For more than five years, Carl E. Heastie has had the distinction of being the 100th speaker of the New York Assembly and the first African American to lead the chamber’s 150 members. He spoke to NCSL about his plans and hopes for moving his state forward.
What are the main challenges and opportunities that you see in the future for New York?
When I was elected speaker, we undertook what was called a “families first” agenda where we felt like taking care of families, improving the position particularly of women in society, would boost the entire family. So, that’s what we will continue to do, but coupled with and challenged by rebuilding from the pandemic. We want to stay focused on access to education, access to child care, criminal justice reform, income inequality and pay inequality—all the things that have been disruptive to families.
Have you set the groundwork to allow that to happen?
We are well on our way to doing it. COVID gave us a delay. We had a tremendous budget this year from the federal money that we’re very thankful for, but we also enacted tax increases on high earners to give us the ability to spend money to match our priorities. We had money for business recovery, helping struggling homeowners and tenants paying their rent, and expanding pre-K. We even have a billion-dollar program to help businesses restart. We really did a massive undertaking not only continuing our families first agenda but putting New York back on track.
How do you hope to strengthen the Assembly?
I aspire to stick to our core principles as a Democratic Assembly. We have 107 Democratic Assembly members, but I try to remember there are other voices besides mine. I try to make sure that each member is heard, every part of the state is represented and all of the needs are addressed. I try to make sure that even the newest members have the same ability to give input as the most senior members.
What lessons from your past influence how you lead today?
I have an MBA in finance, but I took management classes, and they talked about three types of leaders. There’s a dictator, but that only gets you so far because, at some point, people get tired of being dictated to. Then you have the laissez faire, which is anything goes, and that’s just organized chaos. But the other type is a democratic leader, and I always felt that was the best way to lead. I think when you get a bunch of smart people in a room and everybody freely gives their opinion, usually pretty good ideas come out of that room. Every good thing the Assembly has done hasn’t come from me, hasn’t just come from senior members; it has come from members across the board.
Education is clearly one of your passions. When kids look at you as leader of the Assembly, what do you hope they see?
That the Legislature has always prioritized education, from pre-K all the way up through college. One of my passions is making sure that college is affordable. So, we’ve expanded opportunity programs. In the governor’s budget, he put in a three-year tuition increase. We canceled that and gave the universities the money, because we want to make sure tuition remains affordable. When you say what do the children see, I want them to look at someone like me who has been a total product of public schools all the way from elementary school to graduate school. I’m not anybody special. And if I can do it, they can do it—if they just stay focused.
Are you able to get out and visit schools?
That’s one of my favorite things to do: dealing with young people and trying to help captivate, lead and open their minds to the possibilities, to really instill in them that they can be whatever they want to be. There are no limitations. I always say if you follow your passion, you’ll never go wrong.
In the past year, health and racial equity have become central topics in legislatures. How do you ensure productive conversations and outcomes on these issues?
COVID magnified and made more known the health care disparities that we’ve all seen, especially in communities of color. In New York, we have 62 counties, and the two worst counties in terms of vaccination rates are my home county of the Bronx, and Brooklyn. We have to continue to push to change these health disparities through more resources and more coordination to make sure that our communities of color are not left behind.
Anything else you’d like to add on the topic of the future?
I’m concerned that we are the richest nation in the world, and we still have people living paycheck to paycheck, we still have too many people in poverty, too much homelessness. We have to start to look at a redistribution of wealth in order to take care of some of those problems. It’s unimaginable for us to be this successful of a country, yet people still are struggling to get health care. Thirty percent of people are living in poverty. That’s something as a nation that we need to work on.
This interview, which has been edited for length and clarity, was conducted by Stacy Householder and Taylor Huhn. Householder is director and Huhn is a senior program specialist in NCSL’s Leaders and International programs.
This story was first published in the Summer 2021 edition of State Legislatures magazine.