College in the Bronx and that he is single. He issued a statement promising “lasting reforms that will increase accountability and transparency in our state government.”

Heastie said Saturday he will meet with legislators to build a coalition.

He is already talking to Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli about per diem expense reforms and will propose limiting legislators’ outside income or prohibiting it while increasing their state pay.

He also said he isn’t worried about news reports some of his campaign spending records raised questions or that becoming an Albany legislative leader will put U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara’s target on his back.

The now-defunct anti-corruption Moreland Commission looked at all lawmakers’ campaign filings, including Heastie’s, which attracted attention because of thousands of dollars in bank and credit card payments for unspecified expenses. The commission found similar issues with many lawmakers because of the state’s lax reporting requirements and enforcement.

Later filings aggregate various expenses on a dedicated campaign American Express card.

Nolan, 56, leads the Assembly’s Committee on Education. She graduated from New York University with a political science degree and was first elected to the Assembly in 1984. She is married to Gerard Marsicano and they have one son.

She vowed, if picked, to bring openness and transparency to the Assembly — and to make sure all lawmakers have more of a say. She dismissed suggestions that the choice was already made.

“I’ve seen people say ‘X’ and then vote ‘Y,'” she said when asked whether Heastie had the votes he needs. “Anything can happen.”

Legislators backing reforms said their number has risen to 34 and they expect to meet with Heastie and Nolan on Monday.

“I’m optimistic the reform effort has established strong roots and will be able to grow into something productive,” Assemblyman David Buchwald said. The Westchester lawmaker was among 23 who signed a letter asking speaker candidates to commit to establishing a task force to draft specific reform proposals.

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