This time a year ago, Sheldon Silver reigned over the State Assembly with an iron fist. Dean Skelos was about to become the sole Senate leader—no longer needing to share the title with anyone after Republicans won a majority of seats in November elections. Mayor Bill de Blasio had just cut a deal for his pal, Gov. Andrew Cuomo, flexing some muscle to get the governor the endorsement of the Working Families Party—even though they didn’t think he was progressive enough.
What a difference a year makes.
Mr. Silver and Mr. Skelos are now awaiting trial on corruption charges, their arrests sending their respective houses of the legislature into chaos. Mr. de Blasio and Mr. Cuomo are barely on speaking terms, and despite all the time he spends at the gym, the mayor’s muscles are looking pretty flabby—he got just about nothing he wanted in Albany last year, and is faced yet again with appealing to a Republican Senate that hates him and a governor who isn’t much more friendly. And Mr. Cuomo, who laughed a $13 minimum wage out of town last year, is taking up the progressive mantle and backs a $15 rate.
It is a universal truth of politics: if somebody is on the decline, somebody else is on the rise to take their place. If there is chaos that creates a power vacuum, somebody will find a way to fill the void. In the end, that is what these twists and turns are about. Power is always in flux, but rarely is it this obvious: two of the state’s three most powerful men last year are simply off the list this year, replaced by two men who weren’t even mentioned in this space a year ago, new Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie and new Senate Leader John Flanagan.
Albany is many miles from New York City but it plays home to the characters—new and old—who make decisions that have an impact on every aspect of New York City life, from how much people are paid to what their children learn in school to whether their subways will run a little better. These are the people who make those decisions, from lobbyists whose names stay out of the press to the famous “three men in a room” that hash out the state budget to the prosecutor who has emerged as the fourth man in that room, listening in on every deal and upending the status quo of a place that seemed like it would never change.
These are the 40 people who run Albany, and who matter to New York City more than you might think.
1. Preet Bharara, U.S. Attorney
Some will say that Gov. Andrew Cuomo belongs at the top of any list measuring the most powerful people in the state. But consider this: a year ago today, the most feared man in Albany was Mr. Cuomo. Today, without a doubt, it is Mr. Bharara, who did something neither Mr. Cuomo—nor any governor—could ever do: removed the leaders of both houses of the State Legislature in the span of mere months. Last year the Observer called former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver “Teflon” on this list, but the non-stick wore off under the searing heat of Mr. Bharara’s probes and the prosecutor did the unthinkable, eventually ending Mr. Silver’s long reign. And it’s no longer a joke that the Manhattan-based prosecutor might be listening in on every phone call made by an Albany power broker—when former Senate leader Dean Skelos’ son told his dad, “You can’t talk normally because it’s like fucking Preet Bharara is listening to every fucking phone call,” it turned out to be the truth, and is now a matter of public record. Mr. Bharara was handed a major setback Monday when the Supreme Court agreed that many of his signature hedge fund insider trading convictions would not stand. But that may serve only to sharpen his claws for public integrity prosecutions. It is no secret Mr. Bharara has his eyes on Mr. Cuomo—investigating his role in the ending of the corruption-fighting Moreland Commission and now turning to funky financial dealings in the Buffalo Billion economic program. If it seems hard to believe Mr. Bharara could take down the governor, consider how hard it would have been to believe a year ago that neither Mr. Silver nor Mr. Skelos would be on this list in 2015.
2. Andrew Cuomo, Governor
On paper, nobody benefited more from Mr. Silver’s demise than the governor: after all, his most entrenched and intransigent opponent was gone, and it seemed no successor could ever run the Assembly with such efficiency or force again. Yet there were few doubts who Mr. Bharara had in mind when he told New Yorkers to “stay tuned.” And when the second man in the room, Mr. Skelos, was led away in cuffs just months later, Mr. Cuomo appeared to be in an increasingly vulnerable and lonely position. Linking the three men are centenarian mega-donor Leonard Litwin of Glenwood Management and the unceremonious scuttling of the Moreland Commission—both believed to be involved in the cases against Mr. Silver and Mr. Skelos. That is why the governor has been demoted from the top spot he held on last year’s list—all the way to No. 2. He still probably has New York’s finest political mind, and has used it to repeatedly thwart and embarrass his chief rival in the Democratic Party, Mayor Bill de Blasio. His popularity has suffered somewhat, but he continues to dominate state government, wringing everything necessary to his own political future out of negotiations in the last legislative session—and not going out of his way to get much more. Perhaps rattled by his relatively anemic win in last year’s Democratic primary against liberal long shot Zephyr Teachout, he has quelled key camps of left-wing opposition by unilaterally banning fracking, raising wages for fast-food workers and endorsing a $15-an-hour minimum wage. His enemies (Mr. de Blasio, teachers’ unions, the Public Employees Federation) quickly find themselves isolated. Mr. Cuomo always appears to be thinking several steps ahead of anyone else in politics, and it’s impossible to ever tell if his stated aims are actually his real aims. But he is doubtless determined to remain Albany’s alpha male as long as he can.
The sphinx-like Mr. Heastie (is it a requirement of all Assembly speakers to be this way?) quickly rose to power after Mr. Silver’s downfall. A Bronx Democrat with a limited legislative record, Mr. Heastie managed a relatively mistake-free first legislative session, pleasing his 149 constituents in the Assembly chamber. His second year will only bring more challenges and Mr. de Blasio will need to lean heavily on Mr. Heastie to ensure his progressive agenda doesn’t stall back home. New York City can do little without Albany’s approval, and Mr. Heastie, in many ways, is the city’s most relevant lawmaker.
As mentioned before, Mr. Bharara’s ability to secure indictments of Mr. Silver and Mr. Skelos upended the Albany order, and Mr. Flanagan, a genial Long Islander, was one beneficiary. In his first session as majority leader, he helped ensure that Mr. de Blasio, no friend of Senate Republicans, will need to go to Albany next year to grovel again for the renewal of mayoral control of public schools. Mr. Flanagan is in the catbird seat, but his position may not last long—Democrats are expected, with the help of a presidential election year, to make big gains in 2016.
He’s yet to build the public profile of past hard-charging AGs like Eliot Spitzer and Mr. Cuomo. Yet Mr. Schneiderman, with his measured criticism of Mr. Cuomo and his success in convincing the governor to make him a special prosecutor in cases of police killing unarmed civilians, is only seeing his stock rise. Liberals dream of the Upper West Side Democrat running against Mr. Cuomo in 2018. Whether he has the cojones for such an endeavor remains to be seen.
This Syracuse Republican may have lost out on becoming majority leader to Mr. Flanagan, but Mr. Flanagan named Mr. DeFrancisco deputy majority leader in recognition of the sway he holds with upstate conservatives. Regarded as one of the most canny, policy-oriented senators in Albany, he is expected to play a significant role in next year’s legislative session.
The State Legislature disbanded for the year with the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s $26.8 billion five-year capital plan—which covers everything from basic maintenance to massive projects like the proposed five new
Metro North stops in the Bronx—left unfunded, the result of a bitter dispute over how much City Hall should pony up toward the transit system each year. Mr. Prendergast penned a letter asking for the city to pitch in an additional $3.2 billion to the plan, and to triple its annual contribution to $300 million, on the eve of Mr. de Blasio’s scheduled roll-out of his budget. The timing seemed obviously calculated to undermine the mayor’s ability to set the city’s spending priorities. The two sparred again, at the ribbon cutting for the 7 line extension, over where the mass transit buck ought to stop (and start), presaging future conflicts when the state takes up the capital plan again. And thus, on top of controlling the largest public transportation network in the country, the MTA chairman—a gubernatorial appointee—has become another powerful proxy in Mr. Cuomo’s never-ending battle with the mayor.
8. Bill de Blasio, Mayor of New York City
Let’s just get it out of the way: Mr. de Blasio did not have a good year in Albany. He had to practically plead for action on 421a and rent regulations, key issues for housing-focused City Hall. His $13 minimum wage was laughed out of town, only for Mr. Cuomo to bounce back with a $15 proposal. But most humiliating, he was granted mayoral control of the city’s school system for a mere year—meaning he’s going to have to beg Albany yet again to let him stay in charge of city schools, even though no rational person really believes New York City would be better off with the old Board of Education. The mayor lost on virtually every front last year and the governor is already picking fights with him on new items—like funding for homelessness and the MTA capital plan. Mr. de Blasio will have to fight tooth and nail to get just about anything from the governor or the State Senate, which despises his big city liberal politics, but he’s still the mayor of the biggest city in the state and that still carries some sway. Just a little less sway than last year.
As the wife of the heir to the Loews Corporation and head of the body responsible for setting education policy for the state, Ms. Tisch plays an odd role as both a technocrat and influential fundraiser for philanthropies and political campaigns. She has tried, and failed, to stay above the fray between Mr. Cuomo and teachers’ unions over new assessment systems, and has become a target for opponents of standardized testing and Common Core. The board is also responsible for vetting and approving most charter school applications, and its rejection of a round of new schools in the city this year earned her ire from the other side of the aisle. Pro-teacher Assembly Democrats placed two outspoken critics of her policies on the Board in March, but for now Ms. Tisch is still running the show in perhaps the most hotly contested arena in the state: public schools.
The relatively low-key liberal from Long Island manages for the most part to avoid bumping up against the outsized personalities in Albany. But he still oversees the state’s $184.5 billion public pension system (the third-largest in the nation) and has teamed up with Mr. Schneiderman to take down corrupt elected officials and powerful nonprofit heads. He enjoys a strong rapport with the public employees unions, but his relationship with Mr. Cuomo is believed to be less than warm. Mr. DiNapoli’s overwhelming victory over his 2014 Republican challenger was the largest of any statewide Democratic official, which has fueled some speculation he will one day run for governor himself.
Despite lingering questions about how much about the Bridgegate scandal he shared with the governor, Mr. Cuomo’s man at the Port Authority had a pretty good year: Mr. Cuomo and his Garden State counterpart, Chris Christie, vetoed legislation to increase transparency at the long-opaque institution; Vice President Joseph Biden swooped into the state in July to announce the federal government and Delta Air Lines would be helping fund a $4 billion overhaul of LaGuardia Airport; and Mr. Cuomo wants the Port Authority to play a major role in building, but not paying for, the Gateway Project tunnel between New York and New Jersey. All that might help make up for the continued difficulty the authority has had filling One World Trade Center (or finishing the associated PATH train station). Word is that he will seek to become the PA CEO next year when the Authority unifies the roles of New York-appointed executive director and New Jersey-picked chairman.
12. Eva Moskowitz, Success Academies Founder and CEO
The ex-councilwoman and head of the city’s biggest charter school chain has a reliable ally in Mr. Cuomo and probably would be voted “most likely to run against Mr. de Blasio.” Her schools have endured scathing reports on disciplinary procedures and attacks from teachers’ unions and rival charters, noting that Success Academies rarely refill the seats of students who drop out or are expelled, leading to far smaller class sizes. Ms. Moskowitz and her allies like to point instead to Success’ successes on standardized tests, with almost two-thirds of students performing at grade level—more than twice the rate of the public schools. And the SUNY board last year approved 14 new schools to open in in the city, almost a 50 percent expansion for the company, for which the pro-teachers’-union mayor will have to find space—meaning Ms. Moskowitz will likely continue to be the face of the charter school movement for the foreseeable future.
Twice now—first in 2012 and again in 2014—the Westchester Democrat appeared on the cusp of becoming the first woman to lead the State Senate. Twice, the Republican conference foiled her, the first time through its alliance with the Independent Democratic Conference, then through surprising strength at the midterm polls last year. But after being relegated to the backbench for a second time (which many blame on Mr. Cuomo for his failure to extend help to his fellow Dems), Ms. Stewart-Cousins’ operation has started to speak up: both for her to be included in budget negotiations and, more quietly, against the governor himself. And the slipstream of the Democratic presidential candidate may finally allow her and her conference to slide into power.
14. Jeffrey Klein, IDC Leader
The Bronx state senator heads the five-member Independent Democratic Conference, a breakaway caucus that has had a co-leadership arrangement with the State Senate Republicans since 2012. The slim Republican majority that came in last year resulted in Mr. Klein losing a number of the perks and powers he had when the IDC provided the margin of votes keeping the GOP in control of the body. But he was still allowed in the budget negotiating room this year, the first non-majority leader granted such privilege—a sign perhaps that he might not follow through with the vow he made last year to realign with his fellow Democrats to form a majority if the opportunity arises. Such mercenary tactics have earned Mr. Klein considerable opprobrium from certain corners, but there is a strong possibility he and his members will again act as kingmakers after next year’s elections.
15. Bill Mulrow, Secretary to the Governor
A former investment banker at the Blackstone Group, Mr. Mulrow joined the Cuomo administration this year after several top aides departed. As secretary, Mr. Mulrow has stepped into the job of Mr. Cuomo’s right-hand man, but he’s not exactly a new face to government or the Cuomo family: he worked for Mr. Cuomo’s father and served on the New York State Housing Finance Agency as Mr. Cuomo’s appointee. His position is a powerful one, but Mr. Mulrow has kept a decidedly lower profile than his predecessors, and rumors have swirled that despite his short tenure he might be looking for an exit.
16. The Rising Members of the Assembly:
Todd Kaminsky, Brian Kavanagh, Nick Perry, Walter Mosley, Marcos Crespo, Michael Blake, Nily Rozic
It is hard to overstate how much the dynamic of the Assembly will change now that members are out from under Shelly’s thumb. And even beyond that dynamic, Mr. Heastie is already shaping up to be a more open leader, insiders say—leaving room for people to make moves. These are some of the Democrats already moving: Mr. Kaminsky, a former prosecutor who is rumored to be eyeing a run for Mr. Skelos’ Senate seat; Mr. Kavanagh, the leader of the reform caucus that emerged during the speaker’s race; Mr. Perry, the chairman of the powerful Black, Puerto Rican, Hispanic and Asian Legislative Caucus; Mr. Mosley, who took on his seat from now-Congressman Hakeem Jeffries and almost got the Caucus nod Mr. Perry did; Marcos Crespo, new Bronx Democratic chairman and close friend of Mr. Heastie; Mr. Blake, a former Obama staffer from the resurgent Bronx; and Ms. Rozic, who at the time of her election was the youngest woman ever elected to the Assembly.
Mr. Malatras hasn’t quite been the political animal that his predecessor Howard Glaser was in this post—but nonetheless he runs the show for the administration when it comes to policy (which, despite our focus on politics, actually matters) and running the state’s agencies. He’s also a veteran of the State University of New York system—and education policy is set to be among the many flashpoints in Albany this year.
The partner in one of the state’s biggest and most influential Democratic consulting and public relations firms has a rolodex of powerful union and political connections, having previously served as executive vice president at 1199 SEIU and as deputy counsel to former Assembly Speaker Mr. Silver. She handled both of Mr. Schneiderman’s campaigns for attorney general and also happens to be his amicable ex-wife, and his office’s secretive correspondence with her firm has prompted criticism and controversy. Despite her ties to him, she has also been a close advisor to Mr. Cuomo.
Proximity is power in Albany, and Mr. Percoco is among those closest to the governor—one of his fiercest defenders and strongest enforcers. He is an example of Mr. Cuomo’s tendency to find someone he considers a loyal confidant and stick with him: Mr. Percoco has been in the Cuomo orbit since the governor’s days at the Department of Housing and Urban Development. He is a background man, seeking to solve problems before they’re even heard about—sometimes causing a bit of trouble, like when he urged Moreland Commission members to defend the governor.
If Mr. Malatras is the governor’s go-to for policy, then Ms. DeRosa has emerged as his newest go-to for politics. She constantly has the governor’s ear, insiders say, and handles much of the interaction between the governor’s office and City Hall. She also runs a tight press shop, offering very aggressive defenses of the governor and sometimes personal knocks on reporters who dare to question him.
Mr. LaBarbera and his union of 120,000 construction workers are the face of old-school organized labor in New York: skilled, private sector, predominantly white and mostly residing in the outer boroughs and suburbs. The former Teamster was an ally of ex-Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and found a surprising opponent in Mr. de Blasio—a friend of the minority-dominated service sector and public employee unions—who said he believed building the most affordable housing possible was more important than making sure developers paid union wages. When the mayor released a proposal to regear the controversial 421a building tax credit to maximize low-end construction, Mr. LaBarbera used his “Build Up NYC” PR campaign to insist the abatement be amended to include prevailing wage provisions. The union head won the day—Mr. Cuomo and the State Legislature decided that the precious exemption would only survive if the real estate industry and the unions could agree on pay standards. Maybe it was a reward for Mr. LaBarbera siding with the governor in his spat with state workers five years ago. Or maybe it was just another theater of the lopsided de Blasio-Cuomo war.
Ms. Elia has not been in her role long, but she’s been busy: she inherited the Common Core curriculum, the roll-out of which most people seem to agree was botched by her predecessors at the State Education Department. Teachers unions and parents are in open rebellion, opting out of tests, and trying to force education policy—one of the most direct ways New Yorkers are affected by and interact with government—to the top of the list for this year’s Albany agenda. Ms. Elia was fired from her last job in Florida after trying to tie teacher evaluations and test scores to teacher pay, and she will now preside over those same thorny questions here in New York.
23. George Gresham, President of 1199 SEIU
The health care workers union is the largest in New York State and Mr. Gresham is its quiet, steady hand. Mr. Gresham has managed, somehow, to be a close ally of both the mayor and governor, and his union is helping lead Mr. Cuomo’s campaign to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour.
Mr. Loeb, the billionaire founder of the hedge fund Third Point LLC, has helped bankroll Mr. Cuomo and the Republican State Senate majority. He is a backer of charter schools and is quietly one of the most influential donors in New York State.
25. Emma Wolfe, NYC Director of Intergovernmental Affairs
Ms. Wolfe is Mr. de Blasio’s right-hand woman for all things political—and few aides wield as much clout in City Hall. Regarded as a master operative, Ms. Wolfe has nevertheless stumbled at times during her first two tours of Albany. Even Democratic allies have complained of Mr. de Blasio’s high-handedness—not everyone thought it was a moral obligation to make mayoral control permanent—and Ms. Wolfe will need to figure out how to keep securing wins in an environment that can be hostile for a big city liberal mayor. But she remains the administration’s main conduit to Mr. Cuomo, with whom the mayor himself barely speaks, and she is the main voice in the governor’s office advocating for City Hall’s priorities.
Ms. Nolan has served in the Assembly since the Reagan administration and chairs the highly influential Education Committee. With mayoral control up for renewal next year, and education policy being perpetually debated, Ms. Nolan, a liberal who made her own play for speaker this year, will be a key lawmaker in Albany for 2016 and the foreseeable future.
Ms. Kasirer is perennially one of the highest-paid lobbyists in the city, advocating on behalf of major real estate developers and their projects. Married to former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s old right-hand man Bruce Teitelbaum, she has ties to the Clinton family and sits on the Association for a Better New York steering committee.
Mr. Jenkins is a veteran Democratic consultant and lobbyist, but his stock shot through the roof after his old college roommate, Carl Heastie, was elected speaker of the Assembly. Mr. Jenkins is a gatekeeper to the speaker and lobbies for some major clients, including Uber and the Trial Lawyers Association.
29. John Banks, REBNY President
Mr. Banks, an ex-Koch administration aide and City Council staffer most recently employed at Con Ed, has big shoes to fill as the newly elected leader of the city’s real estate trade association. His predecessor, Steven Spinola, headed the organization for almost 30 years. His first test will be squaring off with Mr. LaBarbera over the wage standards to be built into 421a—an abatement that REBNY members would hate to lose. There’s less at stake in the next few sessions than in the last one, when the city’s rent laws were up for renewal, so REBNY may play a smaller political role than it did in 2014, in which it bankrolled the current GOP majority.
With its large Latino membership and ability to play a decisive role in local elections, this building workers union is only growing more relevant. Mr. Figueroa, friendly with both the mayor and the governor, has become an outspoken advocate for immigration reform and wage hikes for fast-food workers.
Mr. Zemsky, a longtime Buffalo developer, now leads the state’s economic development arm—which is tasked with doling out economic subsidies to projects nearby, like condo towers in Brooklyn Bridge Park, and far-flung, like the currently under scrutiny Buffalo Billion, which aims to invest a billion bucks in the struggling city and region. Much of ESD’s work is under scrutiny, in fact, including the amount it has spent on television commercials and the few jobs created by its Start-Up NY program, and Mr. Zemsky is now tasked with being its chief defender.
Mr. Ward’s union is regarded as one of the most influential in the state, forging a close alliance with Mr. Cuomo and taking advantage of New York City’s real estate boom. Even maids are in line to earn middle-class salaries, thanks to Mr. Ward’s tough bargaining.
With turnout for the 2016 presidential election set to buoy Democrats across New York State, Mr. Gianaris, the leader of the Senate Democrats’ campaign arm, is in line be a real Albany power player, especially if Democrats find themselves in the majority—and many already consider him more of an influencer than Ms. Stewart-Cousins.
34. Cuomo’s Old Guard: Josh Vlasto, Lawrence Schwartz, Steven Cohen
You can check out from Albany any time you like, but you can never really leave. These three men—a former chief of staff and two former secretaries to the governor—remain close to Mr. Cuomo and among his most trusted advisers. All of them remain unpaid counselors while enjoying the financial benefits of the private sector. And two are still in positions to make policy. Mr. Schwartz was recently appointed to the MTA, and the agency’s capital plan will be one of the major flashpoints between the city and the state and a way for Mr. Cuomo to needle Mr. de Blasio. Mr. Cohen is on the board of the Port Authority, which Mr. Cuomo wants to be responsible for building of the Gateway tunnel.
35. Al D’Amato, Former Senator
The vanquished ex-U.S. senator is proof there are second acts in American political life. Despite last having held elected office in 1998, he remains the political godfather of his native Long Island, with close ties to Mr. Flanagan and the rest of the dominant downstate wing of the State Senate GOP. His firm Park Strategies is the go-to consulting and PR source for Republican candidates, and takes on a growing list of lobbying clients each year. And despite having engineered the late Gov. Mario Cuomo’s downfall, he is said to have a cozy relationship with his son.
36. Mike McKeon, Partner at Mercury Public Affairs
Mr. McKeon, a former aide to Republican Gov. George Pataki, is one of Albany’s top consultants. His firm, Mercury, works for Republicans and Democrats alike—they recently signed vocal animal rights group NYCLASS—and is a force to be reckoned with across the state.
Mr. Iselin is managing partner of law firm Greenberg Traurig’s Albany office, which is stocked full of former government types who now lobby current government types. The firm is also connected to county political party operations.
The dynamic Bronx borough president is one of the few elected officials in the state to enjoy a genuinely friendly relationship with Mr. Cuomo. He served as a member of the governor’s 2010 transition team and as co-chairman of his 2014 campaign, and it was his phone call that reportedly prompted Mr. Cuomo to step in and push the city Department of Health aside during the Legionnaires’ disease outbreak in the South Bronx this summer. Mr. Díaz’s criticism of Mr. de Blasio has also added to the growing buzz about the borough president’s well-known designs on Gracie Mansion.
Ms. Magee and the 600,000 public school teachers she represents lost out in their battle with Mr. Cuomo over the new test-based evaluations outlined in this year’s budget agreement. And though they stopped the passage of the Cuomo-backed Education Investment Tax Credit, which would have subsidized private education, they had to accept $64.6 million being given to parochial schools and yeshivas. But they had their revenge on the governor, undermining the new evaluation system by convincing thousands of parents to have their kids opt out of the tests—and the union’s accompanying advertising campaign inflicted real damage on Mr. Cuomo’s approval ratings, forcing him to drop some of his harsher rhetoric and tactics on public school teachers. And that may be the greatest victory of all.
A cloud hung over Meara Avella Dickinson after it was widely reported that a partner in the firm, veteran lobbyist Brian Meara, was cooperating in Mr. Bharara’s corruption case against Mr. Silver, the former Assembly speaker. Despite this, Mr. Avella and the firm remain one of the most successful in the state, though lawmakers could be skittish about helping his clients in the upcoming legislative session. And let’s be honest: you don’t end up on Mr. Bharara’s radar unless you’re influential.