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ALBANY — Republican Assemblyman-elect Lester Chang testified at a Judiciary Committee hearing Wednesday as he defended his residency requirements to be affirmed for public office by his Democratic colleagues, who are waging an extraordinary effort to determine whether he should be blocked from taking office if it’s determined he didn’t legally reside in the district where he was elected.
Chang, who appeared before the committee with his attorney, sought to rebuff the questions about his residency that flowed from a directive by Assembly Speaker Carl E. Heastie for the committee to investigate whether the Brooklyn resident meets the residency standards of the state constitution. The residency clause has not been used to oust someone elected to that chamber in a century — but the Republican’s election in a district long dominated by Democrats sent shock waves through the chamber.
Chang needed to wage his defense before a committee that just over a year ago was tasked by Heastie with an impeachment inquiry of then-Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo. (Similar to the residency requirement, the last and only impeachment of a sitting governor in New York came a century ago following a recommendation by the committee.)
Wednesday’s event drew opposing viewpoints from election attorneys and lawmakers on what constitutes an “electoral address” and whether Chang’s assertion that he was residing at his childhood home for a year prior to the election — rather than his Manhattan apartment — sustains his right to be sworn in to the Legislature next month. If the Democrat-led Assembly seeks to block Chang from taking office, it’s expected the case could move to the courts.
At stake is whether Chang will be recognized as the Assembly representative for Brooklyn’s 49th district in the upcoming legislative session. He defeated longtime incumbent, Assemblyman Peter Abbate Jr., who did not attend the hearing in Albany. If he is not allowed to serve because the Assembly determines he did not maintain an “electoral residence” in Brooklyn for at least one year prior to the election, it could lead to a special election.
“I never completely left home,” Chang told the committee. “I’m a Brooklynite. I always returned to see my mother and uncles as a good son and nephew.”
Chang described the life of his family and pursuit of the American dream. He went to Brooklyn public schools through college. He then explained his time in the Navy, active duty in Afghanistan and challenges with PTSD in 2020.
Chang said he moved back home to Brooklyn, from Manhattan, following his wife’s death from cancer in 2019. He called the move to Brooklyn a transition.
He maintained his voter registration, DMV paperwork and paychecks at his Manhattan address at that time. He said it was a matter of convenience. His Manhattan apartment is a “rent stabilized” apartment, which, by New York City law, requires it to be his primary residency. There were debates about whether one could have an “electoral residence” separate from their primary residence.
“We all know home is where your heart is,” Hugh Mo, an attorney for Chang, said. “Everything in my wallet does not represent where I call home.”
Chang defended his Brooklyn residency by describing his role as a caretaker of his mother, who suffers from Alzheimer’s disease, and his uncle, who is legally blind.
“Each one of you carries the burden to respond to this question: Why are we trying to undo his election? Why are we going against the will of the people of the 49th district?” Mo told the panel.
Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles Lavine noted the hearing was not a proceeding based on Election Law, but rather on the state constitution.
Chang, to meet the state’s constitutional requirement in a redistricting year, would have needed to have his “electoral residency” in Brooklyn at least one year before the election. The definition of “electoral residency” remained up for debate by the end of the hearing and it’s unclear whether the definition of that term has been defined in any court decisions.
Under Election Law, a voter can continue voting in a district they have left if they still have a foothold residence where they might one day return, including a childhood home or rental property. But the residency standard for an Assembly candidate may be more rigid.
The committee’s retained special counsel emphasized that a person can hold multiple residences. The question is which one is the “electoral” one.
The special counsel, Stanley Schlein, presented documents that Chang remained registered to vote at his Manhattan address until February. He did not change his address with the state Department of Motor Vehicles, although it’s unclear whether that’s necessary to establish electoral residency since many lawmakers have multiple properties, including vacation homes. He also continued to receive paychecks at his Manhattan address.
Chang pointed to the fact his 2021 taxes, which were filed in October, reflect his Brooklyn address.
Ranking member of the committee, Assemblyman Michael Tannousis, said in opening remarks that he viewed the burden of proof was on the committee to determine whether Chang meets the residency requirement — not for the Assemblyman-elect to prove he does.
He noted Abbate, a 36-year incumbent in a Brooklyn district that has 18,000 more registered Democrats than Republicans, did not challenge Chang’s residency in court following the collection of petition signatures. Chang won by about 700 votes.
Schlein said the constitutional requirement is “not as eligibility to run, but as eligibility to serve.”
“Let’s be clear about one thing, Mr. Chang was duly elected,” Tannousis said. “And he’s here because the residents elected him.”
At least 50 people who appeared to be supporters of Chang filled the hearing room. Many were adorned with signs that read, “Justice for Lester” and “Lester won!” Before the start of the hearing, Chang stood up and gave them a wave. He is the first Asian-American to be elected to the Assembly in Brooklyn.
“For those of us who have struggled for the last century to seek elected office, we all know being a minority the burden is high, the barrier is high and we are subjected to scrutiny,” Mo said.
The last time the Assembly removed an elected official was in 1920. That’s when several Socialist Party members were removed, following a Judiciary Committee recommendation and vote by the full Assembly. News accounts of the events reflect a chaotic scene.
The Socialist members were irate about the decision by the Assembly.
Treason has been committed in the New York Assembly,” Socialists Charles Solomon and Louis Waldman said in a statement to the New York Times in 1920. “A bipartisan combination has overthrown representative democracy.”
The socialists later won back the seats in a special election but were once again removed once again by the Assembly. Following a change in political direction, according to news accounts, opposition to the members waned and the Socialists were allowed to serve in office.
“Ladies and gentleman, we are making history today,” Mo said. “We should be mindful of history. Let’s not repeat the sordid history of 100 years ago.”
A report is due by the committee before the end of the year, which would then go to the full body of the Assembly. When lawmakers return for session next month, they could vote on whether Chang can serve based on state constitutional requirements.
“I’ve said it from the beginning and feel even more strongly after today’s hearing — Lester Chang deserves to be seated,” Republican Assembly Minority Leader Will Barclay said in a statement following the hearing. “From a legal, political and electoral perspective there is no doubt he should take his place as the next assemblyman representing the 49th District. I encourage my colleagues to support his seating.
The will of the voters was made clear on Election Day. The results were certified. Nothing presented in the evidence and testimony collected today is enough to negate an historic victory in Brooklyn. I’m confident Lester Chang will become the first Republican Asian-American member of the New York State Legislature, and I look forward to serving with him.
Joshua Solomon is a member of the Capitol Bureau team for the Times Union. He is from Queens, has spent time reporting in western Massachusetts, suburban Florida and now is back in New York. Solomon can be reached at [email protected] or 518-454-5353.
Fate of Republican assemblyman-elect in the balance at hearing – Times Union
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