Carl Heastie: The Man Who Would Oversee Cuomo’s Impeachment

The Democratic Assembly speaker, most comfortable behind the scenes, now finds himself in the spotlight, facing the possibility of taking down a governor from his own party.

Advertisement

Continue reading the main story

Supported by

Continue reading the main story

President Biden’s call for Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo of New York to resign after a state investigation found he had sexually harassed 11 women sparked a flurry of breaking news alerts on Tuesday.

But in Albany, the most closely parsed and influential comments were a 72-word statement from Carl E. Heastie, the speaker of the State Assembly.

With the governor making it perfectly clear that he has no intention of stepping aside voluntarily, it is Mr. Heastie, a longtime ally of Mr. Cuomo’s, who is now poised to oversee what could be the first impeachment of a New York governor in more than a century.

“He can no longer remain in office,” Mr. Heastie declared on Tuesday. “We will move expeditiously and look to conclude our impeachment investigation as quickly as possible.”

For months, Mr. Heastie had refrained from joining other top New York Democrats in calling for Mr. Cuomo’s resignation, and he opened a shadow Assembly investigation separate from the state attorney general’s inquiry that some saw as a stalling tactic. His about-face on Tuesday had the governor’s most outspoken critics and shrinking circle of supporters alike pondering the exact meanings of “quickly” and “expeditiously.”

Mr. Heastie’s initial reticence to break with the governor had frustrated some of Mr. Cuomo’s more voluble detractors. But his cautious, consensus-seeking approach may have won him credibility among his legislative colleagues for having waited to see the attorney general’s findings before calling for Mr. Cuomo’s head.

Now, the 53-year-old former Bronx party boss, who has long been most comfortable as a behind-the-scenes operator, finds himself exactly where he doesn’t want to be: in the spotlight as the man facing down the possibility of impeaching a governor from his own party.

The Rev. Al Sharpton, who maintains relationships with most of the players in New York’s Democratic politics, described Mr. Heastie as an unpredictable political “chess player.”

“He is very savvy and very mild-spoken, but it can be deceptive,” Mr. Sharpton said. “He’s the kind of guy where you don’t know he’s coming until he’s already up on you.”

Mr. Heastie assumed his new, more forceful posture against Mr. Cuomo on Tuesday only after an emergency virtual meeting of the Assembly Democrats he leads. No one, according to legislators on the afternoon call, spoke up in support of Mr. Cuomo after the report from Attorney General Letitia James substantiated allegations from multiple women who had accused Mr. Cuomo of inappropriate behavior.

That the governor’s list of accusers had grown to include a state trooper — one who said Mr. Cuomo had left her feeling “completely violated” — made it far more difficult for anyone to defend him, lawmakers said.

Mr. Heastie an assemblyman since 2000, has witnessed the downfall of a long list of Albany politicians. A former Bronx County Democratic Party chairman, he became the first Black Assembly speaker only after Sheldon Silver, his predecessor, was arrested and charged with taking millions in payoffs.

Mr. Heastie, like so many others who have circled through the capital, promised to change its culture of corruption. “We do not own this house,” Mr. Heastie said in his first Capitol speech as speaker. “We are simply tenants here.”

He must now navigate the complex process of evicting the building’s most powerful occupant. Mr. Heastie’s caucus includes women — and some men — who have been clamoring for Mr. Cuomo’s ouster for months, as well as a bloc of mostly Black legislators who have urged more caution and stood alongside Mr. Cuomo as the investigation unfolded. Republicans almost universally want Mr. Cuomo to go, but Mr. Heastie has signaled he would wait until Democrats alone could muster the votes to impeach.

John DeSio, a Democratic strategist who has worked in Bronx politics, said Mr. Heastie’s decision to stay mostly on the sidelines during the investigation had allowed him to better balance those competing legislative interests. “Carl has a reputation for holding things close, and, in this case, it has served him well,” he said.

While that was a source of frustration to those who wanted to ratchet up pressure on Mr. Cuomo this spring — especially after the Senate majority leader, Andrea Stewart-Cousins, called for Mr. Cuomo to step down — it appears to have bolstered Mr. Heastie’s standing with fellow Assembly members.

“He would be a very good poker player,” Mr. DeSio said.

It did not go unnoticed that Mr. Heastie, in his statement on Tuesday, said that Mr. Cuomo had “lost the confidence of the Assembly Democratic majority,” without hinting at his own judgment.

Mr. Heastie is seen as a leader who follows his members, which has been both a strength of his speakership and, at times, a criticism.

Assemblyman Jeffrey Dinowitz, another Bronx Democrat, said that Mr. Heastie was faithfully representing his conference.

Understand the Scandals Challenging Gov. Cuomo’s Leadership

Card 1 of 5

Multiple claims of sexual harassment. Several women, including current and former members of his administration, have accused Mr. Cuomo of sexual harassment or inappropriate behavior. He has refused to resign.

Results of an independent investigation. An independent inquiry, overseen by Letitia James, the New York State attorney general, found that Mr. Cuomo sexually harassed multiple women, including current and former government workers, breaking state and federal laws. The report also found that he retaliated against at least one of the women for making her complaints public.

Nursing home death controversy. The Cuomo administration is also under fire for undercounting the number of nursing-home deaths caused by Covid-19 in the first half of 2020, a scandal that deepened after a Times investigation found that aides rewrote a health department report to hide the real number.

Efforts to obscure the death toll. Interviews and unearthed documents revealed in April that aides repeatedly overruled state health officials in releasing the true nursing home death toll over a span of at least five months. Several senior health officials have resigned in response to the governor’s overall handling of the virus crisis, including the vaccine rollout.

Will Cuomo be impeached? On March 11, the State Assembly announced it would open an impeachment investigation. Democrats in both the State Legislature and in New York’s congressional delegation called on Mr. Cuomo to resign, with some saying he has lost the capacity to govern.

“I’m not part of the guilty-until-proven-innocent crowd, as so many people are these days,” Mr. Dinowitz said. But he added that, like Mr. Heastie, he now believed that it was time for Mr. Cuomo to go and that “the mood” among legislators was firmly that “Cuomo won’t be able to continue.”

Mr. Dinowitz, a former Assembly Judiciary Committee chairman, said the impeachment process “would be longer and slower than many of us would like.” Any delay would deliver Mr. Cuomo the time to attempt to engineer an unlikely rebound.

On Tuesday, Mr. Cuomo released a defiant video denying that he had ever inappropriately touched any women or made inappropriate sexual advances. “That is just not who I am and that’s not who I have ever been,” he said.

Those who have worked closely with the governor said it was almost inconceivable to imagine Mr. Cuomo stepping down. In recent weeks, he even seemed to be plotting a run for a fourth term in 2022, according to a person who spoke with him.

Though Mr. Heastie is said not to have spoken to Mr. Cuomo in months, until his announcement on Tuesday, many of the governor’s detractors had seen Mr. Heastie as being in Mr. Cuomo’s corner.

Last month, when Mr. Heastie suggested that the attorney general’s findings alone would not be enough to act upon, Debra Katz, the lawyer for one of Mr. Cuomo’s accusers, Charlotte Bennett, accused him of betraying his duty.

“Speaker Heastie has made clear that he will actively obstruct efforts to hold Governor Cuomo responsible,” Ms. Katz said then.

Even now, some Democrats remain skeptical that Mr. Heastie, the party insider, will follow through on taking down such a powerful Democratic man.

“The Bronx machine has been a rat’s nest of patriarchy, historically,” said Alexis Grenell, another Democratic strategist, “and it was in no way disrupted by the former chairman.” Mr. Heastie stepped aside from the party leadership post when he became speaker in 2015.

But the left flank of Mr. Heastie’s Democratic conference is pressing for action — and fast.

Assemblyman Ron Kim, a Queens Democrat, who caused a stir in February when he said that Mr. Cuomo had threatened to “destroy” him, said that every additional day that Mr. Cuomo remains in office was a risk.

“We’re talking about one of the most powerful executives in the history of New York, who is willing to use every kind of public resource and leverage to save his behind,” Mr. Kim said, “and that’s a very dangerous position.”

Leave a Reply