ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) — The new leader of the New York state Assembly promised to focus on ethics and integrity after colleagues elected him Tuesday as the first African-American speaker, replacing a lawmaker whose two-decade reign ended with federal corruption charges.
Democrat Carl Heastie vowed to create a new office of ethics compliance and take other steps to clean up Albany's tradition of corruption and backroom dealing.
"We will change the cynicism into trust," Heastie said. "Our state deserves a government as good as its people."
Sheldon Silver, who held the speakership for 21 years, is charged with taking nearly $4 million in payoffs and kickbacks. The Manhattan Democrat has said he expects to be exonerated and intends to keep his seat in the Assembly. Silver attended Tuesday's session, casting a vote for Heastie from his new desk in the Assembly's back row.
Democrats hold a more than two-thirds majority in the chamber, and Heastie easily won the post over Republican Minority Leader Brian Kolb.
The Assembly's only other business Tuesday was passage of a resolution honoring Martin Luther King Jr. Heastie noted the coincidence.
"Thank you, Dr. King, for making this day possible," said Heastie, also the first speaker from the Bronx.
The speaker is one of the most important positions in state government. Heastie will direct the flow of legislation, set committee assignments and direct budget negotiations with Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the Republican-controlled state Senate.
Four other lawmakers initially sought the speakership but quickly backed out as Heastie locked up support.
The 47-year-old Heastie was first elected in 2000 and has led the Assembly's Labor Committee for the past two years. He is a former budget analyst in the New York City Comptroller's Office. He also leads the Bronx Democratic County Committee, a post he has said he will leave now that he is speaker.
On Monday, Heastie outlined his reform proposal, calling for a new Office of Ethics and Compliance led by a non-legislator, new limits on how much outside income lawmakers can earn, and greater reporting of outside income and legislative stipends. Outside pay is a central issue in the case against Silver.
He also said he would look for ways to decentralize Assembly power so rank-and-file lawmakers have more input.
Cuomo has suggested his own proposals including full disclosure of outside income. He announced Monday that he wouldn't sign a state budget unless lawmakers pass reforms to restore public confidence in the Legislature.
"After all the headlines, I can see why they have questions of trust," Cuomo told reporters during an event in Buffalo.
While the vote to elect Heastie speaker was overwhelming, managing the competing and in some cases conflicting goals of lawmakers — while negotiating with Cuomo and the Senate's Republican leaders — is likely to prove more challenging.
Heastie is the latest in a long line of speakers from New York City — a tradition that many city leaders had insisted must be continued. As Mayor Bill de Blasio said in a statement hailing Heastie's election, "New York City needs a strong voice in Albany."
But Heastie will face pressure from upstate lawmakers too. Assemblyman Angelo Santabarbara, D-Rotterdam, said he supported Heastie for speaker after he promised to address ethics and listen to the needs of upstate New York.
"I wanted a commitment that upstate New York would be a part of the conversation," he said.
Heastie said he plans to visit upstate soon and listed several priorities for the Assembly including a higher minimum wage, extending financial aid to students in the country illegally and a legislative package known as the women's equality agenda that contains measures to protect abortion rights and to combat sex trafficking, domestic violence and workplace discrimination.
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(Photo: AP Photo/Mike Groll)