The City State: Albany’s Top 40

1. Andrew Cuomo


His claim to the top spot is simple: He’s governor, and he’s not going anywhere—at least not this November. Mr. Cuomo is in charge and not afraid to make that obvious—jetting off to Afghanistan to show his international chops, kicking off a book tour during a re-election bid, declining to use his opponent’s name much of the time, and continuing to exert enough influence and sway that even as controversy swirls, few in his own party—or outside of it—publicly criticize him. He’s damaged by the scandal surrounding the disbanding of the corruption-chasing Moreland Commission and the strong primary challenge from Zephyr Teachout but a likely landslide win in the general election will render them small bumps in a long road.

2. Preet Bharara

U.S. Attorney, New York’s Southern District

Everyone, especially Mr. Cuomo, is watching the U.S. attorney who has racked up indictments and corruption convictions of state legislators. Mr. Bharara, a press-savvy Charles Schumer protégé, is now investigating Mr. Cuomo’s role in the premature end of the Moreland commission, which could lead to many more indictments—and headaches for Mr. Cuomo.

3. Bill de Blasio

Mayor of New York City

The guy who was begging Mr. Cuomo for an income tax increase six months ago—unsuccessfully—now has  favors aplenty to call in from the governor after engineering a Working Families Party endorsement and strongly backing  Mr. Cuomo’s No. 2, Kathy Hochul, in the primary. Mr. de Blasio’s fortune has turned, and his agenda runs straight through Albany—look for payback with legislation on minimum wage, traffic safety, a potential pied-a-terre tax and more.

4. Jeffrey Klein

Senate Co-Majority Leader

Mr. Klein heads the Independent Democratic Conference, a breakaway group of five Democrats that has governed with Republicans since 2012. Heading the IDC has allowed him great power, deciding which party will rule the Senate—and get to pass all their bills. Now, after some arm-twisting, he’s agreed to work with the Democrats again—but only if the party can win enough seats to form a majority with his IDC, leaving an opening to rule again with Republicans if they win more seats. Either way, Mr. Klein is not giving up his independent caucus, so he gets to play both king-maker and co-king.


5. Sheldon Silver

Assembly Speaker

The Teflon Mr. Silver has survived scandal—including O.K.-ing the use of taxpayer dollars to pay a settlement with a woman who alleged Assemblyman Vito Lopez sexually harassed her—to remain in sole control of one half of the state legislature. He has lots of outside money coming in from his work as part-time counsel—a problem Mr. Bharara recently cited in broader terms—and he’s staying put. Despite the bumps in the road, nothing gets through the Assembly without his blessing—and it hasn’t since 1994.

6. Andrea Stewart-Cousins

Senate Democratic Conference Leader

In January 2013, one month into Westchester State Senator Andrea Stewart-Cousins’ tenure as the first female leader of a legislative conference in state history, her delegation was in crisis. Two years earlier, Bronx Democratic State Senator Jeffrey Klein had led three of his colleagues to split off from the larger caucus and form the Independent Democratic Conference. After the 2012 elections, Mr. Klein cut a deal with Republican leader Dean Skelos for the IDC and the GOP to control the Senate together.

With the leadership in their hands, Mr. Klein and Mr. Skelos could bestow coveted committee chairmanships on any Democrat who agreed to cooperate. A freshman senator from Queens, James Sanders, told Mr. Klein he would accept the chairmanship of the Committee on Alcoholism and Drug Abuse, threatening to unleash a cascade of desertions.

Ms. Stewart-Cousins had little to offer Mr. Sanders to convince him to stay. Still, with the coolness and poise that have become her trademark, she talked him into rejecting the chairmanship and climbing back aboard the Democratic party boat.

“She doesn’t have much in the way of carrots and sticks. She just has herself,” a Senate source said. “It was just sitting down with someone and letting them know, ‘You’re new here, and this isn’t a small mistake. This is a defining mistake.’ ”

With the 2014 elections at hand, and a deal in place for the IDC to reunite with the larger Democratic conference, Ms. Stewart-Cousins stands on the brink of becoming the first woman to enter the famous “three (and sometimes four) men in a room” equation that runs New York State politics. She has impressed many with her serene and composed approach to her role—but she will face considerable challenges both before and after she can stand beside Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and Mr. Klein as a real Albany power player.

The IDC has agreed to rejoin the Democrats—but only if they win a majority over the Republicans. That depends on a small handful of Democrats falling into line and, less certain, on the outcome of November’s election. Polls show Democrats lagging in three crucial races.

Even if they triumph, questions remain over how Ms. Stewart-Cousins will adjust to the majority leader role. Some critics, like State Senator Ruben Diaz Sr. of the Bronx, doubt she possesses the will or power to challenge Mr. Cuomo—who helped bring the divided Democratic delegation back together. Mr. Diaz compared the relationship between her and the governor to that of Mayor Bill de Blasio and Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, who secured her position with the former’s help.

“I don’t want to see happen the same thing that happened in the City Council, where the speaker of the City Council is the mayor’s rubber stamp,” Mr. Diaz said.

Even as questions remain over how Ms. Stewart-Cousins would adjust to a majority leader role, she’s not concerned. “I don’t think anyone,” she said, “will accuse me of being a shrinking violet.”

7. Eric Schneiderman

Attorney General

Mr. Schneiderman likely has a bright political future after what happened on primary night—though the general election is a little tighter than he’d like. He’s made his name prosecuting companies for ripping off low-wage workers and waded into national policy by pushing for harder mortgage settlements against big banks—and by pursuing what some have labeled political prosecutions. While not as popular with Republicans and moderates as Mr. Cuomo, he has support both in the mainline Democratic base and among progressives. He just needs to make sure regular voters know his name.


8. Dean Skelos

Senate Co-Majority Leader

Just how powerful Senate co-leader Dean Skelos will be depends on how many seats Republicans can hold this November. He’s shared control of the Senate since 2012 through his partnership with the Independent Democratic Conference, and he’s likely to lose his gig as co-leader now that Mr. Klein has promised to caucus with the Democrats—assuming, they win enough seats. Even if he loses his perch, Mr. Skelos would remain the top Republican in Albany, a voice against left-wing proposals like giving immigrants the right to vote. He’s already touting those proposals as a reason to vote for Republicans—and keep Democrats from winning enough Senate seats to rule with the IDC and usher through policies backed by the likes of Mr. de Blasio.

9. Thomas Prendergast

Metropolitan Transportation Authority Chairman

The head of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority will always matter to New York City, especially with the Second Avenue Subway and East Side Access projects underway. The MTA’s capital budget is facing a $15 billion shortfall (what else is new) and while the resulting delays, fare hikes and toll jumps may be controlled by Albany, the biggest impact is, of course, on New York City.

10. Patrick Foye

Port Authority Executive Director

Mr. Cuomo’s man in the Port Authority, executive director Patrick Foye has weathered Bridgegate and other, smaller scandals about everything from cost overruns to security workers falling asleep on the job. The Port Authority has some big milestones coming up that matter to New Yorkers—there’s the underwhelming leasing of One World Trade, the eventual completion of the disastrously over-budget and behind-schedule World Trade Center PATH station and transit hub and renovations to the decrepit Port Authority Bus Terminal. He is Cuomo-esque in proclaiming to be on a mission to clean up politics-as-usual even as a cloud grows over his head.


11. Thomas DiNapoli


Comptroller isn’t the most glamorous job in the world, or as high-profile as attorney general. But Mr. DiNapoli remains very popular—a recent poll showed him with a 28-point lead over his GOP opponent, a wider margin than Mr. Cuomo or Mr. Schneiderman have. Mr. Di- Napoli has kept his name in the headlines with initiatives a little easier to grasp than pension reform—like rating subway stations (shocker: they’re terrible) or going after public corruption and joining Mr. Schneiderman recently in announcing charges against Assemblyman William Scarborough for stealing campaign cash.

12. Steve Spinola

President of the Real Estate Board of New York

The head of the Real Estate Board of New York is once again trying to wade into the political realm: his powerful Jobs for New York political action committee is joining the fight to ensure the Republicans stay in the majority, where they can serve as a counterweight to the upstart liberals in the body.

13. Benjamin Lawsky

Superintendent of Financial Services

Mr. Lawsky, a former Cuomo chief of staff, is making a name for himself by introducing regulations for Bitcoin, the virtual currency industry. He’s also policing the old-school finance world—Newsweek recently dubbed him “the man banks fear most.” Mr. Lawsky also remains close to Mr. Cuomo—a different type of power but one that may be just as important.


14. Merryl Tisch

Chancellor of the Board of Regents

Ms. Tisch plays a crucial role in shaping the state’s education system. Ms. Tisch—who  chaired Bill Thompson’s unsuccessful mayoral bid—has often fought teachers’ unions on issues like high-stakes testing and teacher evaluations—topics sure to come up yet again.

15. Larry Schwartz

Secretary to the Governor

Mr. Schwartz, who also served in Gov. David Patterson’s administration, is deeply embedded in the running of the state government. He was also Mr. Cuomo’s enforcer on the Moreland Commission—the one accused of guiding the commission away from friends of the governor before it was unceremoniously shut down, putting him in the crosshairs of Mr. Bharara.

16. Jennifer Cunningham

Partner at SKDKnickerbocker

The founder of SKDKnickerbocker—perhaps the single most powerful consulting firm in New York State—is also the ex-wife of Mr. Schneiderman and close to Mr. Cuomo. The firm will play a key role in shaping the message of the Democratic Party as it looks to grab more power in Albany. While she’s no longer technically a lobbyist, due to conflicts of interest, she still holds serious sway.


17. George Gresham

President 1199 SEIU

The massive health care union 1199 SEIU strongly backed Gov. Andrew Cuomo in the primaries this September—and helped secure the governor the backing of the Working Families Party, which had been seriously considering Zephyr Teachout.

“That, to me, was major,” George Gresham said in recounting his union’s successes this year. “Getting the governor to actively participate in retaking the Democratic Senate, I think that is something that is really victorious—hopefully we will be able to deliver on that,” Mr. Gresham said.

And while the union didn’t pick winners in every Albany primary in which it endorsed—and while some might argue Mr. Cuomo isn’t working very enthusiastically toward a Democratic State Senate—the union has built up some political capital and good will from the governor by sticking by him despite a challenge from the left. Mr. Gresham cited the passage of legislation on minimum wage, immigration, worker protections and women’s rights as priorities for the union in the next session.

“These are issues that, to be quite honest, we’ve had conversations with the governor about,” Mr. Gresham said. “That’s part of the endorsement process: ‘Are you still for these things, and what would you do and what do you need to accomplish these things?’ And what he needs is a Democratic senate, pretty badly,” Mr. Gresham continued.

The union is certainly trying to deliver him one—it’s vowed to stop supporting Republicans, though it’s endorsed at least one, Martin Golden—and plans to use its massive get-out-the-vote machine on behalf of Mr. Cuomo and Democratic Senate candidates. The union’s members are enthusiastic, Mr. Gresham said—more than half voluntarily donate to their political action committee.

“It means that they believe in our political agenda, that they believe that this money goes to a bigger cause for them,” Mr. Gresham said. “So when you know you have that, then its not that hard to ask them to give up a Saturday or a day during the week or a day off to volunteer to help get out the vote.”

18. Loretta Lynch

U.S. Attorney, Eastern District

For now the U.S. Attorney for Brooklyn, Queens, Staten Island, and Nassau and Suffolk counties has her sights set on a federal target—Congressman Michael Grimm—but Ms. Lynch has already sent one state lawmaker, Assemblyman William Boyland Jr., to jail on corruption charges, and she’s leading the charge against recently re-elected and indicted State Senator John Sampson. She’s also testified before the Moreland Commission—and could have more indictments up her sleeve.

19. John King

State Education Commissioner

Mr. King is the man responsible for the (some would call disastrous) rollout of Common Core standards in New York State. Common Core has infuriated parents statewide—something Rob Astorino is looking to capitalize on—and represents an ongoing challenge for the state, especially as tougher tests could mean lower scores and drops in graduation rate gains.


20. Kenneth Adams

President of Empire State Development Corporation

Mr. Adams leads the Empire State Development Corporation and its 12 regional offices across the state, which dole out crucial and hard-sought grants—often leading to complaints that some regions get less than others. The ESD also oversees Mr. Cuomo’s Start-Up NY initiative—being touted in television ads at the moment—which offers tax incentives to lure businesses to college campuses, mainly upstate.

21. Joe Percoco

Executive Deputy Secretary to the Governor

Mr. Cuomo’s right-hand man has been arm-twisting legislators behind-the-scenes for the governor since day one, earning respect—and fear—in Albany. Mr. Percoco has emerged as the person other elected officials call when they need action and as the person the governor goes to when he needs the same. To that end, Mr. Percoco reportedly asked prosecutors on the Moreland Commission to defend the governor following reports of interference—seen by many as interfering to push back against a story about interfering—leading to a rebuke from Mr. Bharara.

22. Liz Krueger

State Senator

As Mr. de Blasio seeks to repeal the Urstadt Law—giving the city far more control over rent regulation—he will be working closely with State Senator Liz Krueger, an Upper East Side Democrat and early backer of the mayor in last year’s election. One of the most liberal members of the body, Ms. Krueger could end up chairing the powerful finance committee if Democrats are vaulted into the majority—and she’s the public face of the state’s high-profile battle against Airbnb.


23. Dean Fuleihan

New York City Budget Director

The former top adviser to Mr. Silver, Mr. Fuleihan is now the mayor’s budget director and the Albany mastermind who he has leaned on to win funding from the state for his pre-kindergarten expansion. As Mr. de Blasio again wrangles with Albany over the city’s priorities, Mr. de Blasio will undoubtedly require Mr. Fuleihan’s expertise—and connections.

24. Michael Gianaris

State Senator

The state senator from Queens is head of the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee, meaning he’s fund-raiser-in-chief, with the power to reward or punish sitting Democratic Senators and to pick which new candidates to favor with campaign money.

25. Zephyr Teachout

Fordham Law Professor

Zephyr Teachout didn’t win her long-shot primary bid against Gov. Andrew Cuomo, but that she ran at all—let alone netted 34 percent of the vote—changed the narrative in Albany.

“What I hope is that we at least broke down this illusion that this is a Cuomo-controlled state, and that he can dictate the shape and arc of politics,” Ms. Teachout told the Observer. “I think there’s a fair amount of irrational fear on the part of politicians—maybe there’s some rational fear as well. But in some ways, it’s comfortable to say you can’t do things because Andrew Cuomo is going to punish you for it.”

Mr. Cuomo’s critics—especially liberals who want the centrist governor to lean in Ms. Teachout’s direction—are likely to be emboldened by her strong performance. That alone is reason enough to cite Ms. Teachout’s power as a disrupter in Albany.

“It’s far bigger than me,” she said. “There’s a growing sense of the radical disconnect between New York politics and the New York public.”

But beyond what she represents, Ms. Teachout herself is likely to remain a force in state politics, stumping for State Senate candidates and pushing for public campaign financing to even things out for underdogs. It seems her first bid for office has left her hungry for more.

“I think everybody can see through candidates who pretend they don’t like politics. Politics is one of the greatest joys in the world,” Ms. Teachout said. “Of course I’d like to run. I don’t know what for. I don’t know where we’ll be in four years.”

Until then, Ms. Teachout has a book tour to keep her busy: Corruption in America just happens to be hitting the shelves at the same time as Mr. Cuomo’s memoir.

“I got a $1,000 advance. He got a $700,000 advance,” Ms. Teachout noted. “I think the return on investment on mine will be better.”


26. Gustavo Rivera

State Senator

Another liberal stalwart, the Bronx Democratic State Senator is a prime backer of the Dream Act and other immigration issues. His desire to increase the rights of immigrants and non-citizens—to the consternation of conservatives—will only matter more if the Democrats control the chamber.

27. Catharine Young

State Senator

Ms. Young chairs the Housing Committee—where she could act as a roadblock to many of Mr. de Blasio’s priorities if her party holds power. And she’s working to try to make that happen by leading the Republicans’ re-election efforts, along with recently indicted Binghamton State Senator Tom Libous. Central to their strategy is denouncing “radical New York City liberals”—and winning a majority of seats in the Senate, which is crucial, since Mr. Klein is no longer a reliable ally.

28. Christine Quinn

Former City Council Speaker

A year after losing her mayoral bid, Christine Quinn has reemerged as a voice—characteristically loud, of course—in support of Gov. Andrew Cuomo and his Women’s Equality Party.

“This is going to sound cheesy but it really is true—it’s nice to  ... make a contribution that is unique and distinct and is helping move an issue that I care about,” Ms. Quinn told the Observer.

Ms. Quinn has been a highly visible surrogate for Mr. Cuomo, boosting the profile of his proposed No. 2, Kathy Hochul, and helping to create the ballot line that some have seen as either a cynical ploy to undermine the Working Families Party or an attempt to woo progressives from Ms. Teachout. The in-your-face yin to Ms. Hochul’s more reserved yang, Ms. Quinn has been a constant presence at Women’s Equality Party rallies, pushing for a robust package of bills that would protect access to abortion and add in new protections against sexual assault on college campuses.

“It means driving the bus to Albany if I have to,” she said.

Ms. Quinn—who lost to Bill de Blasio in a bruising and acrimonious primary—having the ear of Mr. Cuomo adds another layer of intrigue to the governor’s relationship with the mayor, and has led many to wonder whether she is angling for a job in state government, something she said she’s not particularly seeking.

“What I’m gonna do next professionally, I’ll start to figure out soon ... I know everybody in politics—it’s so freaking annoying—if you step to the left it’s like, ‘What happened? Did she crush somebody under her foot on the right, and the right footing fell down? What’s the sub-story behind the sub-story?’ ” Ms. Quinn asked.

She offered up her own answer: “I want to pass the Women’s Equality Agenda. That’s it. Period.”


29. Jim Malatras

Director of State Operations

The Director of State Operations is a key position, serving as the governor’s liaison to state agencies and the Port Authority, and Mr. Malatras steps into the role after Howard Glaser—a fierce defender of his longtime friend Mr. Cuomo. Mr. Malatras previously worked on education policy at SUNY—and education reform is one area where the governor and many of Albany’s self-proclaimed progressives simply don’t agree.

30. Jonathan Rosen

Principal at BerlinRosen Public Affairs

Mr. Rosen is one half of the team behind the powerhouse consulting and PR firm and husband to Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver’s deputy chief of staff. While it was not a great primary election year for Mr. Rosen’s candidates, the firm remains closely linked to the Working Families Party and Mr. de Blasio, representing him publicly on all political/non-governmental issues.

31. Emma Wolfe

New York City Director of Intergovernmental Affairs

Mr. de Blasio’s political fixer is now being dispatched to lend her political expertise on various Senate races across the state. Whether the Democrats control the chamber next year may at least partially depend on whether Ms. Wolfe can help them win enough seats.


32. Steven Cohen

Former Secretary to Governor

Mr. Cohen’s service to Mr. Cuomo dates back to his days as attorney general. Mr. Cohen departed his government gig in 2011 for a top position at the New York law offices of Zuckerman Spaeder—but he hasn’t left government altogether, remaining a close confidant of Mr. Cuomo’s and an influencer in Albany.

33. Keith Wright


Mr. Wright serves as Manhattan county leader and chairman of the Assembly’s Housing Committee. He is rumored to be the potential successor to Charles Rangel, but Politico reported that Mr. Wright’s real dream is Mr. Silver’s job. One of the last great lions of the Harlem clubhouse, Mr. Wright campaigned hard for the governor among minorities.

34. Herman “Denny” Farrell Jr.


Mr. Farrell is into his 80s, but as chairman of the tax-writing Ways and Means committee and as an upper Manhattan Democrat who has managed to ally himself both with Mr. Rangel and his top rival, State Senator Adriano Espaillat, he remains one of the most relevant state legislators around.


35. Adriano Espaillat

State Senator

Two failed challenges against Congressman Charles Rangel may have hurt his stock locally, but Mr. Espaillat is set to chair the influential Housing Committee if Democrats are in the majority next year. With so much of the mayor’s housing agenda dependent on Albany approval, Mr. Espaillat could become a key player as he plots another congressional bid for 2016.

36. Josh Gold

Political Director of Hotel Trades Council

The political director of the powerful Hotel Trades Council may have worked on behalf of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s hated primary rival last year, but when 2014 rolled around, he was tasked with making the new mayor’s signature campaign pledge a reality.

Josh Gold’s union supported Christine Quinn in the mayor’s race where multiple rivals said Mr. de Blasio’s universal pre-kindergarten expansion was far-fetched. Mr. Gold, however, took a leave of absence from HTC to head up UPKNYC, the mayor’s campaign-style effort to win funding from the state legislature to make the pre-K expansion possible.

“If you go back to August or September of last year, you had the Times editorializing that it was a pipe dream. To start off at a places like that and literally a year later you have an extra 20,000 or so kids going to pre-K—high-quality pre-K—is an enormous success,” Mr. Gold said.

“A big portion of it was building a broad base of validation for the idea that this could be done and should be done,” Mr. Gold added. “And translating it to on-the-ground energy, organizing through local community boards, unions and making sure groups were talking to legislators.”

Mr. de Blasio’s first trip to Albany as mayor was often rocky. Mr. Cuomo at times appeared to delight in foiling the new mayor and Republican legislators were hostile to the tax-the-rich big city liberal.

Ultimately, Mr. de Blasio failed to win the tax hike from the state legislature, but Mr. Cuomo agreed to place the funding in the state budget. $340 million for the state’s pre-K programs was dispersed, though almost $300 million of that is headed to New York City.

City Hall has many to thank, including Mr. Gold.

37. Micah Lasher

Chief of Staff to Attorney General

Still in his 30s, Mr. Lasher was Michael Bloomberg’s top man in Albany advocating for the city. The one-time political wunderkind now serves as chief of staff for Attorney General Eric  Schneiderman, who may have his eyes on the governor’s mansion.


38. Mike McKeon

Partner at Mercury Public Affairs

A longtime spokesman for former Republican Gov. George Pataki, Mr. McKeon is a media consultant and partner with Mercury Public Affairs, a high-powered lobbying and consulting firm. When Mr. Cuomo was elected governor four years ago, he turned to Mr. McKeon to help him reach out to Republicans.

39. Harold Iselin

Managing Shareholder at Greenberg Taurig

Mr. Iselin is managing shareholder of Greenberg Traurig’s Albany office, one of the top lobbying firms in the state. The firm’s lawyers are also sometimes sought after to handle legal matters for the different county establishments—meaning they are in the thick of New York backroom politics.

40. Mike Avella

Partner at Meara Avella Dickinson

A partner in one the most venerable Albany lobbying firms around—Meara Avella Dickinson—Mr. Avella has served as chief counsel to two State Senate majority leaders, Republicans Joseph Bruno and Dean Skelos.

It’s a 152-mile trip from City Hall to the New York State Capitol in Albany — a destination beyond the range of a subway or yellow cab.

But the decisions made in that city of 100,000 people — some of them determined by votes cast by legislators from far-flung corners of the state well beyond Albany – profoundly affect the 8.4 million people living in New York City, which may not be the state’s capital but certainly does feel like the center of the universe.

Albany matters — down to those subways, as the state government determines the fares, and those yellow cabs, since the state legislature passed the bill paving the way for green cabs that come to the rescue outerborough commuters.

From the very visible Gov. Andrew Cuomo — scarred by scandal and a surprisingly strong primary challenge, but still wielding enough Machiavellian political power to keep critics just grumbling rather than screaming — to the lesser-known operatives working to boost, undermine or maybe even indict him, Albany is a place of complicated relationships and shifting power dynamics. And the important decisions made in Albany are sometimes overlooked in a city with its own colorful government and political intrigue.

And while it’s important to look beyond New York City to New York State, it turns out that New York City is awfully influential up there. With a potential deal — brokered by none other than Mayor Bill de Blasio – likely to put Democrats in charge of the State Senate, downstate figures may become even more powerful, snatching away key committee posts from upstate Republicans in a convoluted game of musical chairs.

The 40 people profiled here run the state from Albany – whether you have heard of them or not. They spend your tax dollars, control your rent, set your minimum wage, make the trains run on time (or not-so-on time) and pass laws on everything from women’s rights to whether undocumented immigrants can vote. They matter more than you think.

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