The state Assembly is working to determine whether or not Republican Assemblymember-elect Lester Chang meets the residency requirements to serve in his new southern Brooklyn district, and may prevent him from taking office if they find he does not.
“Credible and serious questions have been raised regarding the status of Assemblymember-elect Lester Chang’s eligibility to assume office given the residency requirements for service in the New York State Assembly,” said Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie in a Dec. 2 statement.
Last month, Chang — a Navy veteran — unseated longtime Democratic incumbent Peter J. Abbate Jr. in Assembly District 49, which includes parts of Dyker Heights, Bensonhurst, and Borough Park, by a slim margin of a few hundred votes. Per state law, state legislators are usually required to have lived in their district for at least a year prior to an election — but redistricting loosened those requirements, and Chang would have had to live within Kings County for a year before the Nov. 8 general election.
But Chang voted in Manhattan last fall, City & State reported last month, indicating he may not have lived in Brooklyn for a full year leading up to this year’s elections.
“We have an obligation to ensure that all members adhere to these constitutional residency requirements,” Heastie said. “I have spoken to Minority Leader Barclay and have notified him that I am directing the Assembly Judiciary Committee, under the leadership of Chair Charles D. Lavine, to begin a review and to complete its work by the end of the month.”
The results of the review will be given to the new Assembly — which will include Chang — when the new session begins in January. Fifteen of the 20 members of the Assembly Judiciary Committee — including the chair, Charles D. Lavine — are Democrats, and Dems will also have the majority in the Assembly come the New Year.
If the investigation finds that Chang did not live in Brooklyn for a full year before his election, the Assembly may vote against seating him — which could lead to a special election.
Chang’s campaign did not respond to requests for comment.
Brooklyn GOP chairman Ted Ghora told Brooklyn Paper Chang has been connected to Brooklyn for 50 years — according to Chang’s website, he and his family moved to Midwood when he was a child, and he attended Midwood High School and Brooklyn College.
“Assemblyman-elect Lester Chang has his roots in Brooklyn since 1972, when he and his family purchased the house in which he was raised,” Ghora said in a statement. “This is the same home in which he cares for his elderly mother and lives today. If Mr. Abbate and his cohorts wanted to challenge the Assemblyman-elect’s residency — or any candidates residency — they could have done it during the petitioning process, but they chose not to – because they would have failed in their attempts.”
There is not a formal process to confirm whether or not a candidate lives in the borough or district they’re running in — challenges to their claims are typically brought by their opponents.
In 2016, Chang mounted an unsuccessful Assembly campaign in AD65 in lower Manhattan. Four years later, he ran and lost in state Senate District 26, which encompasses lower Manhattan and parts of northern Brooklyn from Greenpoint to Carroll Gardens.
Longtime AD49 Democratic district leader Joe Bova said it would be easy for Chang to prove that he meets the residency requirements, and feels the whole issue could have been resolved quickly if he had provided the necessary documentation.
“It’s a constitutional issue, he’s going to take an oath,” Bova told Brooklyn Paper. “Is he going to violate that oath? Provide the necessary clarification that they’re looking for, no one’s looking to steal an election. It’s just as much his fault as it is of the leadership of the Republican Party, it’s their due diligence when they made him a candidate.”
The Brooklyn Democratic Party said they have begun their own investigation into Chang’s residency in a Nov. 29 letter to Heastie. The missive, signed by the organization’s executive director, Yamil Speight-Miller, said some voters had raised concerns about Chang’s residency. The investigation is being led by the chair of the party’s Law Committee, Anthony Genovesi.
“To the [Kings County Democratic County Committee], it appears, based on the preliminary information obtained to date, that Mr. Chang has not complied with the provisions of Article III, Section 7 of the New York State constitution,” that outline residency requirements, Speight-Miller wrote.
The party urged the Speaker to begin an investigation in the Assembly “to ensure that an unqualified candidate is not unlawfully seated” in January.
Bova said he has never before worked with Chang in local politics in southern Brooklyn — which he believed was because the Assemblymember-elect lived and worked in Manhattan, where he mounted his previous campaigns.
“It’s somewhat frustrating when you think of all the hard work and resources that Peter Abbate has brought into this district,” Bova said.
But, in elections, “people win, people lose,” he said, and Chang won more votes fair and square.
“What’s really frustrating is the fact that Lester Chang will not clarify the issues against the allegations that have been made, and it’s a constitutional issue,” Bova said. “He’s got to swear an oath to the state constitution, and he won’t clarify that he’s lived in the borough for a year? He’s stone silent on this?”
Representatives for Abbate — who has stayed mostly silent since losing the race in November — also could not be reached for comment. The Democrat, who served in AD49 for 35 years, told City & State last week that he probably will not run again, even if Chang is prevented from taking office.
“Assemblyman-elect Chang is the first Asian-American from Brooklyn ever elected to state office,” Ghora said. “One would have hoped that this accomplishment would have been celebrated by Republicans and Democrats alike, especially in a district that is majority Asian-American; however, raw partisan politics sadly intervened, and that’s unfortunate … What’s happening is wrong, plain and simple.”