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Politics and Government

Race for next Assembly speaker appears to be locked up

New York State Assembly
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The race to replace disgraced Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver seems all but over, with the Bronx Assemblyman Carl Heastie amassing the most support. Silver’s resignation is effective at midnight Monday, and a vote for the new speaker could be held as early as next week.

Morelle announced on Friday that he would drop out of the race and back Heastie. Morelle, while at home in the Rochester area this weekend, told reporters that Heastie is a close friend and that that the two of them had kept in close contact throughout the process.

"My job in the State Assembly in part is to count noses and to count heads so I knew that Assemblyman Heastie was at a critical point and I wanted to make sure that we came together as a Democratic conference in the Assembly," said Morelle.

Assemblyman Heastie, in a statement, says Morelle will be permitted to remain as Assembly Majority Leader, and perhaps given a greater say in Assembly decisions, if Heastie is elected Speaker next month.  Both promised “meaningful reforms,” but have not detailed what those might be.

Assembly Democrats had announced that they would appoint Morelle as interim speaker and hold open elections for the post on February 10, but with Heastie rapidly amassing a majority of votes, that plan is now in question, and a full vote could come sooner. 

Blair Horner, with the New York Public Interest Research Group, is one of several leading reformers who called for an open process to select a new speaker, after Silver as arrested and accused of running a massive multi-million dollar corruption scheme. Horner now says that it appears the post will be settled  as a result of  behind-the-scenes deal making.

“The train is rumbling along,” said Horner. “And it looks like Assemblyman Heastie will be the next speaker.”

Monday is also supposed to be Sheldon Silver’s last day on the job as Speaker. Silver, in his 21 years in office, championed many liberal and progressive issues, including pre-kindergarten , school aid, and raising the minimum wage.  

Former Assemblyman Richard Brodsky, who is now a senior fellow at the Demos think tank, says Silver was a master negotiator and often delivered for his members during budget talks.

“The loyalty was not because he was warm and fuzzy or because people really liked him personally,” said Brodsky. “It was because, as speaker he protected largely the progressive agenda over the last 20 years.”

But Brodsky says Silver, with his “mumbling and gravelly voice,” was not effective at presenting the public image of the Assembly to New Yorkers.

“Shelly was never viewed as being able to protect the members with the press or the public,” Brodsky said, who says it’s an “unspoken question” whether the next speaker will be any better presenting a public image.

Like Silver, Heastie’s strengths also lie in being an inside power broker, rather than a more public figure or stand out debater in the Assembly.

Heastie, who is the Bronx Party Democratic chairman, would be first African American speaker. An accountant by trade, he’s been in the Assembly since 2000, and is 47 years old. He seldom speaks to the media, quipping that his favorite remark is “no comment.”

Heastie’s campaign accounts were a target of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s now defunct Moreland Act Commission on corruption, because of $25,000 in un- itemized spending, but no conclusions have been reached. 

Horner, with NYPIRG, says a more open process would have vetted the candidates more thoroughly on any ethical questions, and perhaps avoided any more potential embarrassments for the Assembly in the future.

The state Assembly is not the only house in the legislature facing ethical issues. Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos is responding to a report from WNBC that says that the senator may also be the target of a federal probe. Skelo’s spokeswoman, in a written response, says the senator has not been contacted by the U.S. Attorney’s office, and will have no further comment.