In recent years, New York’s political leadership has grown increasingly reflective of the state’s remarkable diversity. Both upstate and downstate, candidates of color are winning more seats in the state Legislature. Impatient activists are emboldened as they take on establishment politicians. And women working in Albany are no longer putting up with the entrenched culture of sexual harassment in the state Capitol.
One key factor underpinning these shifts in the power structure is another noteworthy trend: an increase in the number of younger individuals in state politics who are seizing power. The Albany 40 Under 40 features many of these exceptional individuals – all under the age of 40 – who are already making an impact. This year’s rising stars include newly elected state lawmakers who have solidified Democratic power in the state Capitol. The list highlights activists who have upended assumptions about how far Albany can go on issues like taxing the wealthy or reforming the police. And it illustrates the many ways in which aides, advocates and others have come together to confront the deadly coronavirus pandemic – and to position New York for a robust recovery.
We’re pleased to introduce City & State’s 2021 Albany 40 Under 40 Rising Stars.
Mike Avella Jr. remembers petitioning alongside his father – the state government veteran Michael Avella – when he was only 10 years old. The father and son duo still work together, now at Dickinson & Avella, a strategic governmental relations firm focusing on the state Capitol. As a government affairs associate, Avella Jr. represents the interests of a multitude of clients ranging from large corporations to advocacy coalitions.
“We represent so many different people,” the younger Avella says. “I don't think there's a sector that we don't touch. One minute I could be working on technology, the next one on voting rights, then criminal justice reform, and then helping out the Mets safely reopen.”
Before joining Dickinson & Avella in 2019, Avella Jr. held a variety of positions, including as a press coordinator at the state Assembly and as an investigative auditor at the state Board of Elections. Although he planned on attending medical school, he eventually obtained a master’s degree in public health from the University at Albany, marrying his interests in medicine and politics. This served as a strong foundation for his stints at New York’s chronic disease control office, the state’s health insurance exchange and the Medical Society of the State of New York. Throughout it all, Avella Jr. has strived to create positive changes across the state.
Avella Jr. describes his current job as both “professionally and personally gratifying,” as he works to bring about positive social and cultural change.
Coming from a progressive left-wing background, Rebecca Bailin has long felt a deep sense of obligation to her community. The organizer has found success managing campaigns and building coalitions. Most recently, she led the Invest in Our New York Campaign that raised taxes on New York’s wealthiest individuals. Despite the short time frame and scant resources, Bailin led a diverse coalition of 170 organizations statewide that secured a change in the tax code that could provide the state an extra $3 billion a year.
The campaign to tax the rich had been underway for years, but Bailin says that conditions were ripe this year due to the coronavirus-battered economy, a weakened governor, a more progressive Assembly (bolstered by the Working Families Party and Democratic Socialists of America) and a compelling message.
“Unlike other years, we were able to put together a really articulate, inspiring campaign that allowed for so many people to get involved in a way that they didn't really feel like they could before,” she says.
The campaign is over, but Bailin – whose decadelong experience includes securing reduced transit fares with the Fair Fares campaign and leading a coalition that won congestion pricing legislation – plans to continue in this kind of advocacy.
“I'm hoping to continue to use the experiences that I've had over the last decade to help and advise other folks,” she says. “I would love to continue contributing, working to different degrees on economic and social justice. There's a lot to be done still.”
Marlon Balogh’s work motto can be summed up simply: “The numbers don’t lie, people do.”
Balogh is a forensic accountant and a fraud examiner who recently began working for the international consulting firm Guidehouse. Balogh’s expertise is centered around analyzing various source documents, and then summarizing the information in an accessible language for judges, juries and attorneys.
“My day to day consists of analyzing financial statements and support, bank and brokerage statements, loan/mortgage applications, in order to trace the money trail and determine if indicia of fraud exists and how funds were utilized,” Balogh explains. “We tend to either find indicia of fraud or are able to clarify confusion surrounding financials or clear someone’s name.”
Balogh stayed in his hometown for college, enrolling at SUNY Albany, where he obtained a bachelor’s degree in accounting and a master’s degree in forensic accounting. After a few years as a tax specialist, he joined Marks Paneth in 2016. At that firm, he led various teams to detect fraud, and helped clients deter fraud through remediation of internal control weakness. In a few cases, he was able to determine the innocence of clients charged with larceny and embezzlement – like a famous New York City developer who was falsely accused simply due to poor accounting and bookkeeping. Whether he’s working on a small or a high-profile case, Balogh’s priority at Guidehouse is to protect his clients.
“I find this type of work very rewarding,” he says. “It’s definitely necessary for today’s world.”
For Katie Birchenough, an associate attorney at Greenberg Traurig, no two days are the same. For Birchenough, who specializes in complex commercial litigation, governmental law and policy affairs, handling a wide range of issues allows her to “think outside the box” and devise “a variety of creative solutions” when advising clients.
Birchenough hadn’t always intended on becoming a lawyer. After graduating from SUNY Albany, she landed a position as a legislative analyst with the Assembly, working with the Social Service Committee, the Children and Families Committee, and the Mental Health Committee. Birchenough was the lead negotiator and drafter for the Protection of People with Special Needs Act, among multiple important pieces of legislation she helped write.
“It was neat to be there at that time because we were able to push for reform of an entire system,” she says. “But eventually, individual people would come up to tell me that they needed legislation or a new bill passed. And I would tell them, ‘There’s already laws on the books, you need an advocate.’ I realized that I didn't have the ability to do that because I wasn't an attorney. So I made the decision to go to law school.”
Birchenough obtained her degree at Albany Law School, and then joined Greenberg Traurig in 2019. Over the past 18 months, she has continued to advocate for clients despite the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It has really highlighted and reassured that foundational advocacy role that I’ve always had,” she says.
When he was a junior in high school, Michael Blaustein bumped into then-New York City Council Member Alan Gerson at a community event and asked for a summer internship. A few months later, Blaustein was working at the lawmaker’s office.
“That’s where I really learned, from the ground up, what it meant to be an elected official at the intersection of community work and policy,” Blaustein says.
Since that first stint in politics, Blaustein’s negotiating skills have grown sharper and more sophisticated. The Manhattan native gained substantial experience working at the state Senate and for the public affairs firm Kivvit. In 2016, Blaustein joined the Partnership for New York City – a nonprofit organization dedicated to mobilizing the city’s business community and its resources – where he spearheads policy strategy as vice president of governmental affairs. Blaustein coordinates with city and state agencies as well as businesses and advocacy groups, creating coalitions like the one that pushed successfully for a congestion pricing plan.
Since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, Blaustein’s team has worked with the state Legislature and the governor’s office to support struggling businesses – and launched the Small Business Resource Network, connecting business owners to curated public and private resources they need to survive losses and prosper in a post-pandemic economy.
“It’s a real pleasure to serve as a liaison between governmental entities and the memberships to ensure that the economy moves forward,” he says. “You can't have a recovery unless you have businesses succeeding from top to bottom.”
As a student volunteer at the University of Scranton’s Women’s Center, Elizabeth Brady says she was “kind of an oddball” – willing to discuss sexual assault and violence when no one else was. Since then, Brady has educated thousands of people about sexual violence and raised millions of dollars for prevention.
In 2017, she took a job supervising sexual violence prevention efforts at the ARRIVE Center – the Center for Advanced Research in Reducing the Impact of Violence in Education – at the State University of New York. Brady oversees multiple programs across SUNY that have provided critical resources to nearly 120,000 survivors of violence. She also created Spectrum, the nation’s largest conference on violence against LGBTQIA+ people.
“My goal is to ultimately be unemployable,” she says. “I want there to be no reason for someone like me, with this title, to have to exist. Every time we’re able to start a new program or fund a new initiative, it’s helpful to think about that goal.”
Over the years, Brady has seen a marked shift in people openly discussing sexual harassment and violence. But there’s more to be done.
“The #MeToo movement has brought this issue into popular conversation,” she says. “Conversations are now happening at the dinner table, in conference rooms, in boardrooms and on the news. That’s great. But I hope that we start centering the margin, recognizing that Black women and women of color have been leaders in this movement, and that trans women are impacted by sexual violence.”
Tom Briggs has always gravitated toward public service, but he was flexible about working in the public or private sector. After more than five years as a state Senate staffer, he joined KPMG – a multinational firm offering audit, tax and financial advisory services.
“While working directly in government for the state Senate, I was on the ground floor helping develop and implement legislation,” he says. “But now in the private sector with KPMG, I get to see policy enacted, come to fruition. Having both of those experiences has been extremely rewarding.”
Born in Johnson City, New York, Briggs went on to study political science at SUNY Albany. During his senior year, he landed an internship at the state Senate. The internship catapulted him into the world of local politics as he worked on policy development, provided counsel on legislative proposals and built partnerships to pass bills.
Building on his legislative experience, Briggs joined KPMG in 2013. Since then, he has predominantly served clients in the health and human services sector. He has helped modernize business processes and technology systems that support programs like Medicaid, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, and the Integrated Eligibility System. While the work is challenging, Briggs finds it gratifying.
“In those times of frustration, I always like to remind myself and my team that these systems are going to benefit millions of New Yorkers and make sure that they’re lives are going to be improved,” he says. “That’s really what keeps me going.”
Born in Rochester and raised both within the city and in its suburbs, state Sen. Samra Brouk gained an early insight into economic and educational disparities. The lawmaker, who assumed office in January, has made it her priority to address these issues.
“I held so many identities: a daughter of an immigrant, a daughter of a teacher, a young Black girl in a majority white school, a girl from the city who went to school in the suburbs,” she says. “I think it gave me humility. It forces you to listen to others around you, and let them guide you in terms of what they need.”
Public service has been a throughline for Brouk. Before taking office, she was a Peace Corps volunteer in Guatemala, spent a decade working in various nonprofit organizations and taught at New York University’s Graduate School of Public Service. Since taking office, the state Senate Mental Health Committee chair has focused on addressing the entrenched inequities in the state’s economic, educational and health care systems, which have been highlighted during the COVID-19 pandemic. With the legislative session over, Brouk now plans to reconnect with her constituents.
“I got into this work to serve people,” she says. “And in some ways, it was the perfect time to get into the work. I came here wanting to be a part of the solution. So I want to use this time to report back on all the things that I’ve done, and be able to hear people’s feedback.”
Shanna Cassidy has spent almost her entire professional career in the state Senate, and has no intention of leaving.
“I love the Senate,” she says. “It's such a nice, big family.”
Born and raised in Albany, Cassidy grew up in a large family heavily involved in politics, and at the age of 18, she joined the state Senate Personnel Office as a benefits assistant. Since then, Cassidy has risen through the ranks. She served as then-state Sen. Jeff Klein’s director of scheduling, a confidential assistant to the Office of General Services and a clerk at the state Senate Committee on Aging before joining the Racing, Gaming and Wagering Committee, where she is now the director.
It’s been an intense year for Cassidy, who worked tirelessly alongside state Sen. Joseph Addabbo Jr. to pass legislation that protects casino workers, supports those with gambling addictions and funds education across the state. And after years of delay, many late nights and difficult negotiations, mobile sports betting was legalized in New York as part of the latest state budget. Although there were many variables, Cassidy believes it was the economic downturn caused by the COVID-19 pandemic that cleared the path for legal mobile sports betting.
“I really think it was the virus,” she says. “Because of COVID-19, we’re in so much debt. The governor had his own issues with it, but I think he finally came around once he really looked into it and realized that most of that funding will go towards education.”
Extensive experience as a legal clerk, as a journalist and more than a decade with the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce have served as a strong foundation for Melissa Chapman, who is now a government relations specialist at Davidoff Hutcher & Citron – a multifaceted law firm that handles legal and government relations matters. Although she didn’t have much direct experience in the field, when the opportunity arose she seized it.
“My style has always been: I’ll throw my hat in the ring,” she says.
Born and raised in Guyana, Chapman was certain she would pursue a career based in the natural sciences until she landed an internship in public relations and marketing. The experience “sparked a fire,” and convinced her to pursue a career in public affairs. Since moving to New York in 2006, Chapman – who holds degrees in communications from the University of Guyana and the City University of New York’s Brooklyn College – has worked on budget, policy, regulatory and legislative matters for various nonprofit and private entities. Since joining Davidoff Hutcher & Citron in 2019, she has primarily focused on nonprofit clients seeking funding and weighing in on legislation at all levels of government.
“Since starting in 2019,” Chapman says, “my proudest moment is not just focusing on one nonprofit issue, but multiple nonprofit issues, leading several interactions so that funding is allocated to our clients, and knowing that they then had what was needed to be able to provide the outstanding services they (offer) to the most vulnerable New Yorkers.”
State Sen. Jeremy Cooney credits his Rochester upbringing as the impetus behind his pursuit of a career in politics.
“When you’re raised by a single mom, the community helps raise you,” he says. “Running for office gave me the opportunity to give back to the community that helped raise me.”
As a graduate from the Rochester school district – one of the most under-resourced in the country – Cooney set aside his dream of becoming a pediatrician and instead transitioned into a public health policy focus in college. He went on to graduate from Albany Law School, and gained valuable government experience assisting then-Rep. Louise Slaughter on Capitol Hill. He then later served as Rochester Mayor Lovely Warren’s chief of staff.
Cooney, who was sworn in as a state senator in January, has unsurprisingly made affordable health care and equitable public education two of his policy pillars. Describing it as a “pivotal moment of (his) first six months in office” and a “tremendous opportunity,” Cooney helped pass a $475 million Rochester School Modernization Program measure that will update facilities and create an estimated 7,000 jobs over the next few years for his old school district.
With the legislative session over, Cooney is using the next few months to focus on his anti-poverty agenda – a package of bills complementing the federal COVID-19 pandemic stimulus investments.
“This is how we can create a stronger, more vibrant New York, not just for now,” he says, “not just in the post-pandemic world, but for future generations of New Yorkers.”
Almost a decade ago, Adam Davis was a new middle school science teacher and was struck by all the challenges his students faced outside the classroom. So he became a teacher member of Educators for Excellence – a growing movement of more than 30,000 educators that strives to include teachers in policymaking. Now, he’s the organization’s managing director of external affairs for New York, where he identifies policy solutions and advocates for their implementation.
When Davis was an undergraduate student at Occidental College studying sociology,the Massachusetts native discovered his passion for education and the urgent need to close the opportunity gap while serving as a tutor at nearby schools. After college, Davis spent several years teaching, and during that period he realized how important policy reforms were for addressing pervasive inequities in education.
He was introduced to the world of New York politics through a staff position in the office of Assembly Member Robert Rodriguez in 2015 before joining Educators for Excellence as an employee a year later. Davis has since pushed for policies that advance teacher diversity, tackle disparities that affect students of color, address student mental health and secure adequate funding, especially as the state recovers from the COVID-19 pandemic.
“There’s so many resources coming to New York right now,” he says. “It’s important to make sure that nobody is missing out on these resources, that we’re not just making up for lost time, but that we’re using this as an opportunity for real change.”
Kristin Duffy got her first job in the state Capitol when she joined then-state Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno’s office straight out of college – and she was hooked.
“That was my first insight into constituent relations,” she says. “It got me really interested in how policy is made.”
Since that time, Duffy has gone on to obtain a master’s degree in public administration from Syracuse University. She then garnered more than 15 years of legislative experience at organizations such as the New York State Nurses Association and the Nurse-Family Partnership. Most recently, Duffy joined AT&T in 2019 as the telecommunications giant’s external and legislative affairs director for the Eastern New York region. Her days are spent meeting with lawmakers, evaluating how proposed legislation would impact the telecommunications industry and keeping tabs on everything that goes on at the Federal Communications Commission. Over the past year and a half, Duffy has also spent a lot of time thinking about the effects of the coronavirus pandemic on the industry.
“I heard from many lawmakers,” she says. “‘I have a constituent in my district who doesn't have connectivity, (they) can't get online. They’re sitting in the parking lot of the library just so they can connect.’ (The pandemic) has definitely proved that internet and phone connectivity are just like your heat and your water. So we've been doing a lot in New York state, but then also nationally to help bridge this digital divide.”
Antwaun Gavins always longed to be an advocate for the voiceless. As the state’s assistant attorney general, he gets to do that on a daily basis.
“I don't want to be on a conveyor belt, pushing people through this criminal justice system,” Gavins says. “I wanted to bring meaningful advocacy to law, and stand up for people who don’t have a voice.”
As a New Yorker who has lived in every borough except Manhattan, Gavins embarked on a career of public service early in life: He joined the office of the Staten Island borough president as a senior in high school, and worked there while studying at CUNY’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice. Since then, Gavins has worked at the state Senate and on a few political campaigns, including state Attorney General Letitia James’ bid for New York City public advocate in 2013. After completing his studies at Touro Law Center, he joined then-Public Advocate James as assistant deputy counsel, and later followed her when she was elected state attorney general in 2018. Gavins says he’s proud to be working for someone as passionate about a fair and just New York as James.
Over the last three years, Gavins has focused on litigation, representing state agencies and working with state-run psychiatric centers. Most recently, he has provided essential assistance during the coronavirus pandemic, working tirelessly to deliver justice to all New Yorkers.
“Justice can’t be delayed for people,” he says. “People deserve their day in court.”
Nathanial Gray’s unpleasant experiences growing up in the small town of Greenfield, Ohio, motivates his work today at the state Office of Children and Family Services. As an inaugural Edie Windsor, Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera Empire Fellow, Gray focuses on LGBTQ youth, social justice, inclusivity and allyship.
“Almost everything I do in my career now is a direct attempt at making sure no gay boy grows up the way that I did,” he says.
As a former musical theater performer and professional drag queen, Gray has a plethora of personal and professional experiences. But it wasn’t until he became a music school teacher that Gray realized he loved working with kids – a defining moment that led him to obtain a master’s degree in social work from Fordham University.
Gray has since devoted his energies to advocacy. In 2017, he founded The Proud Path, an organization that supports families and teachers tending to LGBTQ youth. While he continues to offer these services, Gray now also helps devise policy at OCFS, which has offered him a permanent position to oversee diversity initiatives. The office is soon releasing much of what he’s been working on during the fellowship – a practice model that would ensure government services are affirming of people’s queer identities.
“The purpose of this model is to establish outcomes that are affirming and inclusive, that people have ongoing training, that spaces are safe and that we are culturally responsive,” Gray says.
A fourth-generation union man, Michael Grubiak had an upbringing that fueled his interest in organizing.
“It actually goes all the way back to my great grandfather who came to this country with nothing, and became a Teamster in New York City back in the 1880s,” he says.
Grubiak got his own start in politics at the University of Delaware as an intern for Joe Biden’s 2008 presidential campaign. The experience showed him the importance of direct face-to-face organizing for working-class voters.
Next he worked for the state Senate as a district representative and as director of communications in Rockland and Westchester counties. In 2015, he landed with the New York State United Teachers.
As the influential union’s first senior regional political organizer, Grubiak supports pro-public education candidates and educates local elected officials on the importance of unions. He leads the team in mobilizing NYSUT members to run for office through the union’s Pipeline Project. During the coronavirus pandemic, he sought to ensure students received fresh meals and made certain all public school professionals were safe.
“We took over with the state, working with the Department of Health to outline what reopening would actually look like within our school buildings, and that trickled down locally where we worked with the county department of health to specifically define what that guidance would look like,” he says. “Of course it’s been a really difficult year, but when you organize within a union you view it as a family.”
For Bill Gustafson, the proudest moments in political strategizing are when rank-and-file union members get involved in the political process.
“It’s really the union pride and seeing pro-labor candidates get elected that makes this job so rewarding,” Gustafson says. “Sometimes it’s about just standing up and saying, ‘Enough is enough, we're going to fight for these issues ourselves.’”
As a political coordinator at the Civil Service Employees Association, Gustafson brings nearly five years of experience working for the Assembly. In one role as regional communications coordinator, he developed and executed multiple strategic communication plans for sitting lawmakers.
Driven both by the competitiveness of campaigns and the idealism of public service, Gustafson served as campaign manager for Assembly Member Didi Barrett – and on her governmental team as chief of staff – before signing on with CSEA Local 1000.
Gustafson now spends most of his time communicating with politicians and stakeholders, andeducating a diverse body of union members by breaking down the budget and recapping the union’s activities.
The union’s leaders, who spent the past year fighting for the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021, worked tirelessly to secure state and local funding for New York, according to Gustafson.
“Over the past year, when everything that could’ve gone wrong did, it made all the difference when members would call, wanting to get involved for the first time because they really believe it’s the right thing to do,” he says. “That’s what keeps me coming back.”
Carrie Harring always knew that she wanted to pursue a career in the public health sector.
“Patient access, equitable treatment and the commitment to being an advocate are central to who I am and align with my values,” she says. “I always knew that I wanted to do something that involved helping people.”
Harring, who is just 26 years old, works to represent a range of clients at Hodes & Landy, an Albany-based public affairs firm.
Before working her way up to her position as senior legislative associate at Hodes & Landy, she was an Excelsior Fellow at the state Office for People with Developmental Disabilities. Harring also earned her stripes in public health advocacy working for the Medical Society of the State of New York, where she lobbied for the passage of major public health laws, including raising the legal purchasing age for tobacco to 21. She says that through her work at the Medical Society, she learned “what it meant to be both proactive and reactive” while trying to persuade state lawmakers and seeking to effect change.
With executive orders and regulations constantly changing over the past year in New York thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, Harring says the public health crisis reminded her that the fight for a stronger state achieved through policy reforms is very much alive.
“We really worked to help guide the clients through uncharted territory by relying on foundational resources, knowledge and relationships so that they could still operate,” she says.
As the daughter of former Rep. Maurice Hinchey, Michelle Hinchey recalls spending weekends driving across the late representative’s district to meet constituents and attend meetings.
“School shopping would take two to three hours because we would stop and talk to every person who approached us,” she recalls fondly. “I heard all stories from every age, and it really shaped my worldview and understanding of what’s important to everyday working people.”
The younger Hinchey got her start in politics as a grassroots canvasser before switching gears to work in media and technology companies prior to running for senator.
Her work as a lawmaker changes dramatically with each day, says Hinchey, who took office in January. After running for office during COVID-19, she’s looking forward to more face-to-face community outreach, but is proud of the team’s remote efforts.
“For a district like ours, representing five different counties in three regions has been a little easier because we’ve been able to be in three counties at once through Zoom meetings, which I’m grateful for,” she says.
Hinchey is particularly proud of the passage of a bill she introduced that makes Nourish New York, a farm-to-food bank initiative to aid food insecure individuals, a permanent program. The state Legislature also recently approved a bill co-sponsored by Hinchey that’s slated to make internet service more accessible to rural communities.
As for future plans, Hinchey says she’s “not here to climb the political ladder,” and was elected into office to best represent her community.
Francesca Huttle hails from a long line of politicians – her father was a mayor, her mother a state legislator – but behind-the-scenes work and digging into the nitty-gritty of policymaking is more her speed.
“I found myself really interested in the back scenes of figuring out campaign strategies, which really led me into public affairs,” she says. “I like that the one constant in my days is really digging into data to make sure we’re achieving messages.”
Before joining Kivvit, Huttle gained experience working as a communications intern for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential run. She started out at Kivvit as a public affairs trainee in 2017, and worked her way from associate to senior associate. In her current role as principal, she specializes in campaign management, grassroots advocacy, public affairs and digital campaigns.
Engaged with a variety of clients across the labor, corporate and nonprofit sectors, Huttle is laser-focused on fulfilling her client’s campaigns through strategic messaging and precise digital targeting.
While doing lots of digital campaigning, Huttle helped issue a white paper during the earliest days of the coronavirus pandemic that showed just how heavily people rely on social media and streaming services to receive information.
“Our sector really specializes in digital campaigns and so it was all about communicating in the best way possible in the pandemic, and I’m proud to say that it’s really thrived,” she says. “More of our traditional clients have tried to integrate our digital strategies after this year and it’s great to be a part of that.”
Some people get their start in politics by phone-banking or knocking on doors. For Jason Kaplan, it was driving U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer around the nation’s capital.
After interning for Schumer’s office in high school, a young Kaplan served as an assistant to the Senate minority leader before becoming his right-hand man and press secretary for more than three years.
“People think of politics as this big thing that’s national and monumental, and it’s not,” he says. “Politics is very much local, and being responsible for running Schumer’s 62-county tour really showed me that.”
After graduating from Schumer school, Kaplan moved back home to work at SKDK, where as vice president he worked on issues ranging from congestion pricing to community care. Currently, as senior vice president, he’s focused on parole reform, among other issues. Throughout the past year, he has also collaborated with Mount Sinai Health System to run its crisis support efforts during the coronavirus pandemic.
Before the pandemic, Kaplan says he could be found taking conference calls from his makeshift office – the Amtrak train bathroom. Despite the ongoing challenges of remote work, he says his interactions with clients have only improved.
“My free time is between 5:30 and 7:30 a.m., where I catch up on the news before I talk to any of my clients,” he says. “Chuck instilled this in me. If you want to be successful, you have to be the first one up in the morning and last one to go to bed at night.”
As a liaison to departments of education across multiple states with a focus on New York, Adam Katz has been busier than ever in the fight to keep education afloat during the coronavirus pandemic.
“Scheduling-wise, I had to figure out what the state really needed and to keep things as simple as possible in a time of crisis,” he says. “ I try to make every government program as turnkey as possible for the schools. (They) know when they call me, I’m going to solve their problems.”
Earlier in his career, as a research assistant at the Dukakis Center for Urban and Regional Policy, Katz advised on economic development, housing, transit and land use, acquiring a deep understanding of how municipalities operate.
He also published a book, and founded a real estate advisory firm in between serving as treasurer on the board of directors at an economic development nonprofit in Brooklyn.
Currently at Teach Coalition, Katz finds himself at the intersection of consulting and managing. When he’s not working with executive directors, he’s creating resources and training staff to help around 100 schools navigate government programs.
He’s also passionate about creating a more affordable private education system.
“People say there’s no solution to the high cost of tuition, and we’re proving those people wrong,” he says. “My children go to these schools that we’re helping become more cost-effective, so I see the impact firsthand when I get the bills in the mail. I’m working to solve these problems.”
As the state Senate Republican Conference’s policy director, Kyle Ketcham advises GOP incumbents on a range of policy issues, from the environment to employment and small business to public safety and policing.
“I’m a big believer in criminal justice reform – to fix what’s broken and to strengthen what works,” he says. “I believe that we over-incarcerate and we have systems that aren’t beneficial to marginalized communities – but when we start talking about defunding and disempowering police, I think that we put those same communities at risk. People don't want the status quo, but they also don’t want radical change.”
Ketcham’s passionate about immigration too. “Illegal immigration is a problem,” he says, but maintains that the country needs a system to reward people wanting to start a better life.
Earlier in his career, Ketcham served as a press coordinator for the Assembly after college. He then spent nearly six years at the Assembly’s office of research and program development, primarily focused on education issues. He also was policy director for Dutchess County Executive Marc Molinaro, a bright spot in New York’s waning Republican Party. Despite ongoing GOP losses in the state Legislature, Ketcham says an overarching goal remains for individual lawmakers – serving a district and its constituents.
“There is a certain freedom with being the minority,” he says. “You’re not always placating people, which is what people in the majority are often doing, when it’s really about presenting a rationalwell-thought-out policy agenda that’s focused on improving the day-to-day lives of all New Yorkers.”
Though Assembly Member Zohran Mamdani’s first foray into politics was organizing in support of Palestine, the first-term lawmaker started on that path at home.
“My father was always deeply entrenched in the anti-colonial fight,” he says. “There was a point where my family were refugees, expelled in Uganda, so caring about politics hasn’t been optional in my life.”
After co-founding Bowdoin College’s chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine, Mamdani went on to work across the country. He organized on behalf of U.S. Senate campaigns, worked with fellow progressives and advocated for the Affordable Care Act.
While working as a foreclosure-prevention housing counselor led him to run for public office, it was joining Palestinian community organizer Khader El-Yateem’s campaign for New York City Council that helped Mamdani come into his own.
“I didn’t see a place for me in local politics because my politics were rooted in the fight for Palestinian liberation, and so many others who’ve done that work have been blacklisted,” he says. “Working on his campaign showed me that I could be all of the different parts of myself, fighting against corrupt real estate developers and conflicts abroad.”
Housing the Astoria Food Pantry out of his office, Mamdani ran on a platform of housing and criminal justice reforms – issues he says were brought directly to the surface during the coronavirus pandemic. Currently, he’s advocating for his Clean Futures Act, which would prohibit the development of any new major electric-generating facilities powered by fossil fuels.
After majoring in communications in college, Lester Marks made a pivot into law and politics – and then into nonprofits.
After volunteering on political campaigns, and interning and serving as a constituent representative in the Rockland County Legislature, Marks worked as deputy chief of staff in the New York City Council. This is where he developed legislative and policy agenda, handled budgetary matters and established an operational structure. He then spent over a decade in leadership roles at Lighthouse Guild, a nonprofit dedicated to helping people who are visually impaired, while earning a law degree on the side.
These experiences brought him to Kasirer, New York City’s top lobbying firm by revenue. He came on in 2019, and served as associate vice president for a year before assuming his current role as vice president of nonprofits.
“We work with clients to develop a 12-month strategic plan that tries to accomplish their goals, whether it’s budget, policy or building relationships,” he says. “We’re really trying to unpack issues that have recently arisen, and trying to navigate clients through the politics of what’s happening in New York City and New York state.”
Marks says that the coronavirus pandemic has reminded him of the importance of communicating with his clients.
“They have tremendous stories, and they keep us centered and focused on what we need to do,” Marks says. “Given where we are with the political season, it’s about making sure that our client sector is really positioned in a strong way, and working to advance that has been the critical piece here.”
After securing a state legislative job during the depths of the Great Recession, Ashton Matyi soon found herself working in a state Capitol in chaos during the infamous state Senate coup of 2009.
“Candidly, I knew nothing about New York state government or the impact it had on people’s lives every day, but I definitely had ants in my pants,” Matyi says. “2009 was my first session. Twelve years … you don’t think you'll be doing this 12 years later at 34.”
Matyi started her career working as a legislative aide to Assembly Member Susan John and then as community relations representative for Assembly Member Joan Millman, whom she credits much of her political know-how to.
Her experience lobbying at the Retail Council of New York State and as a legislative representative for District Council 37 – New York City’s largest public employee union – prepared her to take on a leadership role at Ostroff three years ago.
Between conducting case presentations and intensive research, Mayti says she longs for “the personal touch” of face-to-face communication. She says that this concept feels foreign in the coronavirus pandemic, but describes it as the heart of the job, especially during the legislative session.
“On one hand you actually get a lot done being at your desk all day, but it’s really about making those important introductions and we’re just not getting those in the same capacity on Zoom,” she says. “It’s really the forward motion that keeps me motivated, so I'm hopeful we’ll be seeing people in person this fall.”
From her days as an undergraduate at Notre Dame to her time spent on advocacy campaigns in Portland and New Hampshire, Michelle McCarthy went wherever the political winds or the latest PR campaign took her. But eventually, she returned home to New York’s state capital.
“I came back to Albany to be closer to my family, and I wound up in a place where there’s no shortage of political excitement,” she says. “Albany politics is such a unique place to work in – I just never want to leave.”
McCarthy, who places opinion editorials and organizes events across the state, has experience on multiple issue campaigns. The work has prepared her for her current role at J Strategies, where she specializes in what she calls alliance development, or the process of bringing people together to form meaningful relationships. She emphasizes that there’s no average day, nor a singular route, to making these important connections.
“One day I’m traveling to meet up with a client, or tailoring someone’s communication strategy, the next I might be outside of the Capitol with a group of advocates,” she says. “It can really change.”
Amid the day-to-day grind, a long-standing passion for voting rights remains close to McCarthy’s work.
“This is a big theme in my life,” she says. “Making connections so that people can make their voices heard as part of the democratic process. With my experience and with these campaigns in different places, whenever you're trying to achieve an advocacy goal, it’s ultimately shaped by the politics you’re in.”
The child of Guyanese immigrants, Candice Prince-Modeste grew up paying attention to political issues, since her father was an outspoken political critic.
“Every evening he’d read the paper … and he’d sit and comment about everything,” she says.
In college, while interning for Rep. Gregory Meeks, Prince-Modeste was encouraged to start helping out at the local NAACP branch in Jamaica, Queens. There she was provided with a rich education in civic engagement, attending regional meetings and national conferences.
After years of commitment to the branch, she was sworn in as its president in 2019. Prince-Modeste’s top priority this year has been to educate voters on voting in the June 22 primary, the first time ranked-choice voting has been implemented citywide. She sought to ensure people were registered to vote and able to locate their local polling sites. Most importantly, she believes that there has been a lack of understanding of ranked-choice voting that she addressed with “get out the vote” efforts to voters who are less politically engaged. She also organized a number of workshops and meetings around ranked-choice voting for community members.
Prince-Modeste is also active in the community as a founding member of the South Queens Women’s March, which provides personal care items to local women. She also runs Modeste Business Solutions, a support services company for groups in the political space. In addition, she finds time to mentor NAACP youth leaders, hoping to be a guide to them as her father was for her.
Sarah Ravenhall has her finger on the pulse of public health. As the leader of the New York State Association of County Health Officials, she represents all 58 local health departments, their directors and staff.
“We do a lot of technical assistance in training, advocacy and shaping policy,” she says. “We’re really focused on the current and future health issues that are going to be impacting public health operations.”
After studying community health and psychology at Hofstra University, Ravenhall earned a master’s degree in health care administration. During her graduate studies, she worked at The Diabetes and Obesity Institute at NYU Winthrop Hospital – a deeply personal cause as a Type 1 diabetic. She then worked with local health departments on Long Island, directing community needs assessment and managing the budget at the Suburban Hospital Alliance of New York.
Ravenhall has confronted myriad public health crises – from Zika virus and Ebola to the dangers of tobacco and vaping – and they prepared her for COVID-19, the worst public health crisis in generations.
As a liaison between the state Department of Health and the association's members, she’s committed to bringing awareness to policymakers about the importance of public health and why it’s worth investing in, especially amid scrutiny and skepticism caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
“These people are working astronomically over hours, and are so committed to health equity and community access to testing and vaccines,” she says. “It’s been such an honor to represent them during the pandemic response.”
As the oldest of three children with a single immigrant mother, Jamie Reyes says her family’s struggles are what drove her interest in government work.
“Through the initial hardships of my childhood, I really saw the value of these systems and how they helped families like mine, and I knew I wanted to be a part of that,” she says. “As a CUNY graduate, I take special pride in giving back to the institution that has given me so much.”
As director of the City University of New York’s first-ever Office of Risk, Audit and Compliance, Reyes runs a tight ship as she ensures schools are accountable and in compliance with laws and regulations that prioritize students’ best interests.
Her job requires constant communication with different constituencies to help guide the planning and development of initiatives such as computer-use policies and programs dedicated to combating sexual misconduct.
“I truly love building bridges,'' she says. “Just designing that win-win outcome across teams is something that keeps me going every day.”
Prior to her time at CUNY, the former New York State Excelsior fellow helped preserve and protect more than 80,000 rent-regulated apartments while working at state Homes and Community Renewal. She also brings experience from the New York City sanitation and education departments, where she built the foundation of her skills in risk management.
Reyes says despite difficulties brought on by the coronavirus pandemic, the city’s sprawling higher education system has plenty of achievements, and developed solutions to university-wide financial aid challenges.
Jovan Richards spent his college days studying film and video, but his head was somewhere else on nights and weekends – learning the ins and outs of local politics.
“You don't have to study political science to become a change-maker,” he says. “When you’re passionate about something, you get up and do what you have to do.”
For Richards, this means clocking into his 9-to-5 with the New York State Society of CPAs, followed by hours of extracurricular work spent leading the New York State Young Democrats.
“The young Dems are either your fiercest ally or toughest competitor,” says Richards, who’s working tirelessly to bolster youth participation in the political process. He’s leading the team in conversation with state leaders and has advocated on a slew of legislative measures, most notably reversing the prohibition on recreational cannabis.
At the Society of CPAs, Richards manages the organization’s media presence, monitors the legislative agenda and seeks to ensure that there’s a clear pipeline for people of color and underrepresented groups to thrive in the profession.
Though the past year’s Zoom fatigue has him eager to return to in-person meetings, he stressed the importance of direct communication and the opportunity to persuade enough lawmakers to vote to pass a bill.
“It’s still about meeting people where they are,” he says. “It’s pushing the envelope that young people are the biggest and most important building block, and advocating on behalf of an industry that’s growing and learning to be more diverse that keeps me excited in the day to day.”
A childhood spent in Buffalo’s Latino community proved to be inspirational for Assembly Member Jonathan Rivera. Thanks to his parents – his father who is a police officer, and mother who is a teacher deeply involved in community work in Buffalo – Rivera grew up immersed in politics, and developed a deep understanding of the needs of his community.
Rivera initially pursued a career in banking, but then drifted back into political work, taking on various positions in local government. A key role of his was being an administrator at the Erie County Department of Public Works, an experience that greatly informs his work in office.
“As a nation, but especially as an aging region like the one I’m from,” Rivera says. “Infrastructure investment is always a big issue. It informed me to see the correlation between the economic benefit of construction work, and the opportunity to employ people.”
Currently, the lawmaker is working toward creating legislation that would tackle issues around lead paint in older buildings and homes in his district and a lack of investment in them. He also hopes to work on food insecurity issues.
Rivera cites one of his biggest legislative accomplishments as being his successful push for more refugee resettlement funding during budget negotiations this cycle, and increasing funding for related organizations to $3 million, up from $1 million. He hopes to continue this economic focus in his future work.
“Next year our focus is going to be, what are we doing to not just stabilize our economy but to build it up,” Rivera says.
Activism began at a young age for Brian Romero. After coming out as queer, Romero began a Gay-Straight Alliance during his high school years. Through his nascent activism, he eventually went on to secure an internship in the New York City Council, and earned a master’s degree in social work. Romero became deeply ingrained in Queens politics. He met Assembly Member Jessica González-Rojas, which blossomed into a deeper professional relationship when she asked Romero to assume the position of her chief of staff.
As González-Rojas’ right-hand man, Romero is key in carrying out her office’s legislative priorities, and encourages her to build relationships across the political spectrum within the Assembly.
“She has built relationships with a lot of the progressives and leftists and other socialists in the conference,” Romero says. “I think what has been great is recognizing that if she was going to take on really tough issues and controversial bills in the future, she would need to build relationships across various (groups).”
Romero can cite accomplishments he has achieved outside of his state legislative work as well. While working at Gay Men’s Health Crisis, he was a huge advocate for the push to repeal the “walking while trans” ban, an effort designed to support sex workers, and he considers the success of the repeal to be one of his greatest achievements.
“To know that it came to fruition … was a big moment for me,” Romero says.
As a key member of the government affairs team at Columbia University, Tricia Shimamura has confronted some of New York’s biggest challenges. She recently oversaw a civic engagement project in which she reached out to students across the world who were displaced by COVID-19. She provided them with absentee ballot information to help them vote in the 2020 presidential election. She also has supported projects related to vaccination efforts and assisting immigrant students.
Prior to her work at Columbia University, Shimamura was the deputy chief of staff for Rep. Carolyn Maloney, a role in which she monitored local projects such as the Second Avenue Subway and the maintenance of the East River Esplanade. In this role, Shimamura fell in love with the Upper East Side, which she hoped to represent in elected office herself. She has also held roles with Manhattan Community Board 8, the Mayor’s Interagency Task Force to Truancy and Absenteeism and founded the civic organization She Will Rise.
This year, as a candidate running to replace outgoing City Council Member Ben Kallos of the Upper East Side, Shimamura brought a rare perspective as a woman of Japanese and Puerto Rican descent. Despite her strong background in social services and nonprofits, Shimamura is trailing in second place in the pivotal Democratic primary, and recently conceded that she hadn’t secured enough votes.
“This is my neighborhood,” Shimamura says. “I’m not going anywhere. I love what I am doing now at Columbia … and I’m going to continue to be an advocate.”
As a child, Eddie Taveras dreamed of becoming an attorney. This interest led him, as he grew older, to flirt with various law-adjacent job positions, including a particularly impactful political affairs internship at Planned Parenthood.
“It was a great experience, but I noticed everyone was very white,'' Taveras recalls. “I didn't see enough people that looked like me in that room. The more I got involved in … activist type things, the leadership always (seemed) to be white.”
Galvanized by these observations, Taveras pursued more political work, and supported numerous campaigns before he started at FWD.us. Previously he served as a political aide for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign, as well as the finance director for Jenny Wilson’s U.S. Senate campaign in Utah.
In his current position at FWD.us, Taveras is a key player in forming the organization’s immigration policy agenda. As someone whose grandmother was an undocumented immigrant, Taveras has a personal stake in the work. He has been invaluable in the successful effort to pass the New York HERO Act to establish coronavirus-era workplace safety standards. He also was victorious in pushing for “Green Light” law, which paved the way for undocumented New Yorkers to obtain a driver's license. Currently, Taveras has led the charge to support a path to citizenship for 11 million undocumented immigrants, calling for support of the DREAM Act. He also hopes to continue to work on the long-term goal of preventing U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and U.S. Customs and Border Protection from separating families without a judicial warrant.
A few years before the rise of the #MeToo movement, Erica Vladimer accused then-state Sen. Jeff Klein of sexual harassment during her time working for the Independent Democratic Conference. The moment became a sort of cultural reckoning in Albany as lessons to be learned on a national level began to hit home for many in a state capital where political developments reverberate not only across the state, but the country.
Since then, Vladimer has continued to influence New York politics while still combatting sexual harassment. She went on to become a co-founder of the Sexual Harassment Working Group, which has been advocating for legislative changes in Albany, and is also pushing for public hearings in a reformed ethics and accountability body that would replace the Joint Commission on Public Ethics.
Vladimer herself is still embroiled in her struggle against Klein, who has denied the allegation and is still seeking dismissal of her sexual harassment case. “I am not surprised that Klein is trying to get out of this,” she says.
Vladimer noted parallels between her ongoing struggle to indict Klein, and the accusations that have been levelled against Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
“We need our institutional leaders to start centering workers, and victims, and their humanity and dignity as opposed to centering an institution,” she says.
Vladimer has also become more involved in campaign work, notably as the director of communications for New York City Council Member Mark Levine’s successful Manhattan borough president campaign.
When Brittany Vogel began her job in the mailroom of Hinman Straub more than 10 years ago, she had no idea her entry-level position would transition into her current role as a government analyst with the Albany law and lobbying firm. Now Vogel works on various client accounts for the firm, conducting vital day-to-day business, which includes doing research on bills and issues, drafting memos and managing clients.
At the state Capitol, she is primarily focused on representing nonprofit organizations, state associations and institutions of higher education. A crucial part of her work this past year has been amassing COVID-19 pandemic response resources for her clients. With most organizations unsure of how to conduct themselves when the pandemic initially began, Vogel and her team used their government relations experience to connect their clients with appropriate resources as the landscape of the pandemic, and the restrictions around it, rapidly changed.
“There were so many unknowns, and the anxiety among clients was very high,” Vogel says. “The best we could do was to reach out to folks in state government on their behalf, ask questions and advocate for more resources.”
Vogel also manages nonprofit clients looking to build government connections, routinely supporting their lobbying in Albany as well as working to increase their funding.
“Not for profits are so busy doing their thing that … sometimes they don’t have the time to do the advocacy that they want,” Vogel says. “We just want to be a constant source of information for them.”
Chyresse Wells’ path to her current position handling public relations in Albany has been years in the making. After graduating college in 2012, Wells worked for various government bodies, starting out with the Rensselaer County Regional Chamber of Commerce, where she managed their communications and web strategies efforts. Wells then went on to work for Empire State Development as a deputy press secretary, representing initiatives like the “I Love New York” campaign. Eventually, she became the deputy press secretary for Gov. Andrew Cuomo, cementing her realization of her passion for public service and advocacy.
Wells decided to transition to the public affairs sector after being offered a public relations role at Corning Place Communications, where she now uses her experience from her state level work to support various advocacy campaigns to the state government. She supports a diverse roster of clients, notably the 4201 Schools Association and the Retired Public Employees Association.
A major accomplishment Wells assisted with in response to the coronavirus pandemic was the Northeast Dairy Producers Association’s food donations to the public. The pandemic forced many farmers to dispose of their leftover milk supply because there was nowhere for it to go as the food supply chain adjusted to new circumstances. The association responded to this new problem by partnering with elected officials and agricultural groups to donate the unused food products to communities in need, and Wells helped by spreading the word about the effort.
To hear Iris White describe it, she was one of former President Barack Obama’s youngest and most ardent supporters during his 2008 presidential run. White cites her excitement around Obama’s candidacy as an early impactful experience that sparked her interest in politics.
She eventually followed through on her political passions by pursuing a master’s in public administration, during which she was hired as an intern at Bolton-St. Johns. This experience led to a yearslong career at the firm, where she is now chief of staff, managing the firm’s portfolio of political clients.
One of White’s most important projects right now is her effort supporting SAS Analytics in optimizing data analytics in state agencies to make them work more productively. She believes much analysis and knowledge can be derived from state agencies’ collection of data related to their work, but few agencies actually utilize that data efficiently, especially in terms of learning how to run their business more effectively. The goal of the project is to improve state government performance across the board.
White credits some of her senior colleagues at Bolton-St. Johns with mentoring her, and giving her the skills required to navigate New York politics.
“My boss, Giorgio DeRosa, has really taught me a lot about the industry,” White says. “(Sara Anne Ritz) really took me as an intern under her wing and just taught me a lot about how Albany works, how lobbying works.”
Jawanza James Williams’ rise to becoming one of New York’s most prolific progressives was precipitated by a broken dream. After he graduated college in 2012, Williams was saddled with student debt, which prevented him from attending law school as he had once hoped.
Coupled with his struggles to find work relevant to his degree in English literature and a HIV-positive diagnosis, Williams was going through a particularly challenging phase of life when a friend suggested that he visit New York City to clear his mind. The Texas native decided to move to the city, though he eventually became homeless. It was in a shelter where he realized that it was mostly full of people of color like himself.
“The same kind of culture that can lead to Black and brown young people being shot and killed by police was the same (culture) that (was) leading to a homelessness crisis,” Williams says.
These experiences laid the groundwork for a career in organizing for Williams, who describes himself as a queer Black leftist and socialist. In recent years he has been at the forefront of groundbreaking political campaigns in New York City, including the “defund the police” movement. As a prominent member of the grassroots organization VOCAL-NY, he was also an organizer of the “Occupy City Hall” protest against police brutality. He led demonstrations around increasing taxes for the state’s affluent residents, which came to fruition this year with the passage of a measure raising taxes on New York’s millionaires.
Corrections: An earlier version of this post incorrectly stated that Jamie Reyes is the youngest child in her family. She is the oldest. An earlier version of this post also included incorrect background details about J Strategies' Michelle McCarthy. She never worked at Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America or the Pat Tillman Foundation. This post has also been updated to reflect that state Sen. Samra Brouk chairs the Mental Health Committee, not the Health Committee. This post has also been updated to clarify that Kivvit's Francesca Huttle helped issue, not draft, a white paper on COVID-19 and social media.
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