LIVINGSTON — With nearly five years under his belt as leader of the New York Assembly, Carl Heastie has built a reputation as an easy-going liberal who has been a major force in legislation that has brought about increased school funding, driver license eligibility for undocumented immigrants, a higher minimum wage and decriminalization of marijuana.
Lawmakers say the powerful Heastie, who turns 52 years old Sept. 25, has been far more approachable and willing to listen to his members than his predecessor, Sheldon Silver, making the Assembly chamber a more collegial and egalitarian place.
The descriptions "mellow," "laid-back," "mild-mannered" and "friendly" often come up when his colleagues are asked to describe Heastie's style of interacting with the flock of Assembly members under his wing. Heastie had been an Albany back-bencher when he emerged from relative obscurity in February 2015 to be elected speaker. He took the reins when the chamber was mired in scandal resulting from the federal government's prosecution of Silver for pocketing $4 million in illegal kickbacks.
And while polling data suggests many upstate residents have more conservative views than Heastie on issues such as gun control, abortion rights and government spending, the speaker has spent parts of the past four summers wading into their territory, criss-crossing western New York, the North Country, the Mohawk Valley and Southern Tier.
At the same time, there have been no indications that Heastie — the first African-American to hold the Assembly's top job — harbors aspirations for higher office.
In an interview with CNHI after he toured an industrial hemp farm and cannabis oil processing plant in Livingston, a Columbia County town, Heastie was emphatic in asserting he is content with his current role.
"I think I have the greatest job in the world, being the Speaker of the state Assembly, and the only job that tops that is being the Assembly member for the 83rd Assembly District," said Heastie, who has been representing parts of the Bronx since winning his Assembly seat in 2000.
Leaders of Albany's legislative chambers are chosen by their peers from their political parties. Since last January, with Democrats taking control of the Senate majority, and with Gov. Andrew Cuomo being the state's chief executive, Heastie's party has run all branches of state government.
When lawmakers return to the statehouse in January, Heastie said, the proposed legalization of commercial marijuana will be high on the to-do list. The measure sailed through the Assembly this year but was snarled in the Senate after getting resistance from Republicans, and some moderate Democrats, amid a chorus of opposition from county sheriffs.
"It will be the same song, just a different year," he said of the upcoming 2020 session. "Education, health care, college affordability, infrastructure — all of the things we talk about every single year."
The push for greater funding for public schools has long been a priority for Assembly Democrats, and Heastie has embraced that cause as well.
"As long as the financing is there, we should be trying to fund our schools as much as we possibly can," he said.
Heastie, in order to remain the leader, must remain popular with his fellow Assembly Democrats. During his reign there has been no hint of an attempted coup, such as one faced by Silver 19 years ago. Heastie has had a cordial relationship with Cuomo and for the most part the two men have avoided public spats.
While GOP lawmakers and some Democrats have attacked Cuomo's push for a new $25 fee for motor vehicle license plate renewals in recent days, Heastie sidestepped the controversial topic when asked about it in the interview.
Noting the idea emanated from "the executive branch," Heastie said, "I haven't really talked to many members on it specifically, so we will see what happens."
Heastie's penchant for learning about the far reaches of upstate New York by visiting communities such as Plattsburgh, Niagara Falls, Ticonderoga and Cooperstown in recent summers earns him praise from rank and file members of the Legislature, even those who disagree with him on significant policy issues.
"I'm very pleased that Speaker Heastie is recognizing western New York as an important part of the state," said Assemblyman Angelo Morinello, R-Niagara Falls. "I believe this is going to yield positive results for our area."
Another conservative Republican, Assemblyman Chris Tague of Schoharie, said Assembly operations have benefited from Heastie's "hands-on" approach to his job.
"He's actually in the chamber when we're in session," said Tague. "He knows all (150, including Heastie) members by name, which I think is important. We may have disagreements when it comes to policy but I have a lot of respect for him and the way he conducts himself."
Policy differences in Albany often play out along regional lines, rather than partisan ones, with downstate representatives such as Heastie tending to lean in the liberal direction while upstate members often bring a moderate or conservative ideology to the debate.
Assemblyman Billy Jones, D-Chateaugay, has parted company with his fellow Democrats on several high-profile criminal justice issues. In doing so, however, Jones said there has been no admonishment from Heastie.
"I appreciate how accessible he is," said Jones. "I can text or call him at any time and he always responds. I don't think we have had a speaker in the history of the Assembly who has visited the parts of the state that he has."
Under Heastie, the Assembly has joined the Senate in passing updates to voting laws aimed at boosting participation in elections as well as new limits on the ability of big donors to influence elections through contributions from limited liability corporations. Lawmakers have also advanced reforms intended to deter sexual harassment in the workplace, following a number of sex scandals during Silver's tenure.
"Speaker Heastie certainly had an impressive session when it comes to progressive legislation," said Alex Camarda, senior policy advisor for Reinvent Albany, an advocacy group focused on increasing accountability in state government. The voting reforms, he said, were one of the greatest achievements, though the organization is hoping for a heightened push on proposed ethics reforms, he said.
Joe Mahoney covers the New York Statehouse for CNHI's newspapers and websites. Reach him at email@example.com.