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Reading Tea Leaves on New Speaker

Crain's New York Business - February 8, 2014, by Chris Bragg - Before Carl Heastie's election as Assembly speaker last week, the Bronx lawmaker's biggest accomplishment in Albany may have been passing a 2012 bill creating a fleet of outer-borough green taxis. The legislation's primary opponent was the Metropolitan Taxi Cab Board of Trade, a yellow-cab group that saw the new taxis as a major threat.

Yet one of the group's lobbyists, Michael Woloz, recalls Mr. Heastie being an honest broker who made the bill fairer to yellow cabs, despite Mr. Woloz's group having had little prior relationship with the lawmaker. He said Mr. Heastie made a point of citing his business background.

"I remember he told us very early on in the process that he had an M.B.A. from Baruch," Mr. Woloz said. "We took that to mean he was coming not from a place of activism, but from a place of pragmatism."

The business community hopes Mr. Heastie, a former city budget analyst, will have that approach as speaker. His history, such as his taxi-bill experience, offers some clues.

Though not a prodigious bill writer, he once sponsored legislation to let check-cashers make high-interest loans. Bill proponents donated $10,000 to the Bronx Democratic Party that Mr. Heastie led; Mr. Heastie has said that had no effect on him. Gov. Andrew Cuomo's chief banking regulator, Benjamin Lawsky, helped kill the bill, arguing that poor people would be sucked into debt.

Mr. Heastie gave up his Bronx Democratic chairmanship when he gained the speakership, but eyes will be trained on the operatives who have long been close to the county leader. One is Stanley Schlein, who is often described as a "political fixer" and whose ethical troubles include being fined $15,000 for using city resources for his law practice.

Mr. Heastie's right-hand man, lobbyist and consultant Patrick Jenkins, has a good reputation. But he represents the New York State Trial Lawyers Association, a powerful group and a bane of business interests for its opposition to tort reform.

One of that group's top tasks will be to get Mr. Heastie to block reform of the state's 129-year-old scaffold law, as the last speaker, Sheldon Silver, did for years. But prosecutors say Mr. Silver had a financial incentive to do so: a $120,000 salary and several million dollars in fees from a personal-injury law firm. A scaffold-law reform bill is carried by Assemblyman Joseph Morelle, who lost the speaker's race to Mr. Heastie.

Mr. Heastie's position on the issue is not clear, according to Tom Stebbins, executive director of the Lawsuit Reform Alliance of New York. He sponsored neither Mr. Morelle's bill nor one from Queens Assemblyman Francisco Moya that Mr. Stebbins considers a "red herring."

"We're just pleased that the new speaker of the Assembly is not on the payroll of the trial lawyers," Mr. Stebbins said. But the lawyers' lobby has made 26 contributions totaling $26,600 to Mr. Heastie's campaign fund since 2000. A spokesman for Mr. Heastie has said he will make decisions solely on the merits.

Josie Duffy of the Center for Popular Democracy, part of a coalition opposing scaffold-law reform, said, "We appreciate the speaker's past support for worker safety."

Mr. Heastie chaired the Assembly Labor Committee, a post typically held by strong supporters of unions. He sponsored the Wage Theft Prevention Act, which passed in 2010 over business groups' objections.

Mr. Heastie's spokesman also noted his sponsorship of a bill to let domestic-violence victims break their lease if their home is unsafe.

Mr. Heastie originally voted against gay marriage, but supported the marriage-equality bill that passed in 2011.

Before his election to the Assembly in 2000, Mr. Heastie, now 47, was a budget analyst in the city comptroller's office. Like Mr. Silver, he has a reputation as someone who does more listening than speaking, and whose opinions can seem inscrutable. He is considered media-shy, but is known for keeping his word, which helped him to rapidly line up votes for the speakership.

"I've always been a coalition builder, even when I was county chair in the Bronx," Mr. Heastie said at a press conference last week. "I like to hear other, differing opinions."