By MAYSOON KHAN
Associated Press/Report for America
ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) — In an election in which Republicans underperformed nationally, Lester Chang was a success story. He beat a New York City Democrat who’d been in office for almost 36 years, and in doing so became the first Asian American elected to represent Brooklyn’s growing Chinatown in the state Assembly.
Now, Democrats in the Legislature are talking about denying Chang his seat as they raise questions about whether he met a residency requirement. They question whether Chang lived in Brooklyn long enough to run for office. Republican supporters say he lives in the borough, in his childhood home.
But the possible rejection has infuriated supporters who see it as an effort to disenfranchise Asian voters.
“Our votes and our say is possibly going to be overridden by Assembly members representing other districts, and the Brooklyn Chinese community that did turn out for Lester, I don’t think they’re going to forget this,” said Yiatin Chu, the president of political club Asian Wave Alliance.
Chang, a 61-year-old retired U.S. Navy reservist who had a career in the global shipping industry, defeated Assemblyman Peter Abbate on Nov. 8 in Brooklyn’s 49th Assembly District.
Immigration has changed the Assembly district in recent years, with Asians accounting for more than half the population.
Under state elections rules, Chang was required to have been a resident of Brooklyn for 12 months prior to Election Day in order to be eligible to run for the Assembly. Some Democrats have raised the possibility that Chang lived in Manhattan for part of that time.
According to New York City Board of Elections records, Chang is currently registered to vote in Brooklyn.
“It came back to me that Lester did not live in the borough for one complete year, which is mandatory under the state constitution,” said Abbate, Chang’s opponent. “I’m not questioning whether he got more votes than I did, I’m questioning whether he ran under false pretenses.”
Jim Gardner, a professor at University at Buffalo with a focus on election law, said these types of discrepancies are often sniffed out at a much earlier phase.
“The party nominating someone must make sure they’re eligible,” said Gardner. “And you would expect the opposite party to have done their homework sooner.”
Democratic Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie earlier this month called for the Assembly Judiciary Committee to review Chang’s eligibility. They’ll likely examine records such as utility bills and mortgage statements.
“Credible and serious questions have been raised,” Heastie, a Democrat, said in a statement. “We have an obligation to ensure that all members adhere to these constitutional residency requirements.”
Phone, email, and social media messages left for Chang weren’t immediately returned.
Assembly Minority Leader William Barclay, a Republican, defended Chang and said he was confident he would keep his seat.
“Lester Chang was raised in Brooklyn and resides in his childhood home,” said Barclay. “There is no precedent for a candidate who fairly won an election to have to prove their residency in order to be seated in the State Assembly.”
If the Assembly refuses to seat Chang on the grounds that he does not fulfill the residency requirement it would force Gov. Kathy Hochul to call a special election to fill the seat.
Chang could potentially run again in that election, depending on when it was held. But a new vote held outside the regular election cycle might bring a low turnout likely to favor a candidate supported by Brooklyn’s Democrats.