The 2021 50 Over 50
The 2021 50 Over 50
If the past year has taught us anything, it’s that experience matters.
The previous presidential administration promised leadership without Washington insiders, and packed a Cabinet with friends and loyal followers who had little experience with – or even open hostility toward – the sectors that they were supposed to be overseeing.
That all caught up with the administration when the coronavirus arrived in America. A White House with no regard for expertise ignored prominent scientists and public health officials and was ill-equipped to handle what came next. Hundreds of thousands of Americans have died, and the number is still climbing. The new Biden administration has vowed to do better – by listening to those who’ve spent years studying infectious diseases.
It’s crucial to welcome new kids on the block, and incorporate their fresh perspectives and big ideas. But it’s equally important to recognize expertise, and to respect those who have made their mistakes, and learned from them. If not, the results could be disastrous.
This week, we salute some of the most experienced leaders in New York politics – City & State’s annual 50 Over 50.
Lifetime Achievement Award Recipients
Member of Congress
Rep. Gregory Meeks refers to himself as an “elected official by accident,” though he’s been a public servant from a young age.
Growing up in East Harlem, Meeks says he was inspired by the civil rights movement and Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall to attend Howard University School of Law and eventually become an attorney.
Prior to running for public office, Meeks worked as a Queens County assistant district attorney, a prosecutor for a special anti-narcotics task force, and a chief administrative judge for New York state’s worker compensation system.
In 1992, he was elected to the state Assembly, and in 1998 he won a special election to represent New York’s Fifth Congressional District. While in office, Meeks has co-chaired the National Democratic Congressional Committee Trade Task Force and has chaired the House Subcommittee on Consumer Protection and Financial Institutions. In the upcoming session, Meeks will become the first African American to chair the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
“What we do and how we act internationally will affect the future of this world. This is something that I don’t take lightly,” says Meeks, who plans to work with President Joe Biden to rejoin the Paris Climate Agreement, the World Health Organization, and the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.
Post-pandemic, Meeks wants to revive the community he represents by tackling income disparities and racial inequities, including in health care. “We’ve got to get better than what we were so that every person has an opportunity to get and have access to health care,” he says.
State Senate Majority Leader
Andrea Stewart-Cousins (Archival 1965) - Office of Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins.jpeg
Throughout her career, state Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins has broken innumerable barriers.
Prior to running for public office, Stewart-Cousins’ first public service experience was when she volunteered for Terry Zaleski, a Yonkers mayoral candidate who supported a court ruling to desegregate the city. After he won, she joined his administration as the city’s first African American woman director of community affairs.
In 1995, after defeating the Democratic incumbent in a primary, she served as a Westchester County legislator. While in office, Stewart-Cousins was elected as majority whip and vice chair, and passed influential human rights laws in the county.
Beginning in 2004, Stewart-Cousins fought for a seat in the state Senate through a series of close electoral battles and lengthy legal challenges. In 2006, she won her district’s seat by more than 1,800 votes.
“Racism, sexism, being an ‘outsider,’ being underestimated or being outspent impacted me for years,” Stewart-Cousins wrote to City & State last month.
In 2012, Stewart-Cousins became both the first woman and first African American woman to lead a New York state legislative conference, and in 2019, she was elected as temporary president and majority leader of the state Senate. As majority leader, Stewart-Cousins has passed aggressive climate change legislation and has strengthened tenant protections for New Yorkers.
Chair, State Senate Finance Committee
In March of 2000, two state senators reached out to Liz Krueger to outline their plan for achieving a Democratic majority in the chamber – which included Krueger challenging a 32-year Republican incumbent. Although always drawn to public policy work, she hadn’t considered running for office.
“I just started to laugh and I said, ‘What have you two been smoking?’” Krueger recalls. But after a narrow loss in 2000, she won her district’s seat in a February 2002 special election.
Prior to running for public office, Krueger dedicated herself to distributing food to people in need, helping to start the New York City Food Bank.
She later joined the Community Food Resource Center as associate director, focusing on emergency food programs, eviction prevention programs, food kitchens and access to benefit programs.
Upon entering the state Senate, Krueger focused on joining the Senate Finance Committee, which she now chairs, recognizing the committee’s potential for providing money for low-income New Yorkers and programs to support them.
“It was crucial to try to be at that table and say, ‘We can’t forget about these folks,’” she says.
While in office, Krueger has passed vaccine requirement bills, the Reproductive Health Act, and was an ardent advocate for the same-sex marriage bill. Krueger is also a founding co-chair of the state’s Bipartisan Legislative Pro-Choice Caucus and has chaired the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee.
Partner, Bolton-St. Johns
As one of Albany’s top lobbyists, Giorgio DeRosa has a client list full of key players across a myriad of industries.
“I personally represent over 65 clients at this point and they cover every area of the economy that you could think of,” says DeRosa, who has represented Verizon Wireless, the immigrants rights group fwd.US, and energy company Equinor. “I never wanted to be pigeonholed in working in one specific area.”
Prior to opening Bolton-St. Johns’ Albany office in 1996, DeRosa began his career with the United Auto Workers as a political and union organizer. On behalf of the union, he worked to elect U.S. Representative Louise Slaughter and joined her team as district director.
DeRosa later accepted a position as legislative and political director with the Public Employees Federation. During his time with that union, DeRosa successfully lobbied for the passage of a pension bill and legislation impacting cost-of-living adjustments for retirees.
In 1996, DeRosa was chosen by Bolton-St. Johns co-founders Norman Adler and Mel Miller to open the firm’s Albany office, overseeing its growth from four to over 40 employees and leading it to become one of New York’s top three lobbying firms.
“I remember Mel, in particular, saying if you hire smart people, it doesn’t matter whether the Democrats are in control or the Republicans – just hire smart people.” says DeRosa.
In the upcoming legislative session, DeRosa hopes to see the legalization of recreational marijuana, as well as continued changes in the renewable energy space.
Chair and CEO, Metropolitan Transportation Authority
The MTA’s Patrick Foye has a long road ahead of him to revive New York City’s public transportation system.
“The pandemic is orders of magnitude worse in its effect on ridership and revenues than the Great Depression,” says Foye, adding that during the pandemic’s worst days last year, subway ridership was down 95%.
To ensure the system’s viability, Foye worked with union partners and community advocates to secure $4 billion in federal funding from the most recent congressional COVID-19 stimulus deal.
Foye, a lawyer who has been with the MTA since 2017, previously led the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey as executive director, where he oversaw the redevelopment of LaGuardia Airport.
Prior to his career in public transportation, Foye served as deputy secretary for economic development under Gov. Andrew Cuomo, as well as downstate chair of the Empire State Development Corporation, and vice chair and board member of the Long Island Power Authority.
Post-pandemic, Foye will unpause the agency’s $51.5 billion capital plan, including the expansion of the 2nd Avenue subway line into East Harlem and bringing Metro-North to Penn Station.
In the meantime, he is emphasizing the agency’s ongoing responsibility to continue to disinfect subways, buses and railways, in addition to monitoring mask compliance, distributing masks and researching new methods for ensuring rider health.
“The MTA always rallies to the cause and to the mission,” says Foye.
President, University at Albany
Originally told by his high school counselors that he was not college material, Havidán Rodríguez became an auto mechanic for a couple of months after graduation – but his desire for education never abated.
Encouraged by a mentor during a stint in the U.S. Air Force, Rodríguez went back to school to embark on a 30-year – and counting – career in the educational field. Among his accomplishments: becoming the first Latino president of any SUNY four-year learning institution in 2017 when he assumed the top spot at the University at Albany.
“My general goal is to have students have a more direct path to success than what I have – there were a lot of twists and turns along the way,” Rodríguez says. “Even today, I sort of pinch myself once in a while – I can’t believe that back in the late 1970s, I was an auto mechanic.”
Serving several institutions throughout his career, Rodríguez says helping students of impoverished backgrounds obtain a degree is one of his proudest achievements.
“To see students who have struggled throughout their lives, from very poor backgrounds, our first-generation students come to college and obtain a wonderful degree – this is one of the things that you can do as a president of an institution – award degrees,” Rodríguez says.
Director, New York City Department of City Planning; Chair, City Planning Commission
Growing up in Brooklyn Heights in the 1950s, Marisa Lago witnessed rundown tenements and slums filled with immigrants – like her family – who worked in factories along the Brooklyn waterfront. Lago, who spoke no English when she started kindergarten, became the first in her family to graduate college. Growing up in the era of slum clearance was the catalyst for her entry into the world of urban planning and government work.
Lago was further inspired by a property law professor she encountered during law school. “That just cemented this love of being able to meld the tools of government – including land use and economic development – to make our city, make our nation, a better place,” Lago says.
Thanks to her economic development work for, among others, New York Gov. David Paterson, New York City Mayor David Dinkins and President Barack Obama, Lago has no shortage of highlights, including working with the World Bank while serving in the Treasury Department, when she visited a rural farming project in Rwanda where women are the predominant farmers.
“I’m seeing women, proudly working, some with children strapped to their backs, proud of the fact that they were making the world a better place, they were investing in their children,” Lago says. “To me, being part of projects like that just speaks to universality. We didn’t speak the same language. We came from very, very different backgrounds, but we all care about the generations to come.”
New York City Council Member
Inspired by her mother, Inez Barron protested for civil justice issues in the 1960s as a teen in New York City, which led to a 36-year career in education, serving as a teacher, a member of the Board of Education and the principal of an elementary school. Nearly 30 years after first becoming a teacher, one particular student, who had a very troubled childhood, approached her, saying she had saved his life by giving him “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” when she was his teacher.
“That just gave him such a sense of pride and hope – realizing that it’s not the end when you face these really difficult challenges – that you just push on,” Barron says.
As she was enjoying her retirement from education, she was asked by members of her community to run for the Assembly, where she served for five years before becoming a member of New York City Council representing the 42nd District, where she has delivered on affordable housing projects along with social justice. As she approaches her final year as a council member, Barron is looking to introduce a new elected civilian review board to replace the existing Civilian Complaint Review Board tasked with holding the NYPD accountable.
“If that would happen during my tenure, that would be great,” Barron says. “If it happened afterward, that would still be great, because it’s not always the individual people who should be put in any kind of spotlight, but it’s a collective. It’s a continuum, it’s a battle that has to be waged consistently, because it’s the right thing to do for those who are marginalized and those who are oppressed.”
President and CEO, One Brooklyn Health System
LaRay Brown is a pioneer in the medical field who has logged more than three decades in New York City hospitals and health care. As the president and CEO of the One Brooklyn Health System, which includes the Brookdale University Hospital Medical Center, Interfaith Medical Center and Kingsbrook Jewish Medical Center, Brown has played a pivotal role in developing the billion-dollar organization.
Before taking on her current role, Brown led legislation and policy development at New York City Health + Hospitals. She helped expand affordable, long-term apartments for public hospitals, aided in developing ambulatory care centers and cultivated emergency psychiatric programs for various city hospitals, among other efforts.
Brown also served as chair of America’s Essential Hospitals, then known as the National Association of Public Hospitals and Health Systems, on the board of the New York State Health Foundation, and on Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s transition team on health.
In 2020, like so many Americans, Brown faced considerable challenges from the onslaught of COVID-19 as she sought to protect One Brooklyn Health System via stringent guidelines, protocols and a keen understanding of the operations of the Department of Health and inner workings of the New York public health system.
Member of Congress
Born and raised in Brooklyn, Rep. Jerry Nadler has lived and breathed politics since 1976, when he was first elected to the state Assembly. For 16 years, Nadler represented the Upper West Side, focusing on legislation regarding domestic violence and child support.
Nadler has represented New York’s 10th Congressional District since 1992. In the 1990s, Nadler made a name for himself through his handling of controversies within the Democratic Party and his ability to enact legislation.
Currently the chair of the powerful House Judiciary Committee, Nadler has served on several House committees related to civil rights, transportation and cybersecurity, and in 2008, he cofounded and was vice-chair of the House Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Equality Caucus. In 2010, Nadler was one of the authors of the USA Freedom Act, which reformed government surveillance on U.S. citizens by the National Security Administration.
Nadler strongly opposed President Trump and his policies throughout Trump's time in office, particularly regarding immigration. In 2017, he fought to repeal the Trump administration’s attempted travel ban enacted against primarily Muslim countries, and was instrumental in passing the National Origin-Based Antidiscrimination for Nonimmigrants (NO BAN) Act. Among Nadler’s legislative high points in 2020 was the successful passage of criminal justice reform bills.