Last week, we gave you the 10 figures who would just as soon forget 2015—convicted officials, flailing politicians, failed commissioners and staffers.
But what about those who have plenty to toast when the ball drops at midnight on Thursday, the ones who locked up the shady dealers, humiliated the hapless electeds, harnessed the winds of change? Well, read on…
1. Preet Bharara: The U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York finished the year with not one but two bangs—the back-to-back corruption convictions of ex-Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and erstwhile Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos, formerly two of the most powerful figures in the state. The legal victories seemed to wash out any bitter aftertaste that remained from a pair embarrassing incidents just months before: the unraveling of several of the Manhattan-based prosecutor’s flimsier insider trading convictions and a reproach from a federal judge over his media-hungry behavior, a trait Mr. Bharara apparently inherited from his old boss, Sen. Charles Schumer. The U.S. Attorney has managed to usurp Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s spot as the most feared man in the state capitol, and is reportedly investigating the governor’s office over its spending projects in Buffalo and its unceremonious scuttling of the anti-corruption Moreland Commission in 2014.
Clearly not content with keeping his crusading local, Mr. Bharara rounded up and arrested former United Nations General Assembly President John Ashe, several UN ambassadors and functionaries and a Chinese billionaire for an alleged bribery scheme in October.
There’s no end to the speculation about where Mr. Bharara goes from here. Presidents usually like to install their own handpicked prosecutors in the Southern District, meaning he will likely be moving on after 2016. Rumor has him running for governor himself, or on the short-list to become the nation’s next attorney general. But there’s little doubt that the prosecutor has an interesting year ahead of him, and that all of Albany will be looking over its shoulder.
2. Carl Heastie: The muted assemblyman from the Bronx is the last person you would probably associate with the word “speaker.” But the stars, votes and assorted celestial political powers aligned behind him to succeed Mr. Silver, as one-by-one the various other aspiring Democrats dropped out in the flurry of backroom deal-making that followed the former speaker’s arrest and resignation in January. With complete control of the overwhelmingly blue body in his hands, Mr. Heastie has withstood scrutiny and criticism of his past campaign expenditures, his receipt of per diem reimbursements and his activities as former Bronx County Democratic chairman with an icy taciturnity reminiscent of his predecessor. So far, signs of systemic reform in his branch of the State Legislature have been scant. Despite his proclaimed attentiveness to his members’ needs and the ushering-through of campaign finance reform legislation that had no chance of passing the GOP-run State Senate, the Assembly remains a musty, strictly regimented body of entrenched politicians with a single powerful head. And there seems to be no reason to believe that’s going to change any time soon.
3. Paul Ryan: The wonky Wisconsin congressman gave every indication he didn’t want to be the next man to try to ride the mechanical bull of the House GOP conference. The Tea Party-aligned, 40-member Freedom Caucus managed to throw off Speaker John Boehner in October, and quickly scared away Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy.
But in the end, Mr. Ryan not only rode the bull but tamed it, winning the speakership with the Freedom Caucus’s blessing and laying out an aggressive Republican agenda. Earlier this month, he managed to pass a stopgap spending bill with little of the atmosphere of impending apocalypse that seemed to gather over Mr. Boehner’s Congress every time an extender expired. And his holding onto his majority in Congress is all but guaranteed for the rest of the decade.
4. Loretta Lynch: President Barack Obama nominated the former U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of New York for the job of U.S. Attorney General last November, a post that Mr. Bharara was rumored to have coveted. After prolonged hearings that didn’t exactly cast the newly Republican Senate in a flattering light, Ms. Lynch finally won her confirmation to the job in April, making her the first black woman to serve as the nation’s highest law enforcement authority. She almost immediately catapulted herself onto the global stage with a string of arrests, indictments and guilty pleas related to an alleged bribery and racketeering scheme at the Fédération Internationale de Football Association, the governing body of world soccer.
Meanwhile, back in her old stomping grounds of Brooklyn and Staten Island, the indictments she secured against Congressman Michael Grimm and State Senator John Sampson bore fruit this year. Mr. Grimm pleaded guilty to tax evasion in January, and in July a jury convicted Mr. Sampson of lying to federal agents and threatening witnesses.
5. John Flanagan: Mr. Skelos’s successor as State Senate head inherited a slender majority and a divided conference, with conservative upstate Republicans pitted against a moderate, Cuomo-friendly downstate wing. Mr. Flanagan, a Nassau County-based member of the latter faction—and reportedly the resigning Mr. Skelos’s personal pick—edged out Syracuse-area rival John DeFrancisco by just three votes to take over as majority leader in May.
Mr. Flanagan moved to unite his members by making Mr. DeFrancisco his deputy majority leader and negotiating what he could call a concession from the governor on the SAFE Act gun control bill: a promise not to implement the legislation’s ammunition registry until the technology to build it existed (the governor, of course, refused to call it a concession but couldn’t explain why the promise was necessary).
It is unclear whether the Republicans can hold onto power after next year’s elections, when support for the Democratic presidential nominee will likely trickle down the ballot to state races. But it is clear that it is Mr. Flanagan who will be setting the agenda in the upper house of the State Legislature this coming spring.
6. Uber: In a year rife with humiliations for Mayor Bill de Blasio, the e-hail app dealt him perhaps the embarrassing blow of all: a loss on his own turf. The mayor seemed to think it would be easy to pass a cap on the number of new for-hire vehicles brought onto city streets pending a study of their impact on traffic congestion, a measure that enjoyed the support of yellow cab medallion owners who backed him in 2013.
Meanwhile Uber prepared for war, recruiting David Plouffe, President Barack Obama’s former campaign manager, in 2014. The company cast itself as a downright Obama-like presence: a champion of minorities and standard bearer of hipster innovation against a sclerotic and backwards establishment. Its massive public relations blitz this summer left Mr. de Blasio and his allies in the Council and in the medallion industry looking like the French at the Maginot Line.
Smelling weakness, Mr. de Blasio’s political rivals—including Mr. Cuomo, Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. and Comptroller Scott Stringer—pounced on him. Ultimately, the final blow came from a friend: Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, who after some chats with the governor, helped hammer out a new plan that would conduct the congestion study without limiting oncoming cars. The speaker even tore into the mayor when he tried to “save face” and vowed to carry on his battle with the app.
The company is now even making cameos in the presidential race, with Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida hailing it as a pioneer on the frontier of the 21st Century economy. Not bad for an app that nearly 80 percent of New Yorkers surveyed reported that they’d never used.
7. Daniel Donovan: In 2014, the mild-mannered, middle-of-the-road Republican district attorney for Staten Island became the focus of universal left-wing opprobrium when a grand jury he impaneled failed to indict the white cop who killed Eric Garner, a black man. There was even more outrage and outcry when, after Mr. Grimm resigned, the prosecutor indicated he was interested in running for Congress. But most Staten Islanders didn’t seem to care.
Once it became clear the borough’s Republican Party would nominate Mr. Donovan, the top Democrats circling the seat—Assemblyman Michael Cusick and former Congressman Michael McMahon—quickly slunk away. The Staten Island Dems were left to put up Councilman Vincent Gentile, a popular career politician from the fragments of southern Brooklyn tacked onto the district.
Mr. Gentile never had a chance. The Democrat performed well in his native Brooklyn turf in the May special election, but Mr. Donovan clobbered him in Staten Island and carried off a 20-point victory. But to the credit of both candidates, their policy-oriented contest was a nice break from the goonish, sub-literate antics of Mr. Grimm and his 2014 Democratic challenger, ex-Councilman Domenic Recchia.
Today, Mr. Donovan is the sole member of the New York City delegation with a voice in the GOP majority, and appears on firmer footing than Mr. Grimm ever enjoyed. It’s not even clear who the Democrats will run against him next year.
8. Melissa Mark-Viverito: A year ago, it looked like Ms. Mark-Viverito and her progressive-dominated Council would serve as little more than a sock puppet for Mr. de Blasio, especially given the fierce effort he put into getting her installed as speaker. But it was clear from early in 2015 that the East Harlem Democrat would look to make a break, as she laid out her own agenda at her first state of the city address in February.
She still followed the mayor’s lead on the issue of police and firefighter pensions, but helped deliver an early budget that extracted a crucial concession that Mr. de Blasio had long resisted: 1,300 new cops. The speaker cemented her reputation as a progressive paragon as she launched a “Young Women’s Initiative” and laid out $1.4 million for a taxpayer-financed “people’s bail fund” to get low-level offenders out of jail. Her part in the Uber deal brought her closer to Mr. Cuomo just as the governor and the mayor were moving apart.
Her endorsement of Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton came much earlier and much less awkwardly than Mr. de Blasio’s, giving her the chance to build her national profile. Real estate mogul Donald Trump’s entrance into the Republican presidential contest on a fiercely anti-illegal immigration platform gave her another national sounding board and launching pad, leading her to sojourn to Las Vegas to join Ms. Clinton in protesting a Trump hotel where workers sought to unionize. And, unlike the mayor, she did not allow her cross-country travels to distract from her duties at home.
Speculation about her possible mayoral or congressional ambitions has now given way to rumors that she could return to her native Puerto Rico and run for governor.
9. Michael McMahon: As noted above, the former Democratic congressman showed he had more brains than guts when he decided not to take on Mr. Donovan for Staten Island’s seat in the House of Representatives. Instead, Mr. McMahon announced his intention to succeed the Republican prosecutor as D.A.
Despite a surprisingly hard-fought campaign against Republican Joan Illuzzi, who defeated the endorsement-heavy Mr. McMahon in a primary for the Conservative Party line, the former legislator won a comfortable victory in November. He also redeemed the flagging Staten Island Democratic Party after four successive congressional embarrassments.
10. Gary LaBarbera: Between the 2008 financial crisis and the proliferation of non-union contractors, the Building and Construction Trades Council of New York and its president were looking at losing more and more of that all-important commodity for labor: work. Mr. LaBarbera had enjoyed a cozy relationship with former Mayor Michael Bloomberg that he couldn’t replicate with Mr. de Blasio, who made it clear that he saw building trades unions and prevailing wages as an impediment to new affordable housing construction.
But Mr. Cuomo handed Mr. LaBarbera the ultimate trump card over the real estate industry in June: the 421a tax credit for developers, which many builders regard as essential to all new construction in the city, and which came up for renewal this spring. After weeks of ads and lobbying from union-backed groups like UP4NYC, the governor, Mr. Heastie and Mr. Flanagan reached an agreement: the abatement would expire in six months unless Real Estate Board of New York and the Building Trades Council could come to an agreement on new pay floors to be written into the tax credit.
Was it a reward for Mr. LaBarbera backing the governor up in his spat with public employees unions years ago? Or was the union leader just the beneficiary of Mr. Cuomo’s continuing war with Mr. de Blasio? Probably nobody knows—and it’s unlikely Mr. LaBarbera and his members care. The days before the January 15 deadline are now swiftly draining away with no agreement in sight, leaving the Building Trades Council and REBNY in a game of chicken. But unlike REBNY President John Banks, Mr. LaBarbera has no incentive to blink.
Disclosure: Mr. Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, is publisher of Observer Media.