Republican Lester Chang officially took his seat in the New York State Assembly on the first day of the 2023 legislative session — but perhaps not for long.
In an interview Wednesday with Gothamist, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, D-Bronx, said Democrats will decide in the “next couple of days” whether to move ahead with a vote to kick Chang out of the chamber over lingering questions about his Brooklyn residency (or lack thereof).
Assembly Democrats discussed the issue in private Tuesday, going over the findings of a Heastie-ordered report that concluded Chang was, at best, a “visitor” to his mother’s Midwood, which he claimed as his residence in order to run for a south-central Brooklyn Assembly district.
While the private meeting didn’t result in any final resolution, Heastie said the prevailing sentiment was clear.
“We had an extensive conference and we’ve pretty much heard from all of our members, and I’d say the overwhelming sentiment is: Members are very troubled at the findings in the report, and there’s a sense that the [state] Constitution needs to be respected,” Heastie said.
At the same time, Heastie said Assembly Democrats are mindful Chang did win his election in November, defeating longtime Democratic incumbent Peter Abbate Jr. by about 600 votes.
“Members are — they’re not happy with this, but they don’t take lightly or for granted that an election did happen,” Heastie said. “So we’ll figure it out in the next couple of days on what we’re going to do.”
The start of the legislative session is the first opportunity for rookie lawmakers to take their seats.
Chang sat among his new colleagues in the third row of desks in the grand Assembly chamber, raising his right arm for the official oath of office — all while his attorney, Hugh Mo, looked on intently from the first row of the visitor’s section.
Now, Chang will continue in office while Assembly Democrats reach a resolution, leaving him in limbo. There’s no deadline for a decision.
Under the state Constitution, the Assembly has broad power to remove a member with a simple majority vote, though Chang’s attorneys stand ready to challenge any removal in court.
“Well, I would like a decision on it, but in my mind — I’m happy he’s seated,” Assembly Minority Leader Will Barclay, an Oswego County Republican, said Wednesday afternoon. “I don’t think he should be kicked out of the Assembly, but I don’t want it to linger on for six months where [Democrats are] always saying, ‘Well, maybe we’ll look at it. Maybe we’ll end up throwing him out.’”
Heastie ordered an investigation into Chang’s residency in late November, after Chang defeated Abbate. Under state rules, Chang had to have been a Brooklyn resident for at least 12 months prior to his election in order to represent a district in the borough.
The resulting probe — which concluded with a report written by Stanley Schlein, an outside attorney with deep ties to Bronx Democrats and who was involved in the lone hearing on Chang’s residency — found, among other things, that Chang didn’t change his voting address until February and still has a rent-controlled apartment in Manhattan. Under the city’s rent-control program, any unit must be a tenant’s primary residence.
During a hearing last month, Chang acknowledged he still has the apartment but said no one was currently living in it.
In his interview with Gothamist, Heastie said he was particularly troubled by the Manhattan apartment, and said he was hopeful “other agencies” will take a look at the issue.
“The fact that you have a rent-regulated apartment that no one’s using when we have such a housing crisis in the city, the fact that he did sign a form swearing and affirming that it was his residence — I think there were some very troubling things that came up in this report,” Heastie said.
Chang and Republicans challenge whether Assembly Democrats actually have the constitutional authority to kick him out of the chamber, and they continue to insist that his electoral residence has been the Midwood home he grew up in, still owned by his mother and uncle, for over a year. His attorneys authored a lengthy rebuttal that was included in Schlein’s report.
“While Chang moved to Manhattan prior to the relevant period, his childhood home remained and was where his heart was – Brooklyn,” his attorneys wrote in their rebuttal. “At all junctures of his life, since 1972, he had a physical presence at his home in Brooklyn.”
Barclay said Assembly Democrats missed their time to challenge Chang’s residency, saying it should have been done prior to Election Day — which is normal procedure. It would set a “terrible precedent,” Barclay said, to remove Chang after he is seated.
“[Chang] was duly elected by the people of Brooklyn who want him to represent them,” Barclay said Wednesday. “The time to bring any residency challenge has long passed. Not now, when he’s a sitting member of the Assembly.”
Heastie said Chang’s path to the ballot complicated pre-election challenges to his residency, since he didn’t have to petition his way into the race like most candidates. Instead, Chang was substituted onto the ballot by Republicans after a prior candidate declined to run.
He said Assembly Democrats will likely look at ways to change the laws going forward to clarify the pre-election challenge process and what counts as residency.
“There’s lessons that we’ve learned even on the electoral side of things — challenges and some of the lack of clarity when it comes to residency,” Heastie said. “So legislatively, we probably want to examine those things.”
Chang will be allowed to participate in the Assembly while Democrats continue to determine his fate.
He received applause from his Republican colleagues when he cast his first official vote Wednesday — an ill-fated vote in favor of Barclay as Assembly speaker. (Heastie, as expected, was elected by Democrats, who control 102 seats in the 150-seat chamber.)
On Tuesday, Chang told reporters he will likely challenge any effort to remove him from office — in court first and, if necessary, in a special election to fill the seat.
“Well, we have the legal steps, and we have the special election,” Chang told reporters. “I mean, there [are] ways. But I’m sure we will overcome.”