For days, Democrats in the New York State Assembly had been considering whether to expel a Republican assemblyman because of evidence suggesting he lived in Manhattan, not in the South Brooklyn district he was recently elected to represent.
The efforts to remove Assemblyman Lester Chang were seen as extraordinary — a legislator hasn’t been ousted from the Assembly in over a century — and politically contentious, fueling accusations from Republicans that Democrats were pushing a partisan agenda to overturn his election.
On Friday, however, Democratic leaders opted to mostly back off: They decided they would not try to remove Mr. Chang from the Assembly.
But even though Mr. Chang will keep his seat, he may be at risk of losing something equally precious: his rent-stabilized apartment in Manhattan, which became the subject of intense scrutiny in an Assembly investigation that suggested Mr. Chang may have violated state housing laws.
“Although it is clear that there were more than enough votes to expel Mr. Chang, we will not do so at this time,” Carl E. Heastie, the Assembly speaker, said in a statement. “However, given the totality of the evidence we have decided to forward the materials gathered pursuant to the committee’s subpoenas and from Mr. Chang’s own submissions to relevant criminal, civil and administrative authorities for further review and any action they deem necessary.”
The Assembly intends to send the evidence it has compiled on Mr. Chang to the state’s housing agencies, as well as to the state attorney general, the district attorneys in Albany, Brooklyn and Manhattan, and the U.S. attorney’s offices with relevant jurisdiction, among other agencies.
After Mr. Chang’s election win in November, Democrats accused him of failing to meet the necessary residency requirements in the State Constitution, which stipulates that during a redistricting year, such as 2022, candidates must live in the county they are running in for at least 12 months before Election Day.
The Assembly held a hearing in December on the matter and later published a lengthy report that suggested that Mr. Chang’s primary residence was actually a rent-stabilized apartment in Lower Manhattan that he had shared for decades with his late wife. Indeed, Mr. Chang voted in Manhattan in 2021 and listed the Manhattan apartment as his address in different paperwork, including paychecks and Department of Motor Vehicles records.
Mr. Chang, however, forcefully argued that he also maintained a residence in the same Brooklyn house he grew up in, where his uncle and ailing mother for whom he cares for still live. To support his claim, his legal team presented affidavits from acquaintances who swore that Mr. Chang was a Brooklyn resident.
Part of the legal debate centered on what constitutes a residence for the purposes of running for office, and whether an elected official’s primary residence must also be his or her “electoral residence.”
But another tangential issue soon arose: Mr. Chang was arguing that he was a Brooklyn resident and acknowledged that his rent-stabilized apartment in Manhattan remained unoccupied.
Under state law, a rent-stabilized apartment must be maintained as the occupant’s primary residence — potentially jeopardizing Mr. Chang’s claim to the inexpensive Manhattan rental.
Hugh Mo, Mr. Chang’s lawyer, argued that his client was entitled to the rent-stabilized apartment in Manhattan even while claiming the Brooklyn home as his electoral residence, describing Mr. Heastie’s statement on Friday as “inappropriate” and “a cheap shot.”
“The law does not preclude the Assembly member from having multiple residences,” Mr. Mo said. “We have no problem with this legal referral to any authorities.”
The Assembly report also suggested that Mr. Chang may have used a government allowance — a housing stipend issued by the New York State Division of Military and Naval Affairs — to pay the rent for his Manhattan apartment.
Mr. Heastie said Democrats had “significant concerns” about Mr. Chang’s truthfulness and that they reserved the authority to “revisit” the issue in the future. But Mr. Heastie did not clearly indicate why Democrats decided not to expel Mr. Chang, saying only that his members took seriously “the will of the voters.”
The decision came after two closed-door meetings this week among Assembly Democrats, many of whom said they believed that Mr. Chang did not meet the proper residency requirements, but who were also concerned about undermining the democratic process by removing him, according to people briefed on the conversations.
Even so, the decision not to expel the assemblyman amounted to a reprieve for Mr. Chang, a Navy veteran who staged an upset win over an entrenched Democrat, becoming the first Asian American to represent Brooklyn in the 150-seat Assembly, which is solidly controlled by Democrats.
“I thank my Brooklyn neighbors, and all my Assembly teammates, for their faith in my abilities,” Mr. Chang said in a statement on Friday. “It will be an honor serving them for the next two years.”