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Morelle out, Heastie gains in Speaker's race

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The race to replace the disgraced Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver seems all but over, with the Assembly’s Majority Leader Joe Morelle ending his bid for the job and throwing his support to Bronx Assemblyman Carl Heastie. A vote could be held as early as next week.

Morelle, in a statement, says he is backing Heastie, whom he describes as a close friend. Morelle says he has the “ utmost confidence” in his ability to “unite” the Assembly. Assemblyman Heastie, also 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 10th, 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 Sheldon 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 Chair, 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 Governor 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 avoid 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 which 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 US Attorney’s office, and will have no further comment.  

Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio.
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