Lester Chang takes seat in the New York Assembly, for now

Lester Chang takes seat in the New York Assembly, for now

Republican Lester Chang officially took his seat in the New York State Assembly on the first day of the 2023 legislative session — but maybe 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 forward with a vote to expel Chang from the chamber for continued questioning in about his residence in Brooklyn. or lack thereof).

Assembly Democrats discussed the issue privately Tuesday, reviewing the findings of a Heastie-commissioned report that concluded Chang was, at best, a “visitor” to his mother’s Midwood , which he claimed as his home state to run for a south-central Brooklyn Assembly district.

While the private meeting did not result in any final resolution, Heastie said the prevailing sentiment was clear.

“We had an extensive briefing and we heard from pretty much all of our members, and I would say the overwhelming feeling is: Members are very concerned with the findings in the report and there is a sense that [state] The constitution must be respected,” Heastie said.

At the same time, Heastie said Assembly Democrats are aware that Chang won his election in November, defeating Democratic incumbent Peter Abbate Jr. by about 600 votes.

“Members are — they’re not happy about it, but they don’t take it lightly or for granted that an election has happened,” Heastie said. “So we’ll figure out in the next couple of days what we’re going to do.”

The start of the legislative session is the first opportunity for rookie legislators to take their seats.

Chang sat among his new colleagues in the third row of tables in the Assembly’s great chamber, raising his right arm for the official oath — all while his lawyer, Hugh Mo, watched intently from the front row. of the visitors section.

Now, Chang will continue in office while House Democrats reach a resolution, leaving him in limbo. There is no deadline for a decision.

Under the state Constitution, the Assembly has broad powers to remove a member with a simple majority vote, although Chang’s lawyers are prepared to challenge any removal in court.

“Well, I would like a decision on it, but in my mind — I’m glad he’s sitting,” Assembly Minority Leader Will Barclay, an Oswego County Republican, said Wednesday afternoon. “I don’t think he should be expelled from the Assembly, but I don’t want it to last for six months [Democrats are] always saying, ‘Well, maybe we’ll see. We’ll probably end up throwing it out.”

Heastie ordered an investigation into Chang’s residence in late November after Chang defeated Abbate. Under state rules, Chang had to have been a resident of Brooklyn for at least 12 months before his election in order to represent a district in the borough.

The resulting investigation — which culminated in a report written by Stanley Schlein, an outside attorney with deep ties to Bronx Democrats who was involved in the only hearing on Chang’s residence — found, among other things , that Chang did not change his voting address. until February and still has a rent-controlled apartment in Manhattan. Under the city’s rent control program, each unit must be the tenant’s primary residence.

During a hearing last month, Chang acknowledged that he still owns the apartment, but said no one was currently living in it.

In his interview with Gothamist, Heastie said he was particularly concerned about the Manhattan apartment and said he hoped “other agencies” would take a look at the case.

“The fact that you have a regulated rental apartment that no one is using when we have such a housing crisis in the city, the fact that he signed a form swearing and affirming that it was his residence – I think there have been some very disturbing the things that came out in this report,” Heastie said.

Chang and Republicans challenge whether House Democrats actually have the constitutional authority to expel him from the chamber, and they continue to insist that his constituency residence has been the Midwood home where he grew up, still owned by his mother and uncle. , for more than one. year. His lawyers authored a lengthy rebuttal that was included in Schlein’s report.

“While Chang moved to Manhattan before the relevant period, his childhood home remained and was where his heart was – Brooklyn,” his lawyers wrote in their opposition. “At all times of his life, since 1972, he had a physical presence in his Brooklyn home.”

Barclay said Assembly Democrats wasted their time challenging Chang’s residency, saying it should have been done before Election Day — which is normal procedure. It would set a “terrible precedent,” Barclay said, to remove Chang after he sits down.

“[Chang] was duly elected by the people of Brooklyn who want him to represent them,” Barclay said Wednesday. “The time to bring any tenure challenge is long past. Not now, when he’s a member of the Assembly.”

Heastie said Chang’s path to the ballot complicated primary challenges for his seat, since he didn’t have to petition to enter the race like most candidates. Instead, Chang was replaced on the ballot by Republicans after a previous 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 a residence.

“There are lessons we’ve learned on the electoral side of things as well — the challenges and some of the lack of clarity when it comes to residency,” Heastie said. “So legislatively, we probably want to look into those things.”

Chang will be allowed to participate in the House while Democrats continue to determine his fate.

He received a standing ovation from his fellow Republicans when he cast his first official vote on Wednesday — an ill-fated vote in favor of Barclay as Speaker. (Heastie, as expected, was elected by Democrats, who control 102 seats in the 150-seat chamber.)

On Tuesday, Chang told reporters that he is likely to challenge any attempt 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’ll make it.”

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