Bronx Assemblyman Carl Heastie, who is set to become the leader of the Assembly and one of the most powerful men in Albany within days, is a lawmaker of few words, with a penchant for avoiding public attention and keeping his thoughts to himself.
“It’s sort of like Shelly (Silver),” said a veteran state lawmaker from the city, referring to the recently arrested and often-inscrutable current speaker who is stepping down Monday. “(Heastie) has a quiet, self-effacing attitude that makes it hard to read him.”
While of different generations, boroughs and backgrounds, Heastie and Silver are both career politicians who rose up the ranks of local city Democratic clubs through behind-the-scenes maneuvering and alliance building to become major players in state politics. And both are dogged by questions about possible ethical transgressions. Silver’s have prompted criminal charges, while Heastie has not been charged with any wrongdoing.
Yet, at a time when corruption in Albany has become the only story in the state’s capital — and lawmakers and officials remain squarely in the sights of Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara — Heastie hardly stands out as a reformer, a change agent. Just the opposite, in fact.
Heastie, who also heads the Democratic County Committee in the notoriously corrupt Bronx, comes to the new position with some baggage. Four Bronx lawmakers have been arrested on corruption charges since he became chairman in 2008.
Critics also have pointed out that Heastie is routinely among the Legislature’s top recipients of travel reimbursements. Last year, he received $23,441 in mileage and per diem payments, third-highest among Assembly members.
The Bronx pol managed to receive his per diems — payments for each day spent in Albany — despite missing 173 votes last year, about 15% of the total votes held during the year, according to the New York Public Interest Research Group. Only 13 of the Assembly’s 150 members missed more votes.
Heastie did not respond to a request for an interview, but spokesman Eric Soufer defended his voting record, arguing that the bulk of the missed votes came during a few days in June that Heastie was absent to attend to family and work matters.
Heastie, 47, has never married but has a daughter with former girlfriend Alvita (Lan) Robertson.
When he did vote, Heastie sided with Silver 98.9% of the time. He introduced a relatively modest 51 bills during the 2014 session, only five of which were approved by the Assembly, according to NYPIRG.
Gov. Cuomo’s now-defunct anti-corruption Moreland Commission was also reportedly looking into $25,000 in credit card expenses reported by Heastie’s campaign committee that were not itemized.
Heastie’s low-key manner helps explain why, after serving in the Assembly for nearly 15 years and being well-regarded by colleagues on both sides of the aisle, he remains a mystery to even those who have served alongside him for many years. But Heastie’s supporters insist that his low-key style hides an intelligent, fair-minded pol who’s adept at bridging political divides and ready to become one of the so-called “three men in a room” with Gov. Cuomo and Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos (R-Nassau County).
“If they are looking for someone who is fair, who is firm, someone who is a coalition builder, who is a peacemaker, someone who can hit the ground running on the budget process, they can pick no one better than Carl Heastie,” said Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr., who served in the Assembly and has known Heastie for nearly two decades.
Heastie’s ascension to the speaker’s chair — he would become the first African-American to hold the post — was all but assured Friday when Assembly Majority Leader Joseph Morelle, a Democrat from the Rochester area, dropped out of the race and threw his support to the Bronx Democrat.
Critics have suggested Heastie’s personality, including his aversion to the press, could be problematic as he takes on the high-profile post of Assembly speaker. “I find him to be thin-skinned,” said one veteran Bronx political operative.
Supporters are confident, however, he will grow into the role.
“Based on what I have seen from Carl Heastie over the years, he can pretty much handle anything that comes up,” said fellow Bronx Democratic Assemblyman Jeffrey Dinowitz.
A native of the northeast Bronx, Heastie was introduced to politics at an early age by his parents, who were active in local Democratic clubs.
It was mathematics, however, that captured Heastie’s attention early on. He received a bachelor’s degree in applied mathematics and statistics from SUNY Stony Brook and an MBA in finance from Baruch College. After graduating, he worked as a budget analyst in the city controller’s office until he was elected to the Assembly in 2000.
Heastie’s most recent financial disclosure statement also showed modest investments worth less than $10,000 — a far cry from Silver’s stock portfolio of up to $2.5 million — up to $50,000 in credit card debts and $20,000 in debt consolidation liabilities.
Among Heastie’s notable legislative achievements were a 2011 law that cracked down on wage theft and a 2012 bill that created a new class of green taxis to handle street hails in the outer boroughs. The taxi bill was passed at the urging of then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
Heastie, however, is perhaps best known in political circles for leading a multiethnic coalition — dubbed the Rainbow Rebels — that ousted Assemblyman Jose Rivera as leader of the Bronx Democratic Party in 2008, ending what had been years of tumult within the organization.
Supporters say the skills that helped Heastie secure and keep control of the Bronx party will allow him to succeed as speaker of the Assembly.
“After he was elected as county leader, he could have taken the point of view that he should push out the losing side, but he thought the wiser thing was to bring all the factions together,” said Dinowitz, who, along with Diaz, was a member of the Rainbow Rebels.
Even some who have clashed with Heastie in the past credit him for being open-minded.
“We have had our conflicts, but I can say that he’s been fair,” said Assemblyman Luis Sepulveda (D-Bronx), who disagreed with Heastie’s decision to back William Thompson in the 2013 mayoral race.
Diaz, however, does have some advice for his longtime friend.
“Folks say he looks like he is too serious sometimes when he is not,” Diaz said. “He is a great soul. He is funny, he is gregarious. He just needs to smile more.”