The 2020 Albany 40 Under 40 Rising Stars
The 2020 Albany 40 Under 40 Rising Stars
Someone once said that youth is wasted on the young – but one needs to look no further than New York’s next generation of political players to know that the tired old saying simply isn’t true.
This year’s rising stars in New York state politics are brimming with optimism and taking the initiative, whether it’s confronting the coronavirus crisis head on, championing policy changes demanded by the Black Lives Matter movement or grappling with deepening income inequality.
City & State’s latest Albany 40 Under 40 features a state lawmaker, top advisers to Gov. Andrew Cuomo, state Attorney General Letitia James and state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli, trusted staffers in the state Legislature and at state agencies, and influential political operatives, union officials, advocates, attorneys, activists and executives – not to mention a couple journalists who are holding the most powerful politicians in the state to account.
There’s no time to waste! Read on to meet the 2020 Albany 40 Under 40 Rising Stars.
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Brenda T. Baddam
Associate Attorney, Barclay Damon
Growing up in Miami as the granddaughter of Cuban refugees who opened a restaurant and worked 14-hour days to build their American dream, Brenda Baddam knew early on that she wanted to pursue law.
“I knew I wanted to somehow give back to the country that has given my family so many opportunities,” she says. “And my way to do so was to go into the legal field.”
Since joining Barclay Damon last year, Baddam has focused on the health care industry and health care-related litigation – but she still dabbles in other areas. “As a first-year associate, you're literally trying to get as much experience as you can in every aspect of every field of law,” she says.
Asked about her proudest accomplishment, Baddam described her work leading to the passage of an ordinance requiring the Albany Police Department to perform field sobriety tests in Spanish – which was enacted by the City of Albany Common Council in July. Baddam, who previously served as an assistant district attorney with the Albany County District Attorney’s Office, says she knew that non-English speakers were at a disadvantage during field sobriety tests. After proposing the idea as part of her fellowship with the organization New Leaders Council, she expanded it into a resolution with the help of one of her mentors at Barclay Damon.
“If you can't understand what an officer is saying,” Baddam explains, “you probably won't understand those instructions, you probably won't do the test to the best of your ability.”
Staffing Services Practice Lead, GCOM
Julie Bashant oversees almost 200 people at the national government technology company GCOM, but she started her career nine years ago at the front desk as a receptionist. A recent college graduate, she was determined to move up. “At the time, we were a significantly smaller company but right on the brink of taking off,” she says. “I wanted to be out of that desk as soon as possible.” In just two months, she got her first promotion. She has continued to take initiative as the company has transformed into an industry powerhouse in government technology. As a staffing services practice lead, she matches tech talent with government clients to work on agency projects. One goal, she says, is to deliver the level of convenience for government websites that people find on private sector sites. “We’re helping to work toward the expectation being that, just like on a commercial website … you can grab something that you want, you can put it in your cart and you can check out,” she says.
At 31, she’s often the youngest executive in the room, and in the information technology field, she’s often one of the only women. She looks up to other female leaders such as GCOM Chief Operating Officer Heidi Green and her mother, who is a CEO. She plans to pass that passion along to the next generation, saying, “My biggest focus right now is on raising my 2-year-old daughter, and I think that also contributes to my career drive.”
Associate Lobbyist, Bolton-St. Johns
Philip Bolen has always loved airports. His parents were divorced when he was growing up, and as a kid, during his unaccompanied trips between them, he loved spending time in those transitional spaces, talking to people he had never met before. Lobbying gives him a similar satisfaction. “There’s a bunch of different narratives, and you work with people who have things that are completely unrelated, but they’re all trying to make someone’s life better in the process,” he says.
As an associate lobbyist at Bolton-St. Johns, he worked on the passage of the Compassionate Care Act, which legalized medical marijuana in 2014. More recently, he has worked on increasing pay for direct care workers who care for the elderly and people with disabilities. Bolen’s mother is a home health aide. “Being able to go around the last few years to really talk about the conditions that those workers are in and how they serve more for the work that they do – that’s exciting,” he says.
Securing personal protective equipment for essential workers, making sure clients’ businesses were deemed essential, and working to limit unnecessary out-of-home labor were among the tasks Bolen did for his clients as the coronavirus crisis swept through New York.
“Going from constantly texting and emailing in the Capitol to COVID posturing was, oh, now I am sending emails at 2 in the morning, getting up for calls starting at 6 in the morning and then just fielding calls all day,” he says.
Government Relations, Featherstonhaugh, Wiley & Clyne LLP
Brendan Boyle has always gravitated toward public service and philanthropic work. In 2018, the government relations professional decided to broaden his experience outside of work and joined his local fire department as a volunteer firefighter.
“It puts a lot into perspective,” says Boyle of his work with the Elsmere Fire Company in Bethlehem, New York. “In the fire service, you see people having the worst day of their life.”
The past few months have also been challenging for one of Boyle’s biggest clients at the law firm Featherstonhaugh, Wiley, Clyne – the New York State Association of Cemeteries. The association’s more than 500 members employ field landscapers, crematorium operators and other cemetery employees. “COVID hit the industry particularly hard on these front-line workers,” says Boyle, who is also the association’s executive director. “Their workflow increased so significantly.”
Boyle, who also works with clients in the banking, web services and telecommunications industries, says he learned many of the skills he uses in his current job – legislative analysis and teamwork – during the nearly nine years he spent in the state Senate Finance Committee. When it came time to negotiate the budget – one of the most challenging aspects of that job – the dynamic of the team made all the difference.
“You’re up for hours on end with your co-workers and you’re negotiating with the Executive Chamber and the Assembly,” he says. “If you’re working on a team with positive-minded individuals who have a great team mentality, you can certainly get anything done.”
Managing Director, J Strategies
Growing up in rural Chenango County, in a relatively conservative part of New York, Minda Conroe often found herself engaged in debates.
“I was that person in my high school social studies class arguing with my teacher about the war in Iraq,” she says. “I was kind of a lone liberal in that area. … It honestly did teach me to see opposing viewpoints.”
Those early lessons have given Conroe the ability to more effectively communicate with clients at J Strategies, where she works on public affairs and advocacy campaigns focusing on issues like energy, tourism and finance. In one recent campaign, Conroe worked with the owner of several McDonald’s restaurants in the Southern Tier on a promotion that offered free meals to health care workers during the early weeks of the coronavirus pandemic.
“The core of our business that really founded J Strategies, it’s work called alliance development,” Conroe says. “We were kind of one of the first (firms) to do that strong organizing and advocacy.”
Conroe, who has been at J Strategies since 2015, says she is grateful to have previously worked for both Gov. Andrew Cuomo and U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer – experiences that each taught her a different set of skills. In Cuomo’s office, she assisted with the daily schedule and planning events. “I was right there, kind of in the action,” she says. Meanwhile, her role in Schumer’s office taught her “that kind of like relentless, dogged pursuit of getting an accomplishment,” she says.
Associate, Patrick B. Jenkins & Associates
Introduced to Patrick B. Jenkins by one of his professors at York College, Ryan Day, who had recently changed his major from business management to political science, decided to strike a deal with the consulting firm founder. In exchange for redesigning the Patrick B. Jenkins & Associates website, Jenkins would allow him to intern with the company. “He just took a great chance on me and I’m truly grateful,” Day says.
Since starting as an intern in 2015, Day has moved up and now works as an associate for the firm, managing community relations, graphic design, social media and web development for the New York City office. “It’s been a blessing to be in a field that allows you not to just focus on one concrete issue,” says Day, who works with clients across different fields, including gaming and transportation.
In New York City specifically, Day has focused on cultivating strong relationships within the Queens community, having previously worked with Rep. Gregory Meeks on his reelection campaign as well as with Queens District Attorney Melinda Katz. At the moment, Day is aiding the community relations effort for the redevelopment of John F. Kennedy International Airport by introducing aviation programs and different internship opportunities for Queens residents.
“When it comes to the airports, we’re trying to build talent within the community,” Day says. “These kids always look up and see these planes, so we’re trying to give them the opportunity to participate in their community, in the industry that’s right around them.”
Political Director, SEIU Local 200United
Jessica Dowsett remembers the difficulties she faced growing up in rural Pennsylvania – the eldest of four children raised by a single mother who struggled to make ends meet. The family visited food pantries, and at one point, participated in the Section 8 housing program.
Dowsett says her experiences with food insecurity and housing insecurity taught her the value of strong labor unions. In her current role at SEIU Local 200United, she supports workers in a variety of fields, including teachers and home health workers – a job her mother once held, though she was not part of a union.
“I think it really is evident that this narrative we have in the United States that you could pull yourself up by your bootstraps if you work hard enough … it’s just not true,” she says. “Labor unions are one of the few things that can help really level that playing field and equalize opportunities for folks.”
Dowsett says what she loves most about her job is having the opportunity to teach others about government and train them to advocate for themselves. She enjoys taking a complicated process that is not very transparent – the state budget, for instance – and making it accessible to the average person.
“I don’t think, in the United States, we do a really good job of giving the average person a lot of ways to engage in decision-making,” she says. “The first step, I think, is just being able to train folks to be self-advocates.”
Conservation Program Manager, Sierra Club Atlantic Chapter
Bainbridge is one of those small towns in the Southern Tier with a town gazebo, a single stoplight and plenty of ponds, creeks and open spaces to keep a nature-loving kid busy. That has had big implications for state environmental policy, though it was hardly obvious 10 years ago when one daughter of Bainbridge decided to leave. “When I wanted to go to college, I wanted to go to the big city,” Caitlin Ferrante says. “And for me, that was Albany.”
The College of Saint Rose brought her to the Capital Region, but an internship at Environmental Advocates of New York introduced her to the world of lobbying on behalf of Mother Earth. By the end of the year, she landed at the Sierra Club and has stayed ever since. “We’re really trying to better people’s lives and better the environment,” she says. “That’s what really keeps me going.”
The subsequent years have been spent organizing volunteers, writing policy memos, and getting efforts like a fracking ban and limits on toxic chemicals in consumer products across the regulatory finish line. It all gets back to protecting the environmental beauty that she learned to love as a kid. Though she has lived in the “big city” for the past decade, Ferrante has no problem admitting that her heart has never left the countryside. That means she is still holding out hope for a pet goat or pig in the future. For now, she still has a nice townhouse to share with a Bainbridge boy she married.
Political Director, Citizen Action of New York
For Stanley Fritz, one of the key strategies for effective organizing can be summed up simply: “Organizing is not about being at the front,” he says. “An organizer’s core job is organizing yourself out of a job.”
But with the number of issue campaigns and electoral initiatives on Fritz’s plate at Citizen Action of New York, he won’t be organizing himself out of his job anytime soon. Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, he’s been prioritizing advocacy efforts on everything from housing to education funding to policing, partly spurring the repeal of 50-a, which allowed law enforcement agencies to shield police misconduct records. And in the midst of election season, he is also overseeing part of the organization’s endorsement process and other electoral work.
Fritz, who has been with Citizen Action for four years, was inspired to join the organization after attending one of its conferences. “I had never seen a grassroots political organization with power, with Black and brown people-centered and leading,” he says.
His role at the organization positioned him to advocate for the state’s bail reform law passed last year – a victory now bittersweet for him after elected officials passed changes to the law that Citizen Action and other criminal justice groups opposed.
“We lost public support,” Fritz says. “And that means we need to work harder to help change people’s ideas about what safety means.”
When not advocating for policy change through his job, Fritz discusses race, social justice and politics in a weekly podcast called “Be Heard Talk.”
Joseph N. Garba
Secretary to the Speaker for Intergovernmental Affairs, New York State Assembly
While some stumble into public service by accident, for Joseph Garba, nothing could be a more natural fit. Garba’s father, Joseph Nanven Garba, was a Nigerian diplomat who served as president of the United Nations General Assembly from 1989 to 1990. Growing up shuttling between Westchester County and Nigeria, inspired by the work his parents did, sealed his fate. “Everything they did was something that was beneficial to our community in Nigeria when we were there, and the international community in my father’s case, with his work with the United Nations, and then his work in the Nigerian government,” Garba says of his parents. “I grew up with that sort of mindset that service to others and public service was just kind of natural and was always part of me.”
While the younger Garba may not be traveling the globe in his public service work, his career has taken him on an extensive tour through New York government, with high-level roles under Govs. Eliot Spitzer and David Paterson, Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer – and a stint on Bloomberg’s presidential campaign.
With almost two decades of experience working at virtually every level of government, Garba is the ideal liaison for Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, helping elected officials, advocates and local leaders stay connected through one of the most challenging and history-making sessions in recent memory. “I like to think I’m a problem solver – able to help people navigate the issues they’re having,” Garba says.
Chief of Staff, SUNY Empire State College
Aaron Gladd knows that for most people, a college education is not something to take for granted. “I’m the first person in my family to graduate high school, let alone go to college,” the Saranac Lake native says. After running an unsuccessful campaign for state Senate in 2018, Gladd, an Army veteran and former deputy director of policy for Gov. Andrew Cuomo, joined the staff of SUNY Empire State College President Jim Malatras. Most of the 18,000 students taking classes at the college are older than 25 and pursuing higher education while also raising children or working. Forty percent are first-generation college students. Recognizing that many of these students have already gained expertise in their fields, the college offers credit for work and life experience.
Gladd says he and Malatras have adopted an attitude of “bias for action.” The college recently launched a Women’s Corporate Leadership Academy to prepare women for executive leadership roles, a project Gladd is passionate about.
“My daughter’s growing up in a world where the chances of her becoming a board member on a corporation are much, much smaller than my son’s, by no fault of her own,” he says. “How do you fix that from a public policy perspective?”
Other recent initiatives have included support programs for students from historically disadvantaged backgrounds, partnerships with community colleges, and a center dedicated to serving students with autism.
“We’ve delivered for a different kind of student,” he says. “Which is what really kind of drew me here.”
Corporate Associate, Greenberg Traurig
Working from home during the COVID-19 crisis didn’t stop attorney Fatin Haddad from arranging a complicated purchase agreement with parties that didn’t see eye to eye while speedily obtaining required regulatory approvals from the state. She approached the challenge with curiosity about how working remotely would change things. “It was really interesting. There were so many different dynamics above and beyond the normal deal,” she says. “It was a cool transaction.”
Haddad always knew she wanted to be an attorney, but in college, she realized she also had a passion for business, and she switched her major from political science to business, which she found challenging and thrilling. “I like to be really strategic,” she says. “I like to do some creative problem-solving.” Now an attorney with Greenberg Traurig managing mergers and acquisitions, she says she likes being able to zoom out to get the big picture. There’s a satisfaction in asking corporate clients what their general goals are – and then figuring out innovative ways to get there. “I always want to feel like I’m doing valuable work,” she says.
Haddad grew up in Albany and stayed in the Capital Region for college and law school. A committed member of her church, she devotes her spare time to community work like collection drives for school supplies and supporting women professionals. As someone who embraces risk, she sees many different paths forward for herself. “Tomorrow is unknown,” she says. “I’m really optimistic about what the future holds.”
Corporate Communications Manager - Eastern New York, Avangrid
Ridge Harris joined the energy company Avangrid in April as the corporate communications manager for Eastern New York. Working for the parent company of New York State Electric & Gas and Rochester Gas & Electric, Harris is responsible for the internal and external communications for nine different divisions, ranging from Plattsburgh to Westchester County and Elmira. “We’re innovators and we’re also committed to providing our customers with safe and reliable service,” says Harris.
Prior to working with Avangrid, Harris was a senior public affairs manager at Gramercy Communications, where one of his main clients was The American Legion Department of New York.
Although the bulk of his experience has been within the private sector, Harris began his career interning with U.S. Rep. Chris Gibson while completing his undergraduate degree at Siena College – he was offered a full-time position by Gibson’s team when he graduated.
Outside of his role at Avangrid, Harris finds value in giving back to the communities that supported him while he was growing up in Troy. Today, he serves as chair of the board of trustees of Catholic Central High School, which he attended, in addition to serving as president of the board for the Pyramid Life Center.
“For people that are in a position to lend their professional talents to a community organization they care about, they should take every opportunity to do that,” Harris says.
Partner, Whiteman Osterman & Hanna LLP
While she was a student at Fordham University School of Law, Kate Herlihy spent one summer working at Whiteman Osterman & Hanna LLP – and she says that’s when her career goals really clicked into place.
“I realized that I could have the ability to practice law and work in the public policy field,” she says. “I think it’s the opportunity to be substantive, to be strategic and to have that ever-changing environment that keeps things interesting.”
Herlihy worked at the law firm for eight years after law school, left for three years, and then returned in 2019. She says her job involves managing factors that are beyond her control, and that has been especially true this year as the coronavirus has upended life and work for everyone. During the spring, Herlihy was managing the transition to online learning for her children while working on legislation related to the quarantine and providing clients with the support they needed to make their own business decisions during the crisis.
“The role of government relations was really important during this time,” says Herlihy, who represents clients in health care, including a major national laboratory, respiratory therapists and a national medical technology association. “The landscape was changing for all of us overnight.”
Previously, Herlihy worked at the Life Insurance Council of New York, representing disability insurance carriers during the implementation of New York’s paid family leave program. Part of this work involved raising awareness about the program.
“A lot of people aren’t aware that it is actually an insurance product,” she says.
Albany Correspondent, New York Post
Arguably no reporter brought more editorial horsepower to Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s coronavirus briefings than a 20-something Post reporter who can literally do a one-woman steeplechase. “I can jump really high,” Bernadette Hogan says. “If there’s like a bush outside and someone was like ‘Can you jump that?’ I’d be like, hold my sunglasses, hold my beer, let me go jump that.” That ability to hurdle obstacles in her way comes in handy with a governor who is notoriously skilled at rhetorical dressage, although that has not helped him sidestep tough questions from Hogan on nursing homes, unemployment and other issues.
It did not take long for the Manhattan-born Hogan to make her name as a reporting workhorse when she began her current role at the beginning of 2019. That is due in part to some solid training in the ways of Albany, including stints as a producer at “Capital Tonight” and internships at NY1 and a lobbying firm during her undergraduate days at Marist College. A love of learning also helps. “I’m a huge nerd and obsessed with books,” she says. “The beauty of being a reporter is that you can be that hopefully objective voice and cover a wide variety of topics that are interesting and you’re always learning about.” While she says politics are likely in her future as a reporter, that does not mean she is not setting some time aside to indulge her love of horses, whether that means riding whenever she can or making sure her equestrian skills are as good as ever.
Rodney Holcombe II
Senior Associate, New York Criminal Justice Reform, FWD.us
While attending law school at the University of Pennsylvania, Rodney Holcombe interned with the Southern Center for Human Rights. During his time at the organization, Holcombe says that being able to go to prisons – where he was able to see, smell and feel what they were like – was a really illuminating experience.
“I was all on board for decarceration prior to that, but I think that really just kind of lit a fire under me,” he says.
After graduating from law school, Holcombe moved to California to work for the Drug Policy Alliance. Focusing on marijuana policy change, Holcombe and others worked to introduce and pass state legislation that would automatically clear the records of everyone with prior marijuana convictions.
Following his success in California, Holcombe moved to New York last year to work with FWD.us as a senior associate focusing on criminal justice reform in the midst of the passage of New York’s bail reform package, which he regrets seeing subsequently rolled back.
At the moment, Holcombe has shifted his focus to parole reform to get people out of prison who have been serving long sentences.
“Our reliance on a carceral system is a very scary thing. I think there are alternatives and ways in which we should be addressing root causes,” says Holcombe, who advocates for restorative justice and greater access to mental health care.
Outside of his job, Holcombe is a 2020 New Leaders Council fellow and a member of the Minority Cannabis Business Association.
Patrick K. Kennedy
Legislative Associate, State & Broadway
Patrick Kennedy loves thinking about the processes and interests that form policies. That’s a good thing, considering he’s responsible for tracking some 2,400 bills in State & Broadway’s legislative database. “In my position, I’m in a way the eyes and ears of the firm when it comes to the introduction of bills and the procedural movement of bills,” he says. In his current role, he draws on his previous experience working for then-Assembly Member Phil Boyle, for Rep. Paul Tonko and in the executive chamber while in law school. “New York state politics, it feels like the real deal,” he says. “It’s a serious legislature that does a lot of work.”
He fondly remembers describing his job to his grandparents early in his career. He had made draft edits to a piece of legislation, and after the lengthy process of crafting the bill, only one phrase he suggested made it to the final version. The bill had to do with inspections of cafeterias. Kennedy’s phrase was “and kitchen.” “When I explained to them that there are two words somewhere in New York state law that I drafted, and that those words were ‘and kitchen,’ my grandmother thought that was the funniest thing,” he recalls.
But that’s how laws get made, he says: Legislators, their staffs and advocates and lobbyists all pore over every detail. “It takes all of those voices, going back and forth and checking each other’s work, to make sure that the final product is the best product that it can be.”
Organizing Director, Strong Economy For All Coalition
Charles Khan was among the many organizers who rallied protesters to occupy New York City Hall in late June, pressuring lawmakers to cut the New York City Police Department’s budget by at least $1 billion.
“It was kind of the beautiful trouble that I love to be a part of and help co-create,” he said.
Much of his advocacy since George Floyd’s death has been shaped by his years of organizing. His first steps toward mobilizing against police brutality and systemic racism started when he attended protests in Ferguson, Missouri, after police fatally shot Michael Brown. After he returned to New York, he said, “I started to work more deliberately with other Black organizers across the city on racial justice and also through other parts of my work.”
But the core of Khan’s focus is economic justice. He has advocated for state-level policy changes – such as successfully pushing New York to increase the state minimum wage to $15 – and rallied alongside workers. Among his proudest achievements is working with Toys “R” Us workers to get severance in the wake of the store’s bankruptcy, made all the more meaningful given that his own first summer job was at the toy store. In addition to his work with the Strong Economy For All Coalition, Khan also brings his advocacy chops to the Center for Popular Democracy, where he has focused on federal stimulus efforts. “I think a lot of what brings joy to me is being able to build community,” he said.
New York Policy Manager, American Farmland Trust
Once a musical theater major at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, Samantha Levy attributes the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy as the impetus for her transition into politics. “I really saw the intense disruption to daily life and how vulnerable our systems are,” says Levy.
Striving to do something with her career that she felt would be more impactful, Levy returned to NYU to complete her master’s degree in food systems, during which she interned for US Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, as well as for Slow Food USA. After graduating, Levy began working with American Farmland Trust, where she continues to work as a policy manager. During her time at the organization, Levy has led the New York Grown Food for New York Kids coalition, and in doing so, successfully aided in passing an incentive to help K-12 schools buy more food from local farmers. Levy has also focused on tackling the challenges posed by climate change by working to incorporate farmers and farmland into the state’s Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act.
Although in the long term, Levy says that she hopes to branch out from New York state politics and advocate for federal policy changes relating to agriculture as well, in the meantime, she has come to acknowledge the power of state and local legislation in promoting change.
“At the state level there’s opportunity for policy innovation that might not always exist at the federal level,” says Levy.
Senior Manager, Deloitte Consulting
Amanda Lothrop grew up in Waterloo, Nebraska – a village so small it doesn’t have a stoplight – and discovered her career path in the fifth grade, thanks to a teacher who noticed her aptitude for math. The teacher arranged for Lothrop to shadow his wife at her job with the insurance company Mutual of Omaha, where she worked as an actuary. It left a lasting impression.
“I have these very vivid memories of her explaining it to me in a way that I actually understood,” Lothrop says, adding that the job essentially deals with the math behind insurance. “It’s a really practical use of math that you see every day.”
Now a health actuary at Deloitte, one of the world’s biggest accounting firms, Lothrop has transitioned from working with insurance companies and hospital systems to doing more work around public health – including helping to manage health care infrastructure, such as the Medicare and Medicaid programs. Part of the job, she explains, is analyzing and anticipating the “downstream financial impact” of the coronavirus pandemic.
“As more people take up unemployment insurance with the state, then that naturally leads to more people needing to find health care, insurance coverage in a different way,” Lothrop says. “There’s also the real world impact of making sure that hospitals and physician systems have the supplies they need, where they need it, (and) being able to understand more of the trajectory from a public health perspective of how a disease migrates.”
Senior Director of Government Affairs, Charter Communications
Having grown up in a small city near the New York-Canada border, Jill Luther attributes the limited opportunities of her hometown as a driving force in her pursuit of a career in state government. During her childhood, Luther says, she found herself questioning the role of government and simultaneously wanting to become a part of something bigger than herself.
“I think early on I decided that it was my goal to be part of the decision-making process, that I didn’t want to just be told what to do,” says Luther.
During college, Luther held political internship positions in both Washington, D.C., and Albany, but it was her time in D.C. that Luther says made her realize that her “heart and soul” were in New York. After graduating, Luther worked for the New York Senate for almost eight years before changing course and turning to the private sector.
In April, after having worked with The National Grid, Luther joined Charter Communications as its senior director of government affairs, which she says has “proved to be a fabulous life decision.” In her current position, her portfolio primarily consists of legislative agendas, the New York State budget, fraud policy, and statewide proposals. “It’s an honor to be a part of something so much bigger than myself,” she says about her work with Charter Communications. “I want to leave a legacy behind that makes my family proud of me.”
Chief of Staff, State Sen. Todd Kaminsky
There are many moments Halie Meyers can point to that have reinforced her conviction she’s doing what she was meant to do – including the day she began working in state politics. She was 17, taking night classes and working at a Long Island clothing store. She won an essay contest to shadow then-Assembly Member Harvey Weisenberg at the Capitol. Impressed by her drive, he offered her a job on the spot.
Then there’s Hurricane Sandy, which, about a decade later, tore through her Long Beach neighborhood, destroying her family’s first-floor apartment. That left her dedicated to fighting climate change. “When you’re taking everything you’ve ever owned and dumping it into a pile in the middle of the street, it’s like, how can we fix this? What can we do?” she recalls thinking. She later worked with state Sen. Todd Kaminsky on the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act, a landmark 2019 climate action bill he sponsored.
And then there’s the 2012 Kenny Chesney concert, where she met a police officer who responded on 9/11 and was later diagnosed with cancer. For years after that first encounter, she shared his story with lawmakers. Ultimately, Kaminsky helped her to act on it, mobilizing to pass bipartisan sick leave legislation for 9/11 first responders in 2017.
Looking forward, Meyers is optimistic about what’s next. “I’m just hopeful. I’m excited,” she says. “I see energy toward good government, toward helping the environment, toward changing the world.”
Legislative Director, Brown & Weinraub
Jonas Neri says he draws motivation from his superiors at Brown & Weinraub. “There are some serious people at my firm who have done some serious things in their career, and I think just watching them and where they are now, I want to get to that point in my life,” he says. After entering the political world as a student courier at another firm, the young legislative director has already begun that climb at the government strategies and strategic consulting firm. He completed an internship at Brown & Weinraub after graduating with a political science degree from the University at Albany in 2018. He then helped to delineate a new full-time position for himself after carefully observing what work was needed. “I took it upon myself to give myself my own opportunity,” he says. He’s had to learn rapidly along the way, absorbing all the regulatory processes and procedural information he can while closely watching his colleagues at the top-ranked company. “There’s so many people that have senior government expertise,” he says. “I just try to be around them as much as I can.”
Neri grew up outside Albany and was a defensive back on his high school football team. Today, he sees parallels between the sport and his budding career, including that they are both deeply collaborative. “In football, if one guy isn't doing their job, then the whole team sucks,” he says. “And it’s pretty competitive, the lobbying industry.”
State Director, Working Families Party
When asked her age, Working Families Party State Director Sochie Nnaemeka says 32 1/2. It’s a habit she picked up from her 3-year-old son, but you can’t blame her for making sure to count the past six months. Nnaemeka only started leading the WFP in New York in December, and the months since have been jam-packed. She has lobbied for higher taxes on the wealthiest New Yorkers during an unprecedented state legislative session, supported progressive candidates in the June primaries and made plans to try to maintain the party’s ballot access, which has been put in jeopardy by Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
It’s a lot for somebody who is new to Albany politics. Nnaemeka was raised in Westchester County, but her previous work in politics at the national labor union Unite Here and the Center for Popular Democracy didn’t focus on her home state. Now, she’s looking to the future, pushing lawmakers to keep building on the progressive laws passed under the Democratic-controlled state government in 2019. “We cannot be sliding back towards the status quo or towards small reformist tweaks,” she says. “We can’t slow down in New York, especially when need is getting more severe and deeper.”
Nnaemeka is also looking beyond the borders of where progressive, WFP-backed candidates typically do well, working to flip even more state Senate seats from red to blue. “The suburbs are getting poorer,” she says. “We’re seeing the need for structural change up and down the state.”
Government Analyst, Hinman Straub
When he was in the second grade, Matt O’Connor wrote a letter to then-Gov. Mario Cuomo asking what it was like to lead the state. The governor’s official response, written on letterhead and sent with a signed photograph, became a prized possession. “(It) was a neat, maybe kind of dorky thing for a kid that age to have, but it was a letter that I still have,” he says. He grew up in the Capital Region with multiple relatives working in government and government relations. In other words, he was raised on state politics.
As a government analyst for Hinman Straub, a law firm established in the 1930s in Albany with a government relations practice, O’Connor now has an insider’s view of New York government. He began his career in the state Legislature, working for the Assembly minority leader and the Senate majority leader. More than a decade ago, he was approached in the Senate lobby with an opportunity at Hinman Straub, and he’s since grown into his role as a lobbyist, enjoying the challenges and the variety. “You may be working on one issue at a given moment and something completely different with a different legislator an hour later,” he says, adding that diligence and thoughtfulness go a long way in the business. O’Connor counts among his accomplishments his work on behalf of the New York State Firefighters Association to extend the eligibility window for firefighters to apply for cancer-related disability benefits.
Executive Vice President and Director of Government Relations, Retail Council of New York State
Born and raised in the Albany area, Melissa O’Connor developed an interest in politics, in no small part because of her father’s position as chief of staff of the New York state Senate, a role he held for more than three decades. “I grew up running through the halls of the state Capitol,” recalls O’Connor.
After receiving her bachelor’s degree in political science from the State University of New York at Plattsburgh, and then her master’s degree in business administration at the College of St. Rose, which she completed in just three semesters, O’Connor joined the Retail Council of New York State in 2005 as a government relations associate. It was by “learning through osmosis” that O’Connor says she was able to build her career at the council, which represents approximately 5,000 retailers across the state, over the past 15 years.
In her current role as senior vice president and director of government relations, O’Connor acts as a voice for the state’s retail industry through managing the retail council’s government relations program. Although the current pandemic has created an additional strain for the industry that she represents, O’Connor says that she “thrives on adrenaline,” and that through constant contact with retailers across the state, she and her team are helping guide the council’s members through the pandemic by providing them with information and making sure they continue to adhere to all directives from the executive chamber.
Senior Adviser and Director of Strategic Planning, State Attorney General Letitia James
Michael O’Regan once considered a career as an international diplomat – not an unlikely path for somebody who was raised in Nairobi, Kenya, and spent a year studying in St. Petersburg, Russia. But his first job out of college found him putting his language skills to use a bit closer to home, organizing Russian-speaking members of 1199 SEIU in Southern Brooklyn.
“All this time studying Russian grammar is paying off here!” he remembers thinking. “That was really my first job in politics.” Not long after, O’Regan found himself working on Eric Schneiderman’s ultimately successful 2010 campaign for state attorney general, and joining the office of the state’s top litigator after Schneiderman was elected. O’Regan has been there ever since, for nearly a decade, as one of the few top staffers to stay on when state Attorney General Letitia James took office following Schneiderman’s abrupt resignation. So O’Regan has ended up playing a sort of diplomatic role, helping to acclimate James’ new team to the office. Now it’s his job to understand the attorney general’s priorities and to implement them, meaning he has to coordinate with the different departments that want her attention – the press team, intergovernmental affairs, litigation and all the regional offices. It’s diplomacy on the scale of the Empire State. “I keep a map with colored pins in my office of where she’s been in the state and when,” O’Regan says. “I’ve gotten to know, really, most of the state.”
Legislative Representative, CSEA Local 1000
Ben Parsons majored in history and minored in political science at the University at Albany – he knew he wanted a solid background in writing and research – but he hadn’t considered a career in politics until his senior year, when he met a Civil Service Employees Association representative at a job fair.
“I literally went up to him, and I said, ‘What is CSEA?’ And the rest is kind of history,” Parsons says.
His career at CSEA – a labor union that represents employees in state and local government, school districts and the private sector – began with an internship in 2011. In recent years, he has mostly focused on health and safety issues.
“We were able to make sure that school bus drivers and other school transportation personnel have a voice on their school safety teams,” he says. “What we’re currently working on is trying to do something to improve the safety in the state’s highway work zones.”
While Parsons has been telecommuting for the past few months, many of the union members he represents – people who work in health care, first responders and sanitation workers, among others – have continued going to work throughout the coronavirus pandemic. He’s been working to ensure union members have sufficient personal protective equipment and the necessary support during this stressful time.
“What we’re looking at right now is the potential for huge losses (in) state funding to a lot of local government services and state services,” Parsons says. “There’s a lot of uncertainty.”
Vice President, Corporate and Legislation, Kasirer
For Jennifer Rivera, the most meaningful aspect of her career has been her ability to positively impact the Bronx, the borough where she was born and raised. After graduating from Quinnipiac University with a bachelor’s degree in psychology, Rivera returned to the Bronx and began her career in politics working for James Vacca’s New York City Council campaign as a volunteer coordinator, which later turned into a permanent position overseeing constituent services at his district office. Five and a half years later, Rivera joined Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s first gubernatorial administration as its Bronx Representative in 2011. Although it was the first of many positions she held within the administration, Rivera says her position as Bronx Representative was the role she was most proud of. “Any way that I could impact my community was really meaningful,” she says.
After working in the Cuomo Administration for six-plus years, Rivera decided to make the switch from the public to the private sector. Since joining Kasirer in early 2019, Rivera has used her government experience to help her succeed as the company’s vice president of corporate and legislation. “It really gives me the opportunity to stay in the world of politics and government, but just in a different capacity than what I’ve done in the previous 11 years,” says Rivera.
In her role at Kasirer, Rivera leads the strategic planning and consultation on many of Kasirer’s corporate clients, including MGM and Empire State Casinos, in addition to managing legislative affairs across the company.
Press Secretary, State Senate Majority
Some people bring instincts to their jobs. Others have real-world experience. Carolina Rodriguez brought both to the state Senate Democratic conference when she was hired in 2019. The Dominican-born press secretary spent five years learning the ins and outs of public relations as the go-to liaison between the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene and Spanish-language media for nearly five years.
Time spent as a New York City teaching fellow and, later, as a spokeswoman for then-state Sen. Adriano Espaillat has also added to her understanding of the intersections between issues like public health and institutional racism. That has come in handy in the corridors of power, she says, where people of color have historically been left out of important policy discussions. “There’s a lack of institutional knowledge,” she says. “Having somebody there who knows how to communicate is important.”
Legislative work appears to suit Rodriguez, who says she is looking forward to staying put in her current role helping the Senate Democrats pass a litany of progressive policy reforms as they eye as supermajority after 2020. “I’ve been having a lot of fun,” she says. “There’s the adrenaline rush; (it) is a very dynamic environment.” The same might be said about her latest effort to expand her personal horizons. Riding a bike around New York City might be new for the cat-loving Upper Manhattan resident, but you never know where it might take her.
As an Assembly member, Daniel Rosenthal’s main concern throughout the coronavirus pandemic has been the well-being of his Queens constituents. “People are really hurting,” Rosenthal says. “We’re just fighting for everyone.”
Prior to the implementation of New York state’s PAUSE order, Rosenthal says that his district office averaged 50 walk-ins a week – interactions through which constituents were able to voice their concerns and seek assistance. Additionally, Rosenthal says, he was working on two separate bills that would have required greater regulation and transparency reporting for pharmaceutical companies, legislation he thought was making progress. Now, Rosenthal says that his day-to-day responsibilities have changed drastically. Although he hopes and prays that New York City won’t encounter a second wave, Rosenthal acknowledges that hospitals in the community need to be ready and prepared for that possibility.
Despite the difficulties he has faced over the past couple of months, the state’s youngest sitting representative says that he still loves his job, helping his constituents, and navigating New York government and politics.
Throughout his career, which began with a job as an aide for City Councilman Rory Lancman in 2011, Rosenthal has positioned himself as a proponent for keeping Queens affordable and ensuring that his constituents have access to essential services. Looking back on the achievements he’s made thus far, Rosenthal highlights his role in successfully advocating for the preservation of the neighborhood landmark Lefferts Boulevard Bridge in 2018.
Amber Ryan Rexford
Assistant Director, Advisory Council Affairs, Office of the State Comptroller
“If our constituents are happy and well taken care of, then we’re doing our job,” says Amber Ryan Rexford, an assistant director for the retirement system’s advisory council affairs bureau, which is part of the Office of the State Comptroller. Having worked with the New York state agency since 2004, Ryan Rexford has held numerous positions over the last 15 years, including working as Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli’s special assistant, as well as in government relations.
In her current role, Ryan Rexford works closely with constituents and union leaders to resolve issues related to retirement and death benefits, in addition to coordinating the comptroller’s advisory council, which is made up of elected officials, union leaders, industry experts and some staff members. “For me, I just want to keep learning and observing and seeing where eventually that will take me,” she says, in regard to her future with the office.
Highlighting the skills of the agency’s leadership, Ryan Rexford credits DiNapoli and chief of staff Shawn Thompson, along with her immediate boss, Jason Cooper, for guiding the agency through the challenges that have arisen during the coronavirus pandemic.
“Even when a situation that comes up is difficult or is unexpected, you still find a way to make it work and to get your work done efficiently,” Ryan Rexford says. “We still have work to do, and we’re still getting it done because the bottom line is, our constituents depend on us.”
Director of State Legislative Affairs, Metropolitan Transportation Authority
William Schwartz went on paternity leave in early March as he and his wife, Amy, prepared to welcome their first child. Around the same time, the coronavirus hammered New York City, pushing the MTA into a financial crisis. Since then, he’s been telecommuting – in addition to studying online for a master’s degree in public administration from Marist College – and is busier than ever.
“We’ve been slowly trying to figure out how to adjust the system. For the first time in 115 years, we closed the subways overnight to do deep cleaning and disinfecting,” Schwartz says. “The No. 1 thing that we have to do as the system reopens is get people back, and in a way that they feel comfortable doing it.”
In addition to launching advertising campaigns encouraging subway and bus riders to wear masks and wash their hands, the transit system is making masks available at station booths and looking at ways to make hand sanitizer available in the system. But managing rush hour in the age of the coronavirus remains the biggest challenge.
“We all know that the bread and butter of beating COVID is social distancing. Have you ever been on a No. 2 train at 8:30 in the morning heading downtown? I think the analogy is sardines,” Schwartz says. “We’re working with the cards that we have to play … and at this point, we need the federal government’s help to keep the lights on and keep things moving.”
Vice President, Cahill Strategies
“It’s honestly thrilling.” That’s how Kristin Senese describes her work navigating obstacles from government agencies regarding easements, regulations, historic districts and conservation codes to help her construction clients reach their goals. She leads the construction practice of Cahill Strategies, representing construction firms, contractors and developers in New York and in other states. She says there’s a satisfaction in seeing a project go from a hole in the ground to its opening day and knowing all the challenges that had to be overcome in the process. She recently helped to launch a nonprofit called The Construction Workforce Project, which aims to help nonunion workers access construction training and job opportunities.
The Queens native joined Diane Cahill in 2016 when Cahill launched her eponymous communications, government relations and lobbying firm, and has since watched it grow from three founding employees to more than a dozen. There are more clients as well, and the projects, from boating safety legislation to an initiative to install more speed cameras in school zones, have become more complex. Senese compares the work to a chess game. “There’s always a new challenge and an obstacle that needs to be faced. There’s no cookie-cutter response to anything,” Senese says.
As she continues to grow into her leadership role, she draws motivation from seeing projects completed and watching her staff evolve and learn.
“When you see somebody that you’ve trained accomplishing major milestones, it gives you new hope and a new, fresh look into something through their eyes,” she says.
Associate Counsel, State University of New York
Joseph Storch says his work overseeing violence prevention programs at the SUNY Office of General Counsel goes beyond simple solutions.
“We try to consider the impact of violence beyond the surface,” he says. “We also know that not everyone is impacted by violence equally.”
Adolescents and post-adolescents are most at risk when it comes to sexual violence and interpersonal violence, but women have a higher risk than men, Storch says. The risk is higher still for Black trans women.
The programs Storch oversees – which have brought in about $9 million in grants and external funding – include various violence prevention training programs as well as SUNY’s Got Your Back program, which provided more than 100,000 bags filled with personal care items for survivors of violence in New York during 2019.
Working for a school system with about a half million students and some 90,000 employees, Storch says, “You can really have an impact.” Having spent most of his career at SUNY, he says he measures his success by the success of SUNY’s students – and he is glad to play a role in helping them complete their education and have successful careers.
Storch’s goal for the future? He says he wants to do his job so well that by the time his two children, who are now ages 6 and 4, reach college, “It’ll be a completely different world.”
He added, “I can’t imagine doing anything else.”
Senior Vice President, Ostroff Associates
Evan Sullivan was 11 years old when he started mowing his neighbors’ lawns in West Sand Lake outside of Albany – he needed money to buy a Game Boy. But the side gig took off, and by the time he was around 16, he had started his own landscaping company.
“I was really growing the business, and then the economic collapse happened in 2008,” Sullivan says. “I had my first dose of reality at like 18 years old: ‘Oh my God, what am I going to do?’”
Sullivan, who was then in college, took a volunteer position canvassing for then-Rep. Kirsten Gillibrand and began pursuing a career in politics. He knew that the hardest part of finding a job in the state Senate, the Assembly or any of the state agencies was a lack of experience.
“I walked around the Capitol with a resume – was dropping that off everywhere – trying to get anything,” he says. “I was going door to door.”
Eventually, Sullivan found a job in the office of state Sen. David Carlucci, where he served as deputy chief of staff and legislative director. When a position opened up, he became committee director of the Senate’s Mental Health and Developmental Disabilities Committee. At Ostroff Associates since 2017, Sullivan works with clients in health care, mental health providers and school districts, among other industries – trying to communicate information about coronavirus-related changes in real time.
“Just trying to juggle a lot of balls and make sure that things aren’t slipping through the cracks,” he says.
Senior Reporter, The City
You could say that rock and roll is what brought Josefa Velásquez to state politics. Her journey from Long Island to Albany began when she watched the movie “Almost Famous,” which chronicles one teen’s pursuit of journalistic stardom while following his favorite bands on tour. “I was just like, ‘This is what I want my life to be like,’” Velásquez says. While that did not pan out for her, she is quick to throw in a musical reference to how a stint as a student reporter would change her life. “The State Capitol is ‘Hotel California,’” she says. “As much as I tried to leave, it always pulled me back in.”
Velásquez started covering state politics at a tumultuous time after graduating from the University at Albany in 2013. Sexual harassment scandals and federal investigators were taking down one corrupt legislator after another. Following a six-month stint with The Associated Press, she spent several years working for Politico, New York Law Journal and Sludge.
In her current role at The City, Velásquez reports on how decisions by state leaders affect some of the most powerless people in the state: undocumented immigrants, low-wage workers and tenants. “In the last few years, I’ve started to embrace where I come from and realize that because I am one of the few Hispanic people as a reporter in New York politics, there is a tremendous amount of weight on my shoulders,” says Velásquez, who immigrated to the U.S. from Chile as a young child.
Director of Communications, Office of Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul
A nonstop schedule shepherding the lieutenant governor through multiple interviews, appearances and briefings across the state each day might prompt some to spend their weekends sleeping in late or on a Netflix binge. But for Haley Viccaro, an extracurricular role as assistant manager for the Schenectady Greenmarket still beckons every Sunday at 6 a.m. “I’m not great at relaxing,” she readily acknowledges.
But it’s that drive that powered Viccaro through a career as a respected and award-winning reporter for Albany Business Review and The Daily Gazette in Schenectady, and through her transition out of journalism – first while working for the New York Conference of Mayors, and now as director of communications for Lieutenant Gov. Kathy Hochul.
Whether as a reporter for the Gazette – where she also served as the paper’s mascot, a rolled-up newspaper called “Newsy” – or working in communications, it’s keeping people informed that motivates Viccaro.
And while she may not don any official mascot costume in her work with Hochul, Viccaro clearly hasn’t lost any enthusiasm for her work – even in the middle of a global pandemic, on days when working to keep New Yorkers informed can be overwhelming. “If I took a step back, where I felt really stressed and like I needed a day off, I thought, ‘We’re doing something good here,’” Viccaro says, mentioning the more than 300 interviews Hochul has done across the state since late March. “That really keeps you going, and that’s what I love about the job.”
F. Annabel Walsh
Director of Scheduling, Office of Gov. Andrew Cuomo
Reading can go a long way toward understanding how the governor’s office works. Just ask the English literature major overseeing the governor’s schedule. “It’s problem-solving and sifting through a bunch of bullshit and figuring out what’s real,” she says of her own crash course in politics when she joined Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s administration seven years ago. “I obviously read like ‘The Prince.’” A full education in the School of Hard Knocks followed on the second floor of the state Capitol.
Managing the governor’s schedule means lots of phone calls and texts. Staff have to get on the same page before they brief the governor. Agency heads need press releases approved. Someone has to go through all those event invitations to determine what is – and is not – on message for a three-term governor with limited time. Becoming that person for Cuomo, however, was hardly an ambition for the Boston-born Walsh when she first arrived at New York University with plans to become a college professor.
Blame President Barack Obama for showing Walsh a new career path as she juggled a paid role on his 2012 reelection campaign with her classwork. One month after graduating, she was bringing those multitasking skills to Albany. She has been able to keep up with a grueling schedule of morning meetings and late nights ever since – but every now and then she escapes to a hiding spot in the state Capitol. That is where she can continue her political studies by reading a few pages of her favorite books like “Dune.”
Executive Director, New York State Democratic Committee
As a growing group of progressive candidates succeed in New York, unseating some longtime Democratic incumbents, state Democratic Committee executive director Alex Wang says he feels somewhat torn.
“As someone who didn't come from the institution, I think the Democratic Party needs new blood in the organization,” he says. “But in the same token, the Democratic Party’s apparatus, part of it is supporting incumbents.”
In the state party organization that is nearly two centuries old, he represents that new, younger energy himself. The 25-year-old leader stepped into the role in March 2019 after working on a coordinated campaign to reelect Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul and state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli and to elect state Attorney General Letitia James.
“We elected the first Black woman attorney general, which was one of the proudest moments of my life,” Wang says. As a Chinese American, a child of immigrants and a New Yorker, Wang says President Donald Trump’s response to the coronavirus crisis has illustrated why he should not be reelected in November. “He also invigorates a lot of that racism, calling it the China virus,” Wang says. “It’s hurtful to me as an individual and also hurtful to this nation.”
With November fast approaching, Wang is focused on aiding Democrats everywhere on the ballot. “I think, more so than ever now, our focus is on supporting our county parties, supporting our local electeds, and from the ground up, trying to support our community members,” he says.
Correction: An earlier version of this list incorrectly identified state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli's chief of staff.