A Republican elected to a Brooklyn seat in the state Assembly in November acknowledged on Wednesday that he still maintains a rent-stabilized apartment in Lower Manhattan — raising further questions about whether he meets the minimum residency requirement to serve.
Lester Chang, who was elected to a heavily Asian district that includes Brooklyn’s Dyker Heights and Bensonhurst, admitted as much when he appeared in front of the Assembly Judiciary Committee in Albany. Chang was there for a tense, virtually unprecedented hearing that will help determine whether the chamber will allow him to represent constituents as scheduled on Jan. 4.
For more than three hours, the Democrat-led committee and their outside counsel — Stanley Schlein, a well-connected Democratic lawyer from the Bronx — grilled Chang and his attorneys with questions about his living situation, poking holes in Chang’s claim that he maintained residence in Brooklyn for the 12 months preceding his election as required by the state constitution.
Chang and his attorney, Hugh Mo, countered with affidavits from Chang’s sister and Brooklyn neighbors who swore he maintained residence in the Midwood home where his ailing mother and uncle reside. All the while, they pleaded with the Assembly to allow him to take office in January — suggesting anything otherwise would be to overturn the rightful results of the election.
“I’m a Brooklynite,” Chang told the committee. “I’m a Brooklynite.”
He continued: “I hereby state – and I swear to you — that I have been and continue to be a legal resident of Brooklyn from Nov. 2, 2021, to Nov. 8 (of this year), and throughout now.”
The hearing was part of an ongoing investigation into Chang’s residency, which Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie (D-Bronx) launched earlier this month after Chang defeated longtime Democratic incumbent Peter Abbate Jr. at the ballot box.
The investigation is scheduled to conclude by the end of the year, after which point next year’s Assembly could refuse to seat Chang using a separate clause in the constitution that allows the legislative house to “be the judge of the elections, returns and qualifications of its own members.”
That clause, however, is rarely used, especially in the Assembly — which last used it to boot a handful of socialist members in the early 1920s, at the height of the “Red Scare.” Republicans have raised concerns about using it in Chang’s situation, given that no one denies he won the election last month and Democrats failed to raise the issue in the courts beforehand.
Wednesday’s hearing at times resembled a court appearance, with Schlein acting in the role of prosecutor and Chang on the witness stand.
Schlein presented the committee with a number of recent documents: Chang’s military call-ups, DMV records, his voting history and a number of paychecks in 2021 and 2022 for Chang’s work as a poll worker for the city Board of Elections. They all cited his address as Cleveland Place in Manhattan.
But he saved perhaps his most damning evidence for last: Chang’s Manhattan apartment, which he still maintains, is rent-stabilized. That means it had to be Chang’s primary residence in order to qualify, under the rules of the rent stabilization program.
“Are you familiar with the fact that it must be maintained as your primary residence to comply with the proper rent stabilization laws of the state of New York?” Schlein asked.
“Yes,” Chang said.
Schlein continued: “You still pay rent every month on that apartment?”
“Yes,” said Chang, who later said the apartment was unoccupied.
Chang’s attorneys noted that case law allows people to maintain multiple places of residence, and they made the case that Chang met the requirement by maintaining a constant presence at the Brooklyn home owned by his mother and uncle. Chang said he and his sister serve as caregivers for their elderly mother as she deals with dementia.
But they also questioned why the Assembly was even pursuing the case at all outside of a courtroom — after Chang qualified for the ballot, after the voters cast their ballots and after he was certified the winner. And they raised issue with Schlein taking an “adversarial posture” against Chang, when Schlein is tasked with being the lead writer of the committee’s report on the matter by the end of the year.
“Each one of you has a burden to respond to this question: Why are we trying to undo his election?” Mo said. “Why are we going against the will of the people of the 49th Assembly District who chose to duly cast their vote to elect him?”
Mo said the time to “commence a court action has come and gone.”
Schlein pushed back against Chang’s contention that he intended his primary residence to be in Brooklyn, pointing to evidence that he regularly cashed checks at banks in Manhattan’s Chinatown, not far from his apartment in Little Italy. He questioned why Chang didn’t change his address on file with the DMV, which is required 10 days after changing a primary address.
Establishing residency, Schlein said, is more complicated than just declaring you intend to live somewhere.
“You can’t just have a New York state of mind and say, ‘I’m a New Yorker,’” he said.
Assemblymember Michael Tannousis, a Staten Island Republican who is the committee’s ranking member, pushed back against Schlein’s evidence, challenging him to show the panel any documentation of where Chang “put his head on the pillow at night.”
“I did not go to bed with Mr. Chang, nor did I join him in either residence he maintained,” Schlein said in response.
Whether Chang gets to take office or not will have little bearing on the Assembly’s operations. Democrats won more than 100 seats in the 150-seat chamber last month, maintaining a two-thirds majority they’ve enjoyed for several years. But it could set a major precedent for future residency challenges, which are usually brought in the courts well before Election Day.
If the Assembly declines to seat Chang in January, it would trigger Gov. Kathy Hochul’s ability to call a special election to fill the seat. But the matter could likely end up in court: Republicans would be likely to sue over any expulsion.