As Democrats returned to Albany to begin the 2023 legislative session on Wednesday, the politically explosive question of whether to remove a newly elected Assembly Republican hung over their triumphant homecoming.
Democrats elected the first woman as governor of New York and retained their supermajorities in both chambers in November. But their return to the State Capitol this week was consumed by a divisive debate over whether to expel Lester Chang, a Republican war veteran who staged a surprise victory last year to unseat an entrenched 36-year Democratic incumbent in Brooklyn.
Mr. Chang’s Democratic foes have accused him of actually living in Manhattan, not Brooklyn, thus failing to meet the residency requirements — a claim Mr. Chang has forcefully denied.
Democrats in the Assembly are navigating uncharted territory as they consider whether to oust Mr. Chang from the lower chamber, setting up the potential of a protracted legal battle and sparking accusations from Republicans that Democrats are undermining the will of voters.
“Any challenges to his eligibility should have been presented long before the election, not after the results were certified,” said Will Barclay, the Republican minority leader in the Assembly. “Blocking his path to being seated is not a precedent that should be set.”
There is also intraparty distress: Some Democrats have raised concerns that removing Mr. Chang, who is Chinese American, could lead to political blowback from Asian Americans, a bloc of voters that has increasingly gravitated toward Republicans in recent elections.
Ron Kim, a Democrat from Queens who is Korean American, described the situation as a political “tough spot,” saying that “a lot of Chinese voters feel like this is an effort to take away a Chinese person who was elected by the people in that community.”
“In the short run, if you move forward with removing him, there will be a strong backlash from the Asian community,” he said. “In the long run, you also don’t want to see someone with even an ounce of a fraudulent background.”
Following an Assembly hearing and subsequent report last month, Mr. Chang’s fate hung in the balance Wednesday, when lawmakers gaveled themselves into session and took part in a host of ceremonial duties, taking oaths of office and re-electing their respective legislative leaders.
It was at first unclear if Democrats would seek to block Mr. Chang from taking office altogether, but he was ultimately allowed to take his seat this week.
He received a name plate in the Assembly chamber, participated in a ceremonial swearing-in on Tuesday, and signed a formal oath of office that was sent to the New York State Department of State, according to a spokesman for Assembly Republicans. On Wednesday, in a show of solidarity, Republicans erupted into thunderous applause when Mr. Chang cast his first vote, for Mr. Barclay as leader of the chamber, in the cavernous Assembly.
“It’s a distraction from the people’s business,” Mr. Chang, who became the first Asian American to represent Brooklyn in the Assembly, said in an interview on Wednesday.
The last time the Assembly expelled one of its own was over a century ago in 1920, when several socialist lawmakers were voted out during the anti-communist Red Scare.
Democrats in the Assembly met privately on Tuesday for about three hours to discuss the issue. Many lawmakers voiced their support for removing Mr. Chang, but others said they were more ambivalent about taking such an extraordinary step, according to people familiar with the closed-door discussions.
Running in a South Brooklyn district that is heavily Democratic, Mr. Chang stunned Democrats in November when he narrowly defeated Peter J. Abbate Jr., a Democrat who had comfortably held the seat since 1986. His victory, in a diversifying district that is now majority Asian American, was part of a stronger than expected showing by Republicans who ran on a tough-on-crime platform statewide.
Reeling from the defeat, Democrats began raising questions about whether Mr. Chang had met the residency requirements outlined in the State Constitution: In a redistricting year like 2022, candidates are required to to have been a resident of the county of they are running in for at least one year before Election Day.
Democrats pointed to the fact that, in 2021, Mr. Chang voted in Manhattan, where he has a rent-stabilized apartment he once shared with his late wife and that he didn’t change his voting registration until earlier last year. But Mr. Chang has argued that he also maintained a residence in the same house in the Midwood neighborhood of Brooklyn where he grew up, and where his mother, who suffers from dementia, still lives and whom he now cares for.
“Home is home, 50 years, you can’t erase that,” Mr. Chang said. “I have my baseball cards, I have my yearbooks, I have all those memories. That’s home.”
The imbroglio over Mr. Chang’s residency — and what constitutes a residence for the purposes of running for office — played out during a tense hearing held by the Assembly judiciary committee on Dec. 21 in which a special counsel hired by Democrats repeatedly sought to poke holes into Mr. Chang’s account, citing different records in which Mr. Chang listed his Lower Manhattan apartment as his residence.
Mr. Chang and his legal team sought to rebuff those efforts, in part, with affidavits signed by Mr. Chang’s sister and neighbors, who said Mr. Chang had maintained a residence in Brooklyn. They also accused Democrats of trying to overturn Mr. Chang’s election, pointing to the fact that they did not object to Mr. Chang’s candidacy in the courts before Election Day, the norm when disputing residency requirements.
“This residency issue was raised only after Lester Chang won,” Mr. Chang’s lawyer, Hugh H. Mo, said in an interview on Wednesday. “The Democrats were blindsided, they didn’t expect him to win.”
The hearing was part of an investigation into Mr. Chang’s residency that was ordered by Carl E. Heastie, the Assembly speaker, after the election.
Mr. Heastie has argued that the inquiry is purely a constitutional matter, not a political consideration, but has acknowledged the optics of potentially undermining the democratic process.
“There’s a sense of the constitution needs to be respected,” Mr. Heastie told WNYC on Wednesday. “But I’ll also say that I don’t want to make it seem like it’s been lost on the members that an election did happen.”
A subsequent report by the special counsel, released on Dec. 31, outlined evidence showing Mr. Chang may have lived in Manhattan — it said he was effectively a “visitor” in Brooklyn — but stopped short of making a recommendation.
An expulsion could very well be contested in the courts, and the Assembly may decide to refer the matter to Letitia James, the state attorney general. If so, the ambiguity around his residency could end up benefiting Mr. Chang, according to Jerry H. Goldfeder, an election lawyer.
“Under the executive law, she can bring a lawsuit to remove him,” he said. “But, frankly, because it’s not an open-and-shut case, it’s doubtful a court would do it.”