Is home really where the heart is? That question was (sort of) at the center of a hearing before the Assembly Judiciary Committee on Wednesday to review evidence of Assembly Member-elect Lester Chang’s Brooklyn residency and his eligibility to be seated to the state Legislature in January.
Chang, a Republican Navy veteran who has previously run for elected office in Manhattan, won election in November over 36-year Democratic Assembly Member Peter Abbate Jr. in Assembly District 49 in Brooklyn. As City & State first reported, New York City Board of Elections records show that Chang voted in Manhattan in last year’s general election, and questions have since been raised publicly about whether Chang has maintained a Brooklyn residence long enough to be eligible to hold office in the borough. In order to be eligible to serve in the Assembly next year, Chang has to have maintained residency in the county where he ran – Kings County – for at least one year prior to the Nov. 8 election this year. That means that Chang has to have established residence in Brooklyn on or before Nov. 7, 2021.
As Chang and his attorney Hugh Mo explained at Wednesday’s hearing, Chang maintains two residences – the family home he grew up in Brooklyn’s Midwood neighborhood and an apartment in Manhattan where he lived with his late wife. Chang argued that he has shown necessary intent to use his Brooklyn address as his residence for electoral purposes and said that he began to transition to live in Brooklyn more permanently after the passing of his wife in late 2019. It was around that time that Chang stepped in to serve as a caregiver for his mother in Brooklyn, he said. Chang said that he grew up in Brooklyn, went to Brooklyn schools and called himself “a product of Brooklyn.”
Chang and his attorney presented evidence including affidavits from family and neighbors in Brooklyn testifying to his residence, mail he received at his Brooklyn address prior to Nov. 7, 2021, and 2021 federal and state tax return documents filed in 2022 reflecting his Brooklyn address. Chang also testified that he voted early in the 2021 general election in Manhattan on Oct. 23, prior to the Nov. 7 threshold that year to have established residency in Brooklyn. “I won my election fair and square. I lived in Brooklyn, I lived there for over a year prior to my winning the election,” Chang said. “Despite all odds and expectations, I made history on Nov. 8 of 2022 as the first Asian American ever elected to represent Brooklyn’s growing Asian community in the Assembly District 49.”
Stanley Schlein, a special counsel who will prepare and submit a report on the evidence – along with input from the bipartisan members of the Judiciary Committee – for consideration by the full Assembly, laid out evidence that showed a murkier picture of Chang’s residence over the past couple years. While an elected official can maintain multiple residences, only one can be used as the primary residence for electoral purposes. Schlein said on Wednesday that to establish residency, there has to be “intent coupled with indicia, with actual facts and data and information.” But there appeared to be ongoing disagreement Wednesday, including among the members of the committee, as to what qualified as meeting the definition of electoral residency.
Schlein highlighted evidence including records of Chang working as a poll worker for the New York City Board of Elections, including separate checks dating from June 25, 2021, through and including Sep. 2, 2022, all bearing Chang’s Manhattan address. Those checks were also endorsed by Chang and deposited at Manhattan banks, Schlein said. Other exhibits included documents showing that Chang didn’t officially update his residence to Brooklyn with the Board of Elections until February 2022 and with the state Department of Motor Vehicles until last month, and that Chang received notices from the state Division of Military and Naval Affairs through Jan. 7, 2022, at his Manhattan address. “No one questions whether a person is entitled to maintain multiple residences,” Schlein said. “It is the question of which one the person selected by objective evidence, documentation and testimony that is reflected clearly and unequivocally as his voting address, his domicile,” Schlein said.
Questioned by Schlein, Chang said that it was a matter of convenience that caused him to not update his address to reflect his Brooklyn residence in many of those cases. Mo, Chang’s attorney, laid out a passionate case tying the Assembly member-elect to Brooklyn. “Home is where your heart is,” Mo said. “Everything in my wallet does not represent where I call home.” Mo also issued a fiery “wake-up call” to the members of the committee, accusing Democrats of trying to oust a minority member. “Regardless of what is your political persuasion, please stop this process of trying to vet his qualifications after he has been voted (in),” Mo said.
Wednesday’s hearing also revealed that Chang’s Manhattan apartment is rent stabilized, raising the question of whether Chang is complying with law requiring that a rent stabilized unit has to be used as a primary residence to be entitled to rent protection. Chang said that he still pays rent at the Manhattan apartment, but testified that no one currently lives there.
At the end of the hearing, Assembly Judiciary Chair Charles Lavine directed Schlein to draft a report to be reviewed by committee members before the end of the year, to be sent to the new Legislature. Lavine said that Mo is welcome to submit a report too. If the Assembly then decides to, the body could hold a simple majority vote – in a chamber in which Democrats have a supermajority – on whether to seat Chang, and it’s likely Chang would challenge the move in court.