Assemblymember Lester Chang will not be expelled from the state Assembly over questions of his residency, Speaker Carl E. Heastie announced on Friday.
“After careful review, the vast majority of our members have significant concerns about the truthfulness of Mr. Chang’s documentary evidence and testimony regarding his compliance with the New York State Constitution,” Heastie said in a Jan. 6 statement. “Although it is clear that there were more than enough votes to expel Mr. Chang, we will not do so at this time.”
Local politicians and voters raised concerns regarding Chang’s residency just days after his victory over longtime Democratic incumbent Peter J. Abbate, Jr., in Assembly District 49 in southern Brooklyn in November. The state constitution requires that legislators live in the districts they represent for a full year before the election, and Chang has long maintained a residence in lower Manhattan. Heastie ordered an investigation, which found that Chang had only changed his voter registration to Brooklyn in February 2022, and had paychecks and other mail sent in his name to the Manhattan address through at least September 2022.
Chang and his lawyers claimed he had spent most of the last two years living in his childhood home in Midwood with his mother, and kept the Manhattan address for convenience and consistency.
Democrats reportedly spent hours in meetings reviewing the report and debating their decision during the first days of the legislative session, but struggled to come to a conclusion — the report alleged that Chang had been no more than a “visitor” to Kings County from November of 2021 to November of 2022, but made no formal recommendation as to what action should be taken. While legislators may have had “significant concerns” about Chang’s residency, they also worried about alienating voters if they chose to expel him.
Though Chang will remain in the Assembly for now, Heastie said the body is not wiping away its doubts. During a Dec. 21 hearing, Chang testified that his Manhattan apartment — where he claims to have spent little time over the last three years — is rent-regulated. By law, rent-regulated apartments must be the tenant’s primary residence. In his Jan. 6 statement, Heastie referred to “government subsidies” Chang had accessed to pay rent on the unit.
“However, given the totality of the evidence we have decided to forward the materials gathered pursuant to the committee’s subpoenas and from Mr. Chang’s own submissions to relevant criminal, civil and administrative authorities for further review and any action they deem necessary,” Heastie said. “As a reminder, the New York State Constitution gives the Assembly the authority to revisit this issue at any time.”
Section 63-b of the NY Executive Law allows the attorney general to ask the courts to toss someone who "usurps, intrudes into, or unlawfully holds" a public office in the state. https://t.co/k3wj5CE69f pic.twitter.com/M377gJhZI5
— Jon Campbell (@JonCampbellNY) January 6, 2023
The speaker has reportedly discussed sending that evidence to state Attorney General Letitia James for review. Per state law, James has the authority to take action against anyone who takes office unlawfully.
In addition, Heastie said the ordeal had “brought to light electoral issues,” and that the Assembly would be moving to create new legislation to address those issues in the near future. He did not elaborate on what those issues were.
“Let this be a warning to anyone who tries to dupe voters – the political manipulation of residency will not go unchecked,” the Speaker concluded.
Chang thanked voters — and his colleagues — in a Friday evening statement.
“My Brooklyn neighbors desperately need relief from New York’s high crime rates, exorbitant cost of living, and nation-leading taxes,” he said. “I promise to fight for them in Albany with the same passion and mettle with which I served in the U.S. Navy Reserves. I will also lead the fight in Albany for merit-based public school opportunities for hardworking students. I thank my Brooklyn neighbors, and all my Assembly teammates, for their faith in my abilities. It will be an honor serving them for the next two years.”
Update 1/6/23, 5:56pm: This story has been updated with comment from Assemblymember Lester Chang.