The unfolding nursing home crisis that’s got Gov. Andrew Cuomo sweating has left Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie in a tough position too. He’s remained largely silent as outspoken members of his conference have increasingly supported repealing the governor’s vast emergency powers and as Cuomo attacks one of his own members.
But ahead of what could potentially be a contentious conference on Monday about the governor’s emergency powers, members of the Assembly still appear to be giving him political room to maneuver.
Heastie has for the most part stayed mum about the nursing home COVID-19 death scandal rocking the executive chamber, even as his state Senate counterpart is pushing ahead with legislation to curb Cuomo’s extraordinary powers granted to him at the start of the pandemic. “I think everyone understands where we were back in March and where we are now,” Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins said in a statement. “We certainly see the need for a quick response but also want to move toward a system of increased oversight, and review.” The state Senate proposal, which still has not been officially introduced, would create a 10-person commission to approve of any directives Cuomo makes or any laws he suspends.
But even as his members express outrage over nursing homes and several have signed a letter expressing their support for repealing Cuomo’s expanded emergency powers, Heastie’s position on the matter has remained unclear. Asked about where the speaker stands on the issue, spokesperson Mike Whyland said members would conference on the issue “in the near future.” Assembly Democrats are conferencing Monday, presumably on this issue.
Heastie has been similarly withdrawn about the governor’s attacks on Assembly Member Ron Kim, who has been a frequent critic of the administration's handling of nursing homes during the pandemic. Cuomo ranted about Kim and accused the Assembly member of having a political vendetta against him over 6-year-old legislation during an unusual press conference on Wednesday. Not long after, CNN reported allegations by Kim that Cuomo threatened him over nursing homes during a phone call the previous week. Cuomo’s senior adviser has denied the allegations Kim made.
While many fellow Assembly members issued strong statements of rebuke against Cuomo for targeting Kim and expressing their belief about his description of the call, Heastie has only made one public comment on the matter. “Now more than ever everyone involved needs to lower the temperature and work together to move this state forward and get past this pandemic,” Heastie said in a statement Wednesday afternoon. “That should be our focus." The statement came soon after Cuomo’s press conference when he targeted Kim, but before details about the alleged private phone call between the two emerged.
Some observers have said that Heastie’s defense of Kim was far too weak. Michael Benjamin, a former Assembly member who now serves on the New York Post editorial board, suggested on Twitter that former Speaker Sheldon Silver would not have issued such a “milquetoast” statement that “didn't defend his Member or "The People's House.” Former Assembly Member Joe Lentol, who served until the end of last year, also said he felt that Heastie could have gone to bat more when one of his members was under attack. “I would like to see the speaker maybe act in a different manner if it were I that were involved in this,” Lentol said in an interview.
But Lentol also sympathized with the situation that Heastie finds himself in with trying to still maintain a collegial working relationship with the governor and control of his own chamber. “He should be protecting his member, while at the same time, the members have to understand that he has to work with the governor in order to pass a budget. … So he's very skilled at that aspect of the job of being the speaker.” Jake Dilemani, a veteran political consultant at Mercury, offered a similar assessment. “Carl is between a rock and a hard place,” Dilemani told City & State. “A legislative leader, to get things done, you have to have a decent relationship with the governor.”
And despite the apparent lack of public support, Heastie’s members seem to be sticking by him and his leadership – at least publicly. City & State reached out to a dozen Assembly members. Some declined to speak on the record. Others did not respond to requests for comment about Heastie's handling of the situation. Kim himself has said that all his colleagues have been offering him enormous support, and said that he had a personal conversation with Heastie about what’s been happening. “He is 150% on my side,” Kim said on "The Brian Lehrer Show" on Thursday. Kim did not return a request for comment elaborating on what he said.
But more tension may be bubbling under the surface of public facades. Although most did not want to comment on Heastie’s leadership during this time, Assembly Member Yuh-Line Niou said she was disappointed that the speaker did not offer a stronger public defense of Kim. “(Heastie) should have … stood up stronger for Ron now,” Niou told City & State. “It's not about lowering temperature, it’s about accountability.” Whyland, Heastie’s spokesperson, did not respond to a request for comment about those who felt the speaker should have provided better public support for Kim.
Similarly, no lawmaker contacted by City & State would comment on Heastie’s and the chamber’s speed on addressing Cuomo’s emergency powers, even as support for repeal grows. At the very least, they wouldn’t before discussing it with the chamber. “Let me give you an answer after we conference on Monday,” Assembly Member Zohran Mamdani told City & State when asked whether Heastie is moving fast enough on the issue. Mamdani is one of nine members to sign a letter calling to rescind Cuomo’s pandemic powers. Assembly Member Emily Gallagher, who also signed the letter, said in a text she couldn’t weigh in until the conference met on Monday.
Assembly Member Robert Carroll, another letter signatory, spoke against the Senate proposal to create a commission to oversee the governor’s actions as opposed to a full repeal. But he too would not comment beyond individual conversations he’s had with other members. “I don't know what Carl thinks,” Caroll told City & State when asked about chamber leadership on the issue. “We've had conversations about it last week, and I think there were people of lots of different opinions.” Although Carroll said he doesn’t support the creation of a commission – “that’s a terrible idea,” he said – he suggested that there still might not be enough support for the clean repeal he’s advocating for. “I think there is large support, I don't know if there's 77 votes to rescind the (governor’s) emergency powers,” Carroll said. Niou said that many in the chamber don’t actually want to take any action. “There's a lot of people who want it to expire and sunset,” Niou told City & State, referring to the April expiration date built into the law that expanded Cuomo’s emergency powers. Niou also wants to see a full repeal.
Dilemani, the political consultant, said Heastie’s actions of late in regard to fights with the governor, fit with his general leadership style, especially since the state Senate flipped and has taken a sharp leftward turn. Whereas the Assembly has traditionally been the more progressive of the two chambers, the dynamics have changed. “While a progressive, Heastie by nature of his leadership position serves as a moderating influence,” Dilemani said. Whether it’s a full-fledged, public defense of a member, or coming out in support of curtailing the governor’s powers, Dilemani said the speaker is in a tough spot. It is no easy job weighing all the decisions he will likely have to make. “He's kind of a fulcrum,” Dilemani said. “He plays a very key role here in balancing the outcomes, the policy outcomes and the political outcomes in Albany.”
- With reporting by Zach Williams