Interviews & Profiles

The evolution of Carl Heastie

The Assembly speaker’s collaborative approach has prevented any progressive challengers from emerging.

Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie is one of the longest serving speakers in state history.

Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie is one of the longest serving speakers in state history. Erik McGregor/LightRocket via Getty Images

To an outside observer, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie can seem somewhat reserved. Publicly, he’s never been one for bouts of passion, generally opting to wait, listen and respond in due time, a calculated approach appropriate for a former accountant. His unassuming nature made his ultimate rise to power in the wake of former Speaker Sheldon Silver’s expulsion seem unexpected to some observers, though savvy politicos hadn’t forgotten Heastie’s successful bid to take control of the Bronx Democratic Party years earlier. It’s in this way that Heastie quietly made history as the first Black speaker of the Assembly, keeping his grasp on his conference for the past seven years during which Albany underwent monumental change. 

But Heastie is more than a reserved deal-maker who was likened to his predecessor when he took the position. He’s also a nerd with a love for the likes of Prince and “Star Trek”. His eyes lit up when I sat next to him at an airport while awaiting a flight to a legislative conference in Puerto Rico and asked him about the finer points of redshirt mortality. Heastie had dressed up as Prince on numerous occasions, and he regularly wears the late great artist’s symbol around his neck when dressed casually. More than one Assembly member mentioned Heastie’s dance floor prowess when Jay-Z (his favorite rapper) comes on. “I tell him that sometimes I wish that he would exude more of that in his public image,” said former Bronx Borough President Rubén Díaz Jr., a longtime friend and former Assembly colleague of Heastie’s.

This other side to Heastie in many ways reflects his current status in the Capitol. Once a young, progressive upstart, the speaker has now become an Albany veteran, a member of an old-school class of lawmakers. This is not dissimilar to the original “Star Trek,” the only version of the franchise Heastie thinks is worth watching. Once a bastion for progress when it aired in the ’60s, it now comes across as dated to younger audiences as standards have changed. Prince too once pushed the boundaries on concepts like gender in ways that have become far more commonplace. The world advanced around these pop culture phenomena just as Albany has evolved around Heastie. 

His impressive staying power has made him the last of the “three men in a room” – the three state leaders who traditionally have made the most important legislative decisions and who, until just 2019, have always been men. Heastie now joins Gov. Kathy Hochul and state Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins in that room.

Beginning his eighth year as speaker, he’s already one of the longest serving Assembly leaders in the chamber’s history. But interviews with over a dozen of his members from across the state and ideological spectrum painted the image of a well-respected leader doing an admirable job wrangling an enormous 107-member conference, currently only slightly smaller due to a handful of reliably Democratic vacancies. And despite the sea changes that have characterized the state Capitol the past several years, neither Heastie’s grip nor his member’s loyalty seem any weaker than when he first took on the role. In fact, after years of a Republican state Senate and an intransigent governor, he may just be hitting his stride. 

When asked about Heastie’s leadership of the Democratic conference, most members who spoke to City & State were quick to praise his accessibility (perhaps unsurprising given the speaker’s immense power), especially those who previously served under Silver. Although not all were willing to directly speak ill of the recently deceased Assembly giant, the consensus was clear: Heastie’s door is as open as Silver’s was shut. “I had the distinct opportunity of serving with the prior speaker and under the leadership of Carl Heastie, and it was totally different,” said Democratic Assembly Member Michaelle Solages of Long Island. “Now as members, we have an opportunity to have a dialogue, have an opportunity to shape and configure legislation.” She recalled that under Silver’s reign, she received a warning not to get pregnant because it would kill a woman’s career. “It’s quite the opposite under the leadership of Carl Heastie.”

A spokesperson for Heastie, who declined an interview for this piece, focused on the speaker’s dedication to his members during his years as leader and indicated that he doesn’t plan on going anywhere any time soon. “From day one he has been a consensus builder and is keenly aware of the needs of his conference,” Mike Whyland said in an email to City & State, attaching a list of accomplishments including landmark criminal justice reforms, the $15 minimum wage and fully funding foundation aid for schools. “There is much more work to be done and the Speaker and his majority colleagues are looking forward to addressing these issues.”

The Democratic conference under Heastie’s guidance since 2015 could be compared to a rambunctious family of strong personalities, each wanting to get talking time during dinner. Heastie invites that dynamic, allowing his members to discuss with each other and with him in order to find the best path forward. “(He’s) more determined to find consensus … open to the debate that gets you to that consensus,” said Assembly Member Jeffrion Aubry, the longtime speaker pro tempore who leads debate on the Assembly floor. “Shelly wasn’t so open – I think when he saw that kind of debate, he would turn his stone face on, as we used to say.” Where Silver led from the top down, Heastie’s members describe a much more collaborative approach to the conference.

Members can access Heastie directly, each having his cell number to text or call him. “He does take the time to talk to all of his members when they have an issue,” said Assembly Member Maritza Davila of Brooklyn. “Imagine having all of these members having different thoughts, different ways they represent their own district. … He does do his job gracefully, and it’s not an easy job.” That sentiment also came up many times among his members: a lack of envy for the task of controlling such a large body. “I was the minority leader of the Monroe County Legislature, so a similar position – albeit I only had to deal with 14 members of my conference,” Assembly Member Harry Bronson of Rochester said with a laugh. “It was a lot easier than dealing with the number of members in our conference, but this speaker does it.” 

Something of an old-timer now – he was first elected to the Assembly over two decades ago – Heastie was once the fresh blood in the Bronx, joining with a group of like-minded young officials like former borough president Díaz to form the Rainbow Rebels in 2008. At the time, Heastie already occupied his seat in the Assembly and fended off an attempt by county leadership, then largely controlled by Latino politicos, to unseat him. As part of the rebellion, he took over the party from former leader José Rivera – who still serves under Heastie in the Assembly – ushering in a new era for the Bronx Democratic Party. Unlike other political machines in New York City, the one in the Bronx has managed to quietly continue operating and evolving in ways that once powerful operations like the Queens and Brooklyn Democratic parties haven’t. It’s now led by state Sen. Jamaal Bailey, a well-known progressive advocate for criminal justice reform. 

Managing competing Bronx interests in the diverse borough likely helped prepare Heastie for his eventual job as speaker of the Assembly. “You know the Frank Sinatra song ‘New York?’” Díaz asked before singing the famous chorus about making it in the Big Apple. “As it relates to politics, if you can make it in Bronx politics, you can deal with all kinds of personalities in the city of New York and throughout the state of New York.” According to his members, Heastie has consistently made it a point to ensure that each person, regardless of their ideology or geography, not only is heard, but feels listened to as sometimes debilitating divides like those between upstate and downstate constantly threaten conference harmony.

There’s always been leaks, and it was like people were blaming the younger progressives, which I felt was silly.
– Assembly Member Yuh-Line Niou

One way that plays out is Heastie’s visits to member districts far from his own home in the Bronx. Assembly Member Donna Lupardo described one time he visited her Southern Tier District, saying he generally liked to get out and about beyond official engagements. “I brought him to a Prince tribute concert and I brought him to a brewery that was serving ‘Purple Rain' beer,” Lupardo said. “He really wants to see and experience the place that we represent … It’s kind of unusual to see him enjoying the activities we have going on.” Asked how often Silver visited her district, Lupardo answered quickly. “Never.” 

Even in times of turmoil, Heastie has managed to maintain a steady hand and keep both new and old members in line. Last year offered a good example as a new class of progressive insurgents took office during a pandemic that relegated nearly all interactions to Zoom. It was a recipe for misunderstandings, rising tensions and hot tempers that led to a number of public instances of disunity and discord. 

A heated conference exchange that involved swearing and middle fingers between freshman Bronx Assembly Member Amanda Septimo and Westchester Assembly Member Tom Abinanti wound up in the news. Septimo said the speaker called her after the incident, when she said he essentially talked her off the edge and calmed her down as she expressed her frustrations with what she considered a lack of respect for new members. “But then, I was really pleasantly surprised and grateful about that the next day … he started conference by saying, ‘You know guys, I know tensions run high, I know that things are crazy, I know we’re all stressed, but we all have to find a way to be in this space and be respectful,’” Septimo recalled, adding that Heastie’s sentiments to the conference helped the overall temperature. “I was surprised then, but I’m not surprised anymore.” 

In a somewhat similar situation, Westchester Assembly Member Amy Paulin said she felt supported by the speaker when she bore the brunt of attacks from fellow Democrats, including in her own conference, when she expressed some concerns during debate over the Excluded Workers Fund to give aid to unemployed immigrants who don’t have documentation. Protesters would call her out by name and criticize her for what they called xenophobic opposition to the fund. “There was a misunderstanding about my position on the issue of excluded workers and a couple of us were attacked,” Paulin said. “Carl was so supportive until those attacks ceased. So I continue to feel the support and the relationship and I’m a big fan.”

That’s not to say that members don’t have critiques of their speaker. After several leaks from the conference – including actual audio from a private meeting on impeachment that briefly halted voting on the chamber floor when it was reported – Heastie decided that he would temporarily split up the conference into multiple sections with different members. Newer and more progressive members got the short end of the stick with their group placed last in the order during which they met. The message was clear – the freshman and left-wing contingent of the conference got the blame even though, as Paulin would point out to Heastie in conference meetings, leaks are nothing new. 

Although some members felt Heastie handled the situation as best he could – including veteran Assembly Member Richard Gottfried who got placed with the freshmen – others thought a different route would have been more appropriate. “With that situation, I felt that it shouldn’t have gotten tighter, it shouldn’t have gotten more paranoid and kind of clamping down,” said Manhattan Assembly Member Yuh-Line Niou, who was part of that last group to meet when Heastie split up conference meetings. While she respects Heastie’s commitment to learning about district-specific issues of his members, Niou felt he could have handled this situation differently. “There’s always been leaks, and it was like people were blaming the younger progressives, which I felt was silly.” Septimo offered similar frustrations about the situation. “It didn’t feel punitive, but it didn’t feel like the solution to the problem,” she said.

Back in the pre-pandemic times, Assembly members had an informal basketball team that would play when they gathered in Albany. Aubry, the longtime speaker pro tempore, took over coaching when a heart attack prevented him from playing anymore. That meant he also coached Heastie. “I’ve had to bench the speaker on occasion,” Aubry joked. Heastie’s role on the court can be compared to his role as speaker – he served as the team’s point guard.

But his participation in the recreational activity speaks to another part of his approach to governance that has made his leadership successful thus far. It offered an example of Heastie’s more personable side, one that members of the public don’t necessarily see as he checked his ego at the court and played a game with his fellow members. “I think a part of him feeling a part of us, is being a part of us more than just being a leader or someone in charge.” This doesn’t just materialize through friendly ball games. “I’ve seen him when he’s line dancing with the members,” Brooklyn Assembly Member Rodneyse Bichotte Hermelyn said, recalling antics at the annual Black, Puerto Rican, Hispanic and Asian caucus weekend that Heastie attends.

As I always say to Carl, we have the votes. No matter what people say, we have the votes.
– Assembly Member Jeffrion Aubry

Bichotte Hermelyn offered a more sobering example of Heastie’s personal touch with members, speaking about his attendance at the funeral of fellow Brooklyn Assembly Member Phara Souffrant Forrest’s father. A freshman in the chamber, Souffrant Forrest ran an insurgent campaign against Walter Mosley, who Heastie worked to keep in his seat. “He waited,” Bichotte Hermelyn recalled. “I mean, we were like the first ones there.” Souffrant Forrest, who was not available for an interview, confirmed that Heastie did attend her father’s funeral last year. In a brief statement provided to City & State, she said the speaker works to communicate with members in order to build consensus. “Everyone can say that they've had a genuine personal conversation with him,” she added. 

Everyone, that is, except maybe Davila. “There’s never” – said with emphasis – “been any personal conversation between the speaker and I,” she said when asked about what he was like when the cameras weren’t rolling. “Ever.” No small talk, no questions about how the kids are doing. But Davila wouldn’t have it any other way. “I don’t want to be friends with anybody,” she said of lawmakers in Albany, preferring to keep things strictly business to deliver for her constituents. The dichotomy between Heastie’s very different interactions with the two members offers insight into how he deals with lawmakers with different personalities and likely different expectations from him as a leader. It also illuminates a degree of adaptability to meet the specific needs of those under his leadership.

That’s perhaps why, in his seven years as speaker, no challenge to his position has emerged, serious or otherwise. Some progressive freshmen indicated their support was not guaranteed after they won their primary elections. That included Souffrant Forrest. But when the time came, no viable alternative arose, and they voted for another two years of Heastie like the rest of the members. Those interviewed for this piece, old and new alike, recognized Heastie’s attempts to evolve with his conference as he welcomed an influx of new members.

Heastie’s tenure has certainly not been beyond reproach among members though, with tensions in 2021 – the most recent and obvious example. The speaker got a lot of heat for the Assembly’s decision not to impeach former Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a sign of a leader willing to take the brunt of criticism for members of the Judiciary Committee to some, but a potentially damning decision to others. Septimo told City & State that if any consequences from that decision become apparent in the future, she would have to reevaluate her position on Heastie. She indicated that others who also thought the speaker erred may share her mindset. In that vein, freshman Queens Assembly Member Jessica González-Rojas – another who flirted with the idea of not supporting Heastie for speaker – offered overall positive sentiments on his job performance in a position she doesn’t envy, but that she continues to watch how he responds to new changes within the conference.

Heastie also faced criticism for not strongly speaking out against the governor when the scandal around COVID-19 deaths in nursing homes really broke open. He stayed quiet, and statements he did issue came off as weak compared to the fire lit within his chamber. That stayed true even when Queens Assembly Member Ron Kim publicly came under attack from Cuomo, with Niou telling City & State at the time that she felt Heastie didn’t adequately stand up for Kim in the face of attacks. Though even then, most members didn’t break ranks, declining to discuss their opinions on the speaker’s actions, or lack thereof, on the matter of rescinding Cuomo’s emergency powers.

Even if critiques or mistakes were to begin to add up in the minds of progressive members, a key ingredient remains missing for a theoretical uprising against Heastie: a challenger. None of the new members have expressed any interest in taking over the leadership position, and none of the veterans would name anyone specific when asked who could potentially replace him. Not that there is a desire on Heastie’s part to leave nor on members to see him go – many said that he offered no indication he planned to give up his post in the near future, and they said that they would attempt to convince him to stay should such a conversation take place.

Also missing are the numbers required for any sort of rebellion. The new class of progressive Assembly members only began taking office a less than a decade ago, with the largest chunk elected just in 2020. “Culture shift takes time,” González-Rojas aptly pointed out, careful to add that she isn’t trying to say she’d like to see a new speaker. Each and every one could (in theory) want to see him gone and even find someone to run against him for speaker, but Heastie’s support among the vast majority of his 107-member conference likely won’t waver. “No matter who you are, first you’ve got to be able to count, as I always say to Carl,” Aubry said. “We have the votes. No matter what people say, we have the votes.”

Correction: This story originally mischaracterized the 2008 Rainbow Rebels as being all Black, when in reality the group was made up of a multiracial coalition.

NEXT STORY: This week’s biggest Winners & Losers

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