As Democrats return to Albany to begin the 2023 legislative session on Wednesday, the politically explosive question of whether to impeach a newly elected House Republican hung over their victorious homecoming.
The Democrats elected the first woman to be governor of New York and maintained their superior majority in both houses in November. But their return to the State Capitol this week has been consumed by a divisive debate over whether to deport Republican war veteran Lester Chang, who showed a surprise victory in Brooklyn last year to topple a 36-year-old resident Democrat.
Mr. Chang’s Democratic enemies accused him of living in Manhattan, not Brooklyn, and therefore failing to meet the residency requirements – a claim which Mr. Chang has forcibly denied.
House Democrats are navigating uncharted territory as they contemplate whether to oust Mr. Chang from the lower house, creating the potential for a protracted legal battle and prompting accusations from Republicans that the Democrats are undermining the will of the electorate.
“Any appeal against eligibility should have been submitted long before the election, not after the results were confirmed,” said Will Barclay, leader of the Republican minority in the House. “Closing the way to sit is not something that should set a precedent.”
There’s also internal party trouble: Some Democrats have expressed concerns that the removal of Chinese-American Mr. Chang could spark a political backlash from Asian Americans, a constituency bloc increasingly turning to Republicans in the last election.
Ron Kim, a Korean-American Democrat from Queens, described the situation as a political “hard spot” and said, “Most Chinese voters think this is an effort to drive out a popularly elected Chinese in China.” that community.”
“In the short term, if you continue to dismiss him, there will be a strong reaction from the Asian community,” he said. “In the long run, you don’t want to see anyone with even the slightest bit of fraud history.”
After a House hearing and subsequent report last month, Mr. Chang’s fate hung in the balance on Wednesday as lawmakers dedicated themselves to the session and took part in a series of ceremonial duties, taking the oath of office and re-electing their respective legislative leaders.
At first it was unclear whether Democrats would try to completely block Mr. Chang from taking office, but he was finally allowed to take his seat this week.
According to a House Republicans spokesperson, he received a nameplate in the House of Commons, attended the inauguration Tuesday, and signed an official inauguration sent to the New York State Department of State. On Wednesday, as a show of solidarity, Republicans broke out into a round of applause when Mr. Chang cast the first vote for Mr. Barclay as speaker in the massive House.
“It’s a distraction from people’s work,” Mr. Chang, the first Asian American to represent Brooklyn in the House, said in an interview Wednesday.
The Assembly last expelled one of its own in 1920, when several socialist deputies were voted on during the anti-communist Red Scare.
Democrats in parliament met privately for about three hours on Tuesday to discuss the issue. Many lawmakers voiced their support for Mr. Chang’s dismissal, but others said they were more hesitant to take such an extraordinary step, according to people familiar with the behind-the-scenes controversy.
Competing in a heavily Democratic South Brooklyn district, Mr. Chang stunned Democrats in November by narrowly defeating Peter J. Abbate Jr., a Democrat who had held the seat comfortably since 1986. The majority Asian American were part of a stronger-than-expected demonstration by Republicans, who ran a tough platform against crime across the state.
Stunned by the defeat, Democrats began asking questions as to whether Mr. Chang met the residency requirements set out in the State Constitution: In the year of re-demarcation, such as 2022, candidates must reside in the county in which they are nominated. At least one year before Election Day.
Democrats pointed out that Mr. Chang voted in Manhattan in 2021, where he once owned a rent-fixed apartment he shared with his late wife, and did not change his voting record until early last year. However, Mr. Chang argued that he had a residence in the same house in Brooklyn’s Midwood neighborhood where he grew up and whose dementia-stricken mother still lives and currently cares for.
“A house is a house, 50 years, you can’t delete it,” said Mr. Chang. I have baseball cards, I have yearbooks, I have all these memories. that’s home.”
Confusion emerged over Mr. Chang’s residence and what constitutes a residence to run for office, during a tense hearing held by the House judiciary committee on December 21, when a private lawyer hired by the Democrats repeatedly tried to poke holes. He hacked into Mr. Chang’s account, citing different records that listed Mr. Chang’s apartment in Lower Manhattan as his residence.
Mr. Chang and his legal team tried to deny these efforts, in part, with affidavits signed by Mr. Chang’s sister and neighbors saying that Mr. Chang had a Brooklyn residence. They also accused the Democrats of trying to overturn Mr. Chang’s election, pointing to the fact that they did not contest Mr. Chang’s candidacy in the courts before Election Day, which is the norm when discussing his residency requirements.
“This residency issue only came up after Lester Chang won,” Mr. Chang’s lawyer, Hugh H. Mo, said in an interview Wednesday. “The Democrats were taken by surprise, they didn’t expect him to win.”
The hearing was part of an investigation ordered by House Speaker Carl E. Heastie into Mr. Chang’s residence after the election.
Mr Heastie argued that the investigation was a purely constitutional issue and not a political consideration, but acknowledged that it had the potential to undermine the democratic process.
“There’s a sense that the Constitution has to be respected,” Mr. Heastie told WNYC on Wednesday. “But I’ll also say that I don’t want to make it seem like an election has happened that has gone unnoticed by the members.”
A subsequent report by the special prosecutor, released on December 31st, outlined evidence that Mr. Chang may have lived in Manhattan – he said he was a de facto “visitor” in Brooklyn – but did not make a recommendation.
An expulsion order can very well be challenged in the courts, and Congress may decide to refer the matter to the state’s attorney general, Letitia James. If so, uncertainty around his residence may benefit Mr. Chang, according to Jerry H. Goldfeder, an election attorney.
“Under executive law, he can sue to impeach him,” he said. “But frankly, since this isn’t an open and closed case, it’s doubtful a court will do that.”