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Heastie Elected First African American Assembly Speaker

Speaker Carl Heastie
Carl Heastie/ Twitter

Carl Heastie was elected unanimously by Democrats in the New York State Assembly to be the next Speaker on Tuesday, less than two weeks after former Speaker Sheldon Silver was arrested and charged with  running a massive multimillion dollar corruption scheme.

Heastie, the first African American speaker in the Assembly’s 237-year history, gave a brief speech to the chamber, where he  focused on moving on from the scandal brought on the Assembly by his predecessor. Heastie says the members have told him they want change.

“Most of all what I hear, is that we must settle for nothing less than real, clear reform to make this chamber a place of pride once again,” said Heastie.

The new Speaker also addressed the issue of sexual harassment, a scandal that plagued former Speaker Silver, when Assemblyman Vito Lopez and others were accused multiple times of sexually harassing staff. Heastie says from now on, there will be a “zero tolerance policy” toward sexual harassers.

The transition from Silver to Heastie was swift.

Democrats had initially said they wanted a two-week period of public campaigning among multiple candidates, but Heastie worked behind the scenes to secure the support of the majority of his Assembly colleagues within a week of former Speaker Silver’s arrest on corruption charges.

Heastie, who until this week was the Bronx Democratic Party Chair, retained that backing despite a flurry of negative news stories about his campaign finances. The governor’s Moreland Commission on corruption subpoenaed Heastie’s campaign bank accounts to try to determine how he spent up to $60,000 in un-itemized spending, but came to no conclusions.  In New York, it is not illegal to use campaign accounts for personal purposes. Heastie is also one of the top three collectors of per diem reimbursements, which legislators receive whenever they spend the day in Albany.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, in a speech on ethics reform earlier in the week, did not name Heastie, but he criticized  lawmakers who abuse both of those things, saying the “days when officials make money on per diems must be over.”

“Campaign funds are called campaign funds because they’re supposed to be spent on campaigns,” Cuomo said. “However personal use of campaign funds has become another way to supplement income. This is wrong.”

Cuomo is threatening to hold up the state budget if lawmakers don’t agree to reforms.

Heastie has proposed a number of reforms, saying, unlike former Speaker Silver, who claimed at least $650,000 a year in outside income, the Speaker’s post will be his only job. And Heastie, speaking to reporters afterward, says he’ll discuss reforming the per diem system with the other Democrats.

But Heastie says enacting public campaign financing may be difficult because of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision and other rulings permitting greater spending by independent groups.

The newest member of the three men in a room tradition for state budget talks say he does not expect to be at a disadvantage against Governor Cuomo and the Senate Leader. He says he backs increasing the minimum wage and enacting the Dream Act for college aid of immigrants. He says he expects Governor Cuomo’s proposals  to toughen teacher evaluations and tie increased school aid to expanding charter schools will be “tough areas” of the budget to negotiate. But he says he’ll be meeting with the rest of the Democrats in the coming days to better define their positions.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of public radio stations in New York state. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.
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