Mayor de Blasio’s State of the City address wasn’t the only important political event of the day. In Albany this morning, the State Assembly elected Carl Heastie, a 47-year-old Democrat from the Bronx, as its new speaker. Heastie is New York’s first African-American State Assembly Speaker; he replaces the besmirched Sheldon Silver, who last week was arrested on corruption charges after holding the office for more than twenty years. The election culminates Silver’s precipitous fall from grace, a six-day swoon that began with his arrest and ended with a vote of no confidence, after Silver vainly attempted to hold on to power. He resigned his post shortly thereafter.
In his first remarks as speaer, Heastie outlined a broad agenda of progressive ideals, including raising the minimum wage, improving public education, and reforming the state’s broken criminal justice system. He also pledged to raise salaries for Assembly members, and promised reform to an institution that U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, who led the investigation into Silver’s malfeasance, called a “cauldron of corruption.”
Silver’s resignation was official at midnight on Monday, by which time Democratic Assembly members had already backed Heastie as the new speaker, despite previous claims that candidates would have a week to make their respective cases. Following a private meeting that afternoon, majority leader Joe Morelle announced that the Assembly had planned a pro forma vote for 11 a.m. the following day to elevate Heastie. (Even Silver supports him.) At least one Assembly member has voiced complaints about the rapidity of the decision. “We made a commitment to a more transparent process,” Assemblywoman Catherine Nolan said, “and it was a lost opportunity. But I’m not ashamed to say I lost. I did the best I could.” The Times called the backroom politicking “sleazy and secretive.”
Heastie, a moderate Democrat, was first elected to the Assembly in 2000. His legislative track record is mixed: he sponsored a bill that requires mandatory reporting of alleged child abuse of students in New York City, and has passed legislation to raise the minimum wage, increase penalties for wage theft, and authorize the fleet of apple green “boro taxis.” He also voted against same-sex marriage in 2007, before reversing to support the 2011 bill that became New York’s marriage equality law.
Amongst his peers, Heastie is known as a taciturn, media-shy legislator, somewhat aloof, but effective nonetheless. “He’s somebody who has less of a policy agenda and more of a leadership agenda,” one colleague told Capital New York. “There are some people who have particular issues that they want to pursue. His biggest concern has been keeping together his flock.” Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz, Jr., said Heastie embodies “stealth leadership,” which might not exactly be the change Albany needs.
On that note: Heastie drew the notice of the notorious Moreland Commission, the now-defunct ethics panel convened by Governor Cuomo. He was one of 28 lawmakers flagged for having more than $10,000 in campaign expenses from 2008 to 2013 that were not itemized on campaign-finance reports. According to the Times, the new speaker’s “campaign bank account at HSBC was subpoenaed by investigators, the memo said. But the commission’s work was not completed when the panel was closed last year in a deal between lawmakers and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo.”
That means Heastie wasn’t actually under investigation, although it stands to reason he might have been looked at more closely if the panel hadn’t been closed. Perhaps the fishiest incident in his past is his sponsorship of a January 2013 bill that would have enabled check-cashing depots to issue payday loans at up to 200% interest; shortly afterward, Heastie was one of a few lawmakers who received thousands in donations from Check PAC, the lobbying group representing check-cashing stores.
Follow Phillip Pantuso on Twitter @phillippantuso.