Interviews & Profiles

How Suri Kasirer has remained New York City’s top lobbyist for the past seven years

In a Q&A, she talked about navigating the transition from Bill de Blasio to Eric Adams at City Hall.

Suri Kasirer

Suri Kasirer Yvonne Albinowski

Her reign continues.

For the seventh year in a row, Kasirer was ranked as the top lobbying firm in New York City, according to the city’s annual lobbying report. With $16.8 million reported in compensation last year, things have certainly come a long way since veteran lobbyist Suri Kasirer founded the firm from her studio apartment in 1997.

City & State spoke to Kasirer about her firm’s ongoing success, how it handled the transition between former Mayor Bill de Blasio and Mayor Eric Adams, how politics has changed throughout her career and the top issues facing New York City. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

You started Kasirer in 1997 from your studio apartment, and it has now been the No. 1 lobbying firm in New York City for the past seven years. What are you most proud of about what Kasirer is today compared to how you started?

We are a real leader in the nonprofit space, we represent about 40 nonprofit organizations ranging from Citymeals on Wheels to cultural organizations, social service organizations, etc. We really play a leadership role on a lot of policy issues related to not-for-profits, legislative policy, and funding issues while also trying to highlight the sector, its importance to New York City, its relationship to government. There’s so many things that government can’t do, so it really relies on the sector.

I’m also incredibly proud of a lot of the real estate projects that we worked on. I feel like when you go around the city, you can see our projects. Like the Museum of Arts and Design that started out at the American Craft Museum – they didn’t even have room for a permanent exhibit. Now they’re at 2 Columbus Circle, which we worked on that project from beginning to end by helping with the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure and helped open that building (and) got government funding for it. The One Vanderbilt project too, which we worked on for over 10 years.

It’s all that, but it’s also the really incredible staff that we have.There are quite a few people who have been with me over 20 years. They are super talented, super committed. I’m just so proud of the team.

What do you think has made you so consistently successful?

We really choose the projects that we work on very, very carefully. We want to make sure we believe in the projects. We want to be advocates for the project. And we want to be involved in projects that we really believe are important for New York. I think it’s because of that, that we have such good relationships with folks in government. We have a partnership with government because we really want to do what’s best for New York. We also are partners with other consultants who we think strive for excellence, whether they’re law firms or PR firms, architects, engineers, and so on. I think it’s those partnerships and really working on incredible projects like helping Cornell University win the $100 million in city land to build the Cornell Tech campus on Roosevelt Island, or Stony Brook University and its affiliate partners, helping them win the competitive city bid to run the New York Climate Exchange lab on Governors Island. Those highlight who we are and what we do.

You’ve been featured on quite a few women power lists throughout your career. What advice would you have for women who are looking to be successful in lobbying and other government-related positions in New York?

What I say to young people in government and young people who are interested in being in government and politics is that you have to work very, very hard. You have to have really good judgment. If something feels wrong, you need to stick to your guns and not do it. You need to be honest and transparent. And you need to find opportunities and always be prepared.

I speak to every intern group that we have each semester, and I always tell them we pick 10 interns out of 100 applications. The reason these 10 were picked – and I don’t pick them, I have two team leaders who work with the interns, and they go through all the resumes to pick 10 people. But what they’re looking for is people who have done their homework, people who have explained why they’re interested in the program, and what value they can add to the program and why they think this is a good opportunity for them. People who have done their homework and put themselves forward in a thoughtful and strategic way are usually the people that are going to win the internship or win the job.

Before you started Kasirer you worked under then-Gov. Mario Cuomo. What are some similarities and differences between politics now and then?

What I admired so much about Mario Cuomo is that there were things he believed that were so sacred and so sacrosanct that he never would give up anything for them. One of those things was the death penalty. He’s very, very against the death penalty. He used to tell stories that his mother would say “being against the death penalty doesn’t stand up well in polls.” Most people think that is soft on crime in this state – more so upstate than downstate – but as a whole it’s not a very popular position. She would say to him, “Why do you have to say that you’re against the death penalty? Maybe you could say, you will consider it.” But he said, “I would lose the election faster than I would give up my position on this issue.” I admire him for that because he knew what he wanted to communicate and what he wanted to say. He was aware of the polls and the audiences’ reaction, but it didn’t change what he fundamentally wanted to say or what he did.

That’s a really hard thing to do in life for anybody today where we’re so attuned to social media and people’s reaction, and polling – we’re so influenced by what other people think that sometimes it’s hard to know where you actually stand. It’s a challenge. Sometimes the opposition is so powerful that it’s kind of hard to stand up and not be afraid of reactions, or people voting you out of office, or people bad mouthing you on social media.

The whole social media world is so different than when I was first in government. It was a much slower news cycle. Reporters always sort of check their facts, but someone posting something isn’t really necessarily checking their facts. They’re just maybe giving you something they’ve heard from somebody else. I think that’s changed politics a lot.

How has the firm navigated the change from Mayor Bill de Blasio to Mayor Eric Adams and seemingly not lost much of a beat?

One of the things that I have really tried to do over the years is professionalize the field of lobbying. People often think lobbying is where you know the mayor, so you’ll call them up and say, “Listen, I need a favor. My client has a problem. Could you help me?” That really isn’t the way we have to approach lobbying. Obviously we know the people in government, otherwise we wouldn’t be doing what we do, but we’re not selling access. We’re selling our understanding of the intersection between politics and government, which gives us the ability to put together a strategy to advocate for a specific goal.

I want my team to go to a meeting with an elected official really well prepared – to know what that elected official thinks and says about lots of things and figure out how what our client wants fits in with the elected official’s goals and the goals at the moment in New York. Right now, post COVID-19, we are trying to bring back tourism and lots of industries that struggled during the pandemic. How does what X client wants to do line up with those goals? Is there economic development? Is their job creation? Is there the creation of something new that doesn’t exist in New York, but exists in other places that could drive industry here?

For me and my team, it’s about advocating. It’s about creating a coalition. It’s about really understanding who’s for something and who’s against it and why so that you can develop a project that’s influenced by what the needs are. If you’re going into a local community and you want to bring a project, you also have to bring benefits. You can’t just bring shadows, construction and blocked streets. You have to say we’re also bringing things to you. What are we saying we are bringing? Are we making the street look nicer? Are we going to add plants and trees to the neighborhood? Are we going to make it look better? Are we bringing a school that’s needed in the community? Are we giving space back to local community organizations? What is it that we can bring to the community so that the community can see us as a partner in that local neighborhood?

We’re not trying to sell “call me, I know the mayor.” We’re trying to really have people understand that we’re advocates. And as advocates, you need to engage lots of community stakeholders and really be able to dialogue with them and understand their needs and their concerns.

What projects were you proudest of working on last year?

We are so proud of our projects with the Climate Exchange. We represented Stony Brook University and its partners and now they’ve won this amazing opportunity to build a world class Climate Exchange. We’ve just hired somebody who is a world expert that comes from the Federal Reserve Bank. We’re going to be building a building. There’s going to be a physical space, but until we have that physical space, it’s really figuring out how we contribute to New York City and the state who has given us this opportunity. Not only that, but also to really be a leader all over the world, bringing people together, bringing the smartest, best and brightest together, and coming up with the most important things that we can do today to impact this issue in a serious way. The project is really something I’m so proud of, but it’s also the future. Getting it right is so important for the next generation, for our children, for the future of the world.

What do you think are the most pressing issues facing the city right now?

The mayor was elected on public safety. He had an incredibly unique resume at a very important time in our city, and he has been able to reduce crime. I think he’s done a phenomenal job on a really important issue.

I think we are still in the process of bringing the city back – it is definitely coming back – but cultural institutions are still struggling post COVID-19. Many of them held on to staff, went virtual, gave all kinds of educational programs for free and kept their audiences, but yet they couldn’t really do the fundraising at the level that they were doing because there weren’t events. A lot of the fundraising for cultural institutions comes through ticket sales, so we have to still make up for that. Tourism is back, but we’re not at those pre-COVID-19 numbers yet. We’re getting there, so that’s a positive. The hotel industry is still coming back. The numbers are good, but a lot of it is because migrants are staying there. Economic development is still a really key issue. Workforce development is still important. Getting people back to the offices is a really important priority for the city. We do a lot of work with people in the commercial office building world. If people aren’t in the offices, then they’re not buying coffee downstairs at the little coffee shop and they are not picking up a pizza for lunch at the local place. There are a lot of businesses that get affected if people aren’t back in the office, so really continuing to push people back into the office is a priority for the city.

The last one is housing. Getting 421-a or some kind of incentive program for affordable housing is incredibly important. We have been on the forefront of fighting, particularly, for the extension for 421-a to 2030. There are so many projects because of COVID-19 that have gotten delayed, so a lot of really important projects with a lot of housing and affordable housing will not be able to be built if we can’t get the extension. We’ve been on the forefront of really fighting for that.