“Someone might look like an overnight success, but there’s a lot of hard work that goes into it, and rightfully so,” the country music star Frankie Ballard once said. “That’s the way it should be.” The same might be said about New York government. While young elected officials, operatives and aides are finding more opportunities to shape the debate in Albany, the most effective among them have typically spent years toiling away in obscurity – while gaining the kind of experiences and connections that translate into real influence.
That invaluable behind-the-scenes work is evident throughout this year’s Albany 40 Under 40. The list highlights a pair of impressive state lawmakers who cut their teeth working in the offices of other legislators, advisers who are currently assisting some of the most powerful politicians in the state Capitol and a number of battle-tested advocates in the thick of some of the state’s biggest policy battles. Each one is truly a rising star, with the talents and the determination to become a power broker in Albany in the years ahead.
Azin Ahmadi can trace her passion for immigration law and advocacy to her childhood, when she watched her parents struggle to attain legal status in Germany. A child of immigrant parents who fled Iran amid the brutal Iran-Iraq War, Ahmadi later entered the United States in her early 20s after living in Germany and Turkey.
While residing in Turkey, Ahmadi worked directly with Iranian, Afghan and Iraqi refugees as an asylum interview interpreter for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security; she later helped refugees navigate the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees’ application process.
After attending UCLA School of Law, Ahmadi began working to help resettle immigrants and refugees in New York. Through her humanitarian and immigration work at Capital District Women’s Bar Association Legal Project, Ahmadi was named an Equal Justice Works fellow, where she created her project providing legal and holistic services supporting Muslim women impacted by domestic violence.
Ahmadi also provided cultural sensitivity training to Albany nonprofits and organizations supporting domestic violence survivors. When the pandemic hit, Ahmadi transitioned into her role at Harris Beach PLLC, where she counsels employers on various immigration and visa matters while continuing to help individuals and families.
Recently, she has worked with a New York hospital to address labor shortages. “We’ve found hundreds of qualified nurses from around the world,” she says. “We’re now facilitating the green card process for them to come here and fill these labor gaps.”
– Aliana Jabbary
For Mohammed Alam, it all began with a phone call.
When he asked one of his professors at City College of New York for advice on how to enter the political arena, he was told to call a campaign he’d like to volunteer on and ask. For Alam, that meant joining U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand’s campaign as she was gearing up for her first statewide run in 2010.
“That’s really how I started,” Alam says. “Prior to that, I had no association with politics. It was simply because my professor said to call.”
Alam got involved in the Manhattan Young Democrats, becoming the group’s president and then seeking office with Young Democrats of America, serving first as national vice president and now as national treasurer.
The attorney was part of a Hodgson Russ team working on a recent case where he helped block Republican leaders who sought to overturn parts of the state’s new absentee ballot law.
While his start in politics came after a call to Gillbrand’s campaign to volunteer, he sees politics as a passion he plans to combine with his legal career.
Alam insists he won’t seek elected office himself. “I think when I was younger, I wanted to,” he says. “As I got older, I learned to appreciate the behind-the-scenes work and the nuances of legal writing. I like being a lawyer.”
– John Celock
There’s never a dull moment working in health care law, Mary Aperance says, when you’re always working on something new. The associate has litigation experience in administrative proceedings and hearings before the state Department of Health, the state Office of the Medicaid Inspector General and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Aperance has represented an array of providers and trade associations, including adult homes, home care agencies, skilled nursing facilities and developmental disability providers over litigation, regulatory, compliance and reimbursement matters.
Aperance, who joined Rivkin Radler’s health services practice group in 2022, has addressed a range of issues during her legal career, dealing with Medicare and Medicaid reimbursement, assisted living compliance and challenges brought by the coronavirus pandemic. With various executive orders coming out of the governor’s office, Aperance also helped to clear up confusion and reconcile federal and state guidance.
“Sometimes you have to get a little creative on where to look for answers,” she says. “With transactions, there’s a lot of due diligence that can happen. I don’t think I ever lived the same day twice and I love that.”
An average workday at Rivkin Radler involves drafting policies and conducting research – and quickly putting out fires.
Aperance is especially proud of a case she worked to reverse a determination convincing Medicare to fairly compensate a hospice client.
“The client was certainly happy, and I was happy to help them be reimbursed,” she says. “It is really about people being provided quality care.”
– Erica Scalise
Sam Berman entered Rutgers University as a physics major, thinking he’d end up as a “STEM guy” – in a career as a coder or something else in the sciences.
Then a friend invited him to several organizing meetings about in-state tuition and in-state tuition for “Dreamers.” As Berman got more involved, physical science took a back seat to political science – including switching his major.
Berman interned with Kivvit and then worked on a northern New Jersey congressional race before going into local government, working for Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop, who was actively exploring a potential 2017 run for New Jersey governor – and recently announced a 2025 gubernatorial bid. Berman then moved to Nevada for several years to work for the state Senate Democrats before coming to New York and returning to Kivvit.
Berman speaks fondly of his work on the coalition to pass the state’s environmental bond issue last year, along with a labor-oriented independent expenditure campaign to boost Gov. Kathy Hochul’s gubernatorial campaign.
“I do this because, for me, nothing beats winning the campaign,” he says. “I’ve been lucky to work on two campaigns last cycle that were a lot of fun.”
Berman says the ability to work with groups he’s worked with in these campaigns, along with seeing the initial implementation of the Clean Water, Clean Air and Green Jobs Environmental Bond Act, is proof to him that he made the right decision back at Rutgers.
“That’s why I stopped going to my physics classes all those years ago,” he says.
Were it not for the construction workers who build and maintain roads, buildings and other infrastructure, “New York state would effectively shut down,” says Gwennan Booth.
Booth is the communications manager for a labor management fund that supports about 13 Laborers International Union of North America-affiliated local construction unions in upstate New York. She describes her role advocating for safety protections, wages and benefits on behalf of the union’s members as “the most rewarding work you could do.”
Born and raised in New York’s Mohawk Valley, Booth initially pursued a career in television news and worked briefly in public relations before landing a role in the communications department of the state Department of Labor, where she worked closely with Commissioner Roberta Reardon. It was this experience that sparked her interest in labor law and unions.
After about a year and a half at the Department of Labor, Booth applied for a job with the New York State Laborers-Employers Cooperation and Education Trust – with encouragement from Reardon, a mentor. Since landing the job over three and a half years ago, she has been working on recruitment initiatives to expand the union as well as successfully advocating for the Clean Water, Clean Air and Green Jobs Environmental Bond Act, which passed last year and is expected to create jobs for union members as well as fulfilling prevailing wage requirements.
“There’s so much work to be done as far as infrastructure, whether it's maintaining or building new or it’s or repairs,” she says. “It’s exciting.”
– Alice Popovici
Will Brunelle was studying English at the University at Albany when his then-partner – and now-husband – “New York NOW” host Dan Clark suggested he break into journalism. After interning at the Times Union and working for Politico New York, Brunelle ultimately pivoted to public relations.
“I was hesitant at first to jump the fence from journalism to PR, but the work I’ve been able to do has been super impactful and meaningful to me,” he says. “I really give all of the credit to my husband Dan for getting me interested in media and communications.”
Now at SKDK, Brunelle has risen from associate to vice president, in part by using his journalistic experience to leverage major legislative victories. Brunelle fought for a $15 minimum wage, the Green Light Law and recently helped reverse the decadeslong disinvestment in SUNY funding with United University Professions – but he’s most proud of his work that contributed to the passage of the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act.
“This was a landmark shift in how New Yorkers and policy agencies think about our impact on climate and how we can be more sustainable and resilient as a state,” he says of the legislation, which has gone on to serve as a model for other states.
For Brunelle, the work is about figuring out a message that’s going to resonate with the public and those most important to clients.
“I’m just incredibly proud to work for a firm that prioritizes people and values over profits,” he says.
Assembly Member Kenny Burgos became one of the youngest legislators in Albany when he succeeded Marcos Crespo in 2020, with backing from the Bronx Democrats. A former aide to New York City Council members, Burgos was already a government veteran when he launched his campaign. Yet he questioned whether it was his time to jump to the state Legislature.
“I thought it was an insane idea for a 26-year-old to run for state office,” Burgos says.
He says he’s now seen the direct impact that he and the growing millennial caucus can have in state government.
He says his biggest asset in Albany is being able to provide the perspective of someone who grew up in two Bronx households with separated parents. Burgos says that he was able to bring his perspective to debates on a variety of issues and is proud of his work related to expanding the state’s definition of a firearm, increased school funding and passing the Safe Space Heaters Act.
He stressed that younger people need to run to bring their perspectives to Albany.
Burgos is clear that he hasn’t contemplated how far he wants his Assembly tenure to stretch – and at the same time, he has no illusions about lasting in the Capitol as long as former Assembly Member Richard Gottfried or former state Sen. John Marchi, who died in 2009.
“I have immense respect for Dick Gottfried,” he says, “but as a millennial, I don’t see myself in any job for 50 years.”
As a former personal trainer and nutrition coach, Brittany Carbone’s relationship with cannabis began in late 2016 while she was on her own mental health and wellness journey. Carbone’s company, TONIC, was conceptualized after discovering what she calls the “truly life-changing results” of CBD and wellness supplement tinctures. After sharing the results with her own clients who saw similar benefits, Carbone began navigating the intricacies of New York’s hemp and CBD industries, ultimately choosing to establish a licensed hemp-growing business upstate to ensure high-quality production.
“I had no choice but to scale internally and keep it all in-house,” says Carbone, reflecting on her expansion into manufacturing, co-creating Tricolla Farms and Bardo Labs due to what she perceived as limitations with New York’s budding cannabis industry.
Carbone’s experience and advocacy led her to join the Cannabis Association of New York’s board, where she advocates against unsustainable product packaging and irresponsible growing practices in the industry. Carbone’s ascension to the association’s board of directors also advocated for the conditional licensing program, which issued the first round of recreational cannabis licenses to existing production, and she continues to push for a diverse cannabis market in New York.
“A lot of the work that I’ve done over the years in this space has largely been centered around social equity,” Carbone says, “ensuring that there was language in the bill that was going to create opportunities for the legacy market to have a pathway to enter this market.”
A self-professed policy research worker, Wesley Clayton has capitalized on those tendencies to his advantage in tackling a wide range of projects within the government sphere, first as a legislative fellow in the office of state Senate Deputy Majority Leader Michael Gianaris and now at Mercury Public Affairs, the global public strategy firm where he is focused on issues related to the gig economy and artificial intelligence.
The great-grandson of a state legislator, Clayton applied for the fellowship program after graduating from William & Mary Law School, knowing he wanted to pursue a career in politics and government. He was first drawn to the state Senate Rules Committee, where he learned about the legislative process, before joining Gianaris to work on the 21st Century Antitrust Act.
While some may find Albany dull when the state Legislature is not in session, Clayton has discovered much to keep him engaged.
“I really enjoyed the off session because I could do these really cool research projects,” he says.
Clayton is drawn to topics like artificial intelligence because it is an area that has yet to be fully explored by lawmakers.
“We are on the frontier of AI and that is exciting for me,” he says.
Clayton’s advice to those looking to join him in Albany is to remember that social relationships are just as important as books.
“Get to where people are making the important decisions,” he says. “Each step is a building block.”
Yovan Collado’s path to community organizing has been “anything but traditional,” according to the rising star in politics and government.
“I come from a big Dominican family with immigrant parents,” he says. “I grew up in public housing, took a break from college and went back to school in the evenings as I worked in banking.”
Before coming to CCA Metro, Collado served as deputy director at Housing Rights Initiative, where his interest in the labor sector grew as he advocated for fair living wages.
The Bronxite has organized holiday donation drives, community projects where skilled labor and material are donated, career and job fairs, and educational events on behalf of union carpenters and contractors in New York City.
Collado, who is currently a semester away from completing his law degree at CUNY School of Law, is active in various civic organizations and is a student member of both the New York State Bar Association and the Dominican Bar Association.
He says his work is about amplifying CCA’s message and forging relationships with community leaders, nonprofits and folks who have been traditionally excluded.
“One of my high school classmates reached out to me and said, ‘I really wish someone was doing what you were doing when we were in high school because I would’ve done this work sooner,’” says Collado of a moment he’s most proud of. “It’s so important to show people how available these careers are and how accessible they can be to everyone.”
Had Jelanie DeShong’s original career plan come to fruition, he would have spent the bulk of the coronavirus pandemic treating patients, not working diligently to make sure that SUNY Downstate Medical Center was equipped with badly needed resources. His original goal of becoming a medical doctor got derailed back in high school when he joined student government and saw the potential for positive impact on society.
While DeShong has worked in the New York City Council and for Gov. Kathy Hochul, his passion for his time at SUNY Downstate comes through. Pre-pandemic, his work focused on government affairs, obtaining funding and other resources for the hospital.
Once COVID-19 hit, he remained focused on government affairs while also helping to set up makeshift intensive care units and other crucial works.
“We had no idea the enemy we were fighting, but we all had to be prepared,” DeShong recalls. “You realize how fragile life is. No matter how scared you are, you work to make sure Downstate can operate as a COVID-only hospital.”
DeShong clearly remembers during the early days of Hochul’s governorship, after the remnants of Hurricane Ida, hearing stories about undocumented immigrants being unable to get emergency funds. He connected various agencies and got a plan in place.
“I know people can be cynical about government,” he says, “but seeing this go from text messages to an actual plan and to provide resources to the most vulnerable New Yorkers – it’s amazing.”
Margaret Dickson is already making waves in New York’s public policy sphere just two years following her college graduation, particularly in the areas of child welfare and early childhood education.
As an undergraduate summer intern at Prevent Child Abuse New York, Dickson, who was a double major at Marist College in political science and psychology, was able to combine her interests in both subject areas. Her main focus was the Trauma-Informed Legislature initiative, where she worked with legislators and staff to promote primary prevention education and trauma-informed perspectives to policymaking.
“We talked a lot about adverse childhood experiences and building protective factors for families and children – at that point, we were just starting to talk about a project called the Home Visiting Coordination Initiative,” Dickson says.
She continued working with the organization throughout college and, after graduating, joined the team full time. Today, Dickson works as a policy assistant and the development coordinator of HVCI, helping to further its mission of supporting families with young children, promoting health, reducing abuse and increasing preparedness for school.
“My day-to-day work now bridges policy assistance and coordinating this project on the statewide scale to advance policy in home visiting,” Dickson says.
Dickson’s team also handles the development of monthly programming for home visitor workforce development and blending and braiding guides for program funding. For the child care guide, she worked alongside the state Council on Children and Families, delving into federal and state-level research to increase statewide access to home visiting programs.
After graduating from college in 2009, Kathleen Digan dove straight into politics in the Capital Region, serving first as a legislative aide to state Sen. Neil Breslin and then as the district operations coordinator for Rep. Paul Tonko.
Digan’s career has involved state and federal policymaking, exemplified through her work as a governmental relations representative for the New York State School Boards Association, while she pursued a master’s degree in public administration from the University at Albany. Her love of advocacy led Digan to join Ostroff Associates; she ultimately spent five years with the firm.
“I got to advocate for a wide array of clients and advise them on comprehensive lobbying, procurement, political strategies and help our clients build relationships with policymakers and stakeholders,” says Digan, reflecting on her experiences dealing with hot-button issues like energy, gun safety, transportation, economic development and education.
Digan in November became Amazon’s public policy manager – a new position at the corporation that focuses on collaboration between business partners and elected officials while expanding operations across New York. “I work on a team that really obsesses over how we show up for our customers within our community,” she says.
“Our goal is to make local communities better for our customers, employees and partners,” Digan says. “Part of reaching that goal is working collaboratively with folks like community leaders and elected officials across the state, and working to ensure that Amazon is one of the most trusted businesses and community partners here in New York.”
Chatodd Floyd’s career has led him to take key roles in two of the biggest crises to strike New York City in recent memory: COVID-19 and the deteriorating situation at Rikers Island.
In the pandemic’s early days, Floyd became then-New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s point person for obtaining personal protective equipment for the city’s front-line workers. He vividly remembers the uncertainty, the hard work, the sirens and the nightly applause from grateful New Yorkers during the worst of times. Moving to the governor’s office under then-Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Floyd worked on vaccine equity, helping to bring the pandemic under control and life back to normal.
“Seeing it come full circle, it was a time that I will not forget,” he says.
Floyd’s work on Rikers focused on issues related to Raise the Age legislation and plans to close the beleaguered facility and construct borough-based jails.
Floyd has now traded his coronavirus-related roles for the challenge of bringing to fruition Gov. Kathy Hochul’s legislative agenda, including issues related to the budget, bail reform, housing and energy and environment.
Floyd came to New York following law school in Cincinnati and a stint with City Year running an early childhood literacy program in his hometown of Columbia, South Carolina. He chose to dive into New York’s public policy world rather than accept an offer to become a public defender in another city. “This is what motivates me,” he says.
When Pedro Galaviz’s family unexpectedly relocated back to Mexico in 1993, he ended up having to take on work as a harvester after school, putting his young dreams of working in construction aside.
“At a very young age, I was working to support my family,” he says of the difficult transition. “That was hard work down there because opportunities are just not the same as in the U.S. Those humble beginnings are always in the back of my mind.”
With construction still on his mind when he arrived back in the U.S. some years later, Galaviz found work as an apprentice with a union, and it was during that experience that he grew increasingly fascinated by labor unions and their ability to change people’s lives for the better. Galaviz, who is bilingual in English and Spanish, ultimately decided to start working his way up the leadership ranks.
In his current role, Galaviz spends the majority of his mornings looking for new projects for North Atlantic States Regional Council of Carpenters and thinking of new ways the union can recruit new members.
“For me, it’s really been about helping union brothers – there’s a satisfaction when someone calls you, and you can point them in the right direction,” he says. “It’s a proud moment when I go out there and bring someone in and hopefully change their lives. I’m very proud to pass that opportunity on that was passed on to me.”
Hannah Gonzales hit the gas in college when she interned at Bolton-St. Johns. After only three weeks interning at the government relations firm, she was asked to come on full time.
Despite having only three months of in-person work before the coronavirus pandemic hit, the Hudson Valley native still managed to rise through the ranks, working her way from associate to senior associate to her current position as deputy policy director. Dealing with a wide range of clients on legislative, policy and budgetary matters, Gonzales often works with educational nonprofits and business incubators to secure funding.
“I’m one little puzzle piece in the way that we work on getting funding for services that have the potential to benefit so many people,” she says.
Gonzales is most proud of her recent work on a bill introduced and passed last year that puts New York in line with Food and Drug Administration decisions regarding MDMA-assisted therapy for long-term treatment of PTSD.
“Some people suffer from depression for so long – this is really a breakthrough,” she says.
Now deep into budget season, Gonzales talks with elected officials on behalf of clients and is working to find the best ways for clients to amplify and lend their unique voice to issues.
“I think this type of work is a good fit for my personality,” she says. “My job is really about supporting people so they don't have to worry about things on the back end.”
Upon graduation from Boston University, Ana Hall caught the campaign bug during the 2020 presidential primaries. Working first as an organizer for U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s presidential campaign and later on a congressional campaign in Missouri, Hall spent the beginning of her career traveling for campaign work.
“I fell in love with organizing, seeing communities, activists and everyday people come together to fight for change,” Hall says. “I had such a great time, bopping around the country doing this work. … I really wanted to then come back to New York and invest in the place where I grew up.”
Returning to New York, Hall worked alongside state Sen. Alessandra Biaggi as her press secretary, where she ultimately found a niche within advocacy.
Today, Hall leads Pythia Public’s campaigns to raise New York’s minimum wage and to increase crypto mining regulation – two examples of how she fights for legislative advancements to benefit New Yorkers.
“A lot of my work is finding impacted communities that are near these crypto sites and telling their stories so that we can make clear how policy impacts people’s lives,” Hall says.
Hall works alongside labor activists and union representatives to further the Raise Up New York coalition’s fight for the state’s minimum wage to be both increased and indexed to reflect inflation and cost-of-living fluctuations.
“Being able to center impacted New Yorkers is the highlight of my job – it really visualizes and personalizes the issues that we’re working on,” Hall says.
Jerrel Harvey has spent the past few years immersed in gubernatorial politics on both sides of the Hudson River, helming communications first for New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy’s 2021 reelection campaign and then for Gov. Kathy Hochul’s campaign last year.
Harvey started his career working in a New York law firm before channeling his concerns over the 2016 presidential election into political work. This included working for state lawmakers in southern New Jersey before joining Murphy’s staff weeks before the pandemic erupted.
“We were building the plane while flying it,” Harvey says of the pandemic response. “There was no perfect playbook. I am proud of what our team was able to do.”
Harvey, who has found himself at the center of two closer-than-expected gubernatorial elections, says that Murphy, a Goldman Sachs alum-turned-ambassador, and Hochul, a local government veteran, are very similar in terms of how they approach retail politics.
“Both come from very different backgrounds, but they have tenacity, and Gov. Murphy and Gov. Hochul get out and talk to people and listen,” Harvey says. “Because of that work ethic, there is a desire to get out and talk to folks all over the state.”
Harvey says it is important for staffers to have a variety of life experiences, noting he could bring perspectives to Hochul and Murphy that they did not have.
“Bringing your lived experience to whatever job you’re in is important,” he says. “Bringing your lived experience has a tremendous impact.”
Joshua Joseph has a simple answer to explain his rise from volunteer in Assembly Member Michaelle Solages’ Long Island office to executive director of the state Black, Puerto Rican, Hispanic & Asian Legislative Caucus: a lot of hard work and a bit of luck.
Joseph joined Solages’ Long Island team when he returned to New York from Arizona and moved through the ranks in the office, becoming district director before moving to Albany as Solages’ legislative director.
“It’s rare that youth of color, particularly Black youth, ascend in Long Island,” he says.
Upon arriving in Albany, Joseph found himself knee-deep in a variety of issues, from state-level legislation addressing college athlete name, image and likeness to the reparations bill – which Joseph sees as a priority.
“That’s been a powerful experience to work on that,” Joseph says.
Joseph says that he is not sure if he will one day run for office but sees the impact a staffer can have. He noted that he is able to bring his life experience to the table and have an effect on the tone of the conversation.
Joseph says the key thing he remembers and advises others looking to join him is that all voices need to be heard.
“The imposter syndrome is so real, especially with youth,” he says. “When you are a young Black man, you find yourself alone in rooms. Alone in your lived experience. You still need to speak truth to power.”
Tori Kelly began her career in 2009 during a state Legislature leadership crisis that included the sitting state Senate majority leader being voted out of office.
“It was so fascinating, interesting and exciting – I knew that this is where I wanted to be,” Kelly says about her career beginnings.
After a brief stint interning with union and lobbying firms, Kelly decided to go where she felt she could make the largest impact. Her path, which includes working in both chambers in Albany, the Assembly and state Senate, ultimately led to her current position as chief of staff for state Sen. Andrew Gounardes and as district leader for Assembly District 49 in Brooklyn.
“No day is the same, which is also why it’s so exciting,” Kelly says reflecting on her office’s work following the redistricting of the 22nd state Senate District. “We have 20% overlap from our prior district. We’re going into communities that we didn’t have prior engagement with, learning about the challenges that they have.”
Throughout her career, Kelly has worked diligently behind the scenes to shape policy changes, even in the face of powerful adversaries. While working for then-Assembly Member Vito Lopez, Kelly filed a sexual harassment complaint against him; she continues to advocate against workplace discrimination and sexual misconduct today. Recently, Kelly’s Sexual Harassment Working Group, made up of former legislative staffers who experienced sexual harassment and other forms of discrimination, helped to pass the elimination of the “personal staff loophole” in New York’s human rights laws.
Every day at The Martin Group is different, complete with short- and long-term priorities that can “change at the drop of a hat,” according to Senior Public Affairs Manager Brittany Kenny.
“I’m meeting with clients, often giving strategy, developing actual work products, brainstorming about how we address any of their concerns and thinking about how we can launch campaigns down the line,” she says. “We often say that people don’t typically call us when things are going well.”
Kenny was first introduced to the integrated communications firm when she was a senior account manager at Gramercy. Prior to this role, the Toronto native worked as a press officer for the state Senate.
“When I was younger, I was always described as a bold and curious child, which really plays into what I do now and how I ended up here,” she says.
Kenny is especially proud of The Martin Group’s work with the New York Restaurant Association to pass alcohol to-go, enabling consumers to buy alcohol with takeout and delivery food orders from the state's bars and restaurants for the next three years.
Of all of the bills Kenny has advocated for, she says, this was one that people really understood and a victory she could talk to her parents about.
“This was a big highlight of my career,” she says, “just seeing the fight that we had play out in the public forum every day, seeing the work that we’re doing and the businesses that were benefited and impacted.”
When Richard Gottfried retired last year after more than a half century in the Assembly, Democrats in Albany lost his encyclopedic knowledge of health care legislation. Tony Kergaravat doesn’t quite match Gottfried’s longevity, but his in-depth understanding of New York health law and policy is invaluable as state Senate Health Committee Chair Gustavo Rivera adjusts to a Gottfried-free future.
Kergaravat, who studied engineering at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, interned in college at a residential home for people with developmental disabilities and with the Assembly, where he later became a housing analyst.
“Sometimes when you’re good at what you work on, you can get stuck in one spot,” says Kergaravat, who transitioned to public health after itching to explore other areas of government.
Directing the state Senate Health Committee, Kergaravat is focused on supporting Rivera’s New York Health Act, which is aimed at providing comprehensive health care for all New Yorkers, and backing the “Coverage for All” proposal to create a state-funded health coverage option for undocumented residents.
“I want to help people, which is why I stay here, doing what I do. It’s what keeps me going – to try to make things better for other folks,” he says. “When I was a kid, my mom was a machinist, and her company got bought out so I was a direct recipient of public benefits. This impacted my life as a child, and if I can do that for someone else, that’s something I’m proud of.”
After returning home from her first year of college, Meredith Korda decided to take a semester-long sabbatical to join then-President Barack Obama’s 2012 presidential reelection campaign as a field organizer. Having grown up in central Ohio, Korda was already exposed to the high-intensity world of swing-state politics and elections.
“I haven’t stopped working on campaigns since. It was very much something I fell into and haven’t looked back yet,” she says.
While Korda is no longer tagging along on the campaign trail in her home state, she is still deeply involved in campaigns and digital communications. She now works as digital director and vice president of Red Horse Strategies, a political campaign and consulting firm with an established presence in New York politics. Among her most notable electoral contributions: leading the digital operations for Eric Adams’ 2021 New York City mayoral race, digital buying work for independent expenditures to support Gov. Kathy Hochul’s gubernatorial campaign, as well as supporting the reelection campaign of state Comptroller Tom DiNapoli.
While she has aided in digital programming for the successful campaigns of state Sen. James Skoufis and Assembly Member Stacey Pheffer Amato, Korda also facilitates long-term relationships with clients and leads ongoing digital operations for Reps. Grace Meng and Nydia Velázquez.
“I get to kind of be long-term with folks – getting to build online brands and online voices – and helping to build strong relationships with their email lists and their constituents,” Korda says. “It’s very fulfilling.”
Studying performing arts is certainly not a prerequisite for someone pursuing a career in government, but Alec Lewis – who double majored in political science and theater at Gordon College – says his unique skill set is advantageous when it comes to campaigns. “A lot of it is helping candidates to figure out how to tell their own story,” he says.
Lewis, who spent the past decade in the state Senate, most recently as deputy director of intergovernmental affairs, started at O’Donnell & Associates in January. In addition to lobbying, he is focusing on building out the government relations firm’s nascent campaigns practice, working with a number of candidates including Buffalo Common Council candidate Leah Halton-Pope and with Emily Essi on her campaign for Onondaga County clerk.
Lewis draws on more than a decade of election work, including as a statewide field director for the state Democratic Senate Campaign Committee and on successful campaigns for Monroe County Executive Adam Bello, New York City Council Member Marjorie Velázquez and Dutchess County Comptroller Robin Lois. He says working “in both realms” has given him a better understanding of how to serve his clients.
Like a meteorologist forecasting the weather, he starts out predicting who is likely to vote during a particular election. He studies the patterns, builds a budget and hones the messaging.
“Helping put together door-to-door canvassing programs, phone banking programs, texting programs, really helping campaign organizations build that apparatus to actually talk to real people,” he says.
From his work with the Harlem-based nonprofit Abyssinian Development Corp. after college to overseeing the construction of hundreds of units of affordable housing at Habitat for Humanity New York City and Westchester County to his new role at Cozen O’Connor Public Strategies, Katrell Lewis has built his career around increasing access to fair housing.
“When affordable homeownership becomes available, you really want to make sure that people have that opportunity,” Lewis says.
Since joining Cozen O’Connor in January, he has been serving in a dual role: advising the law firm’s public strategies clients on legislative matters in Albany as well as serving land use clients throughout New York.
He says he has “hit the ground running,” working on the land use side with a client on plans to build 2,000 units of housing in New York City. Lewis says there are many parallels between his work at Habitat – where he focused on improving the lives of low-to-moderate income New Yorkers through affordable housing in neighborhoods, including Brownsville, Ocean Hill and Bedford-Stuyvesant, where he grew up – and his current job.
On the public strategy side, he is assisting the National Council of State Boards of Nursing in its efforts to pass legislation allowing out-of-state nurses to practice in New York.
“The nursing compact affects Black and brown communities more than anybody,” he says. “Every hospital is facing a nursing shortage, but when you layer that onto Black and brown communities, you really start to see that they are hurting more than anybody else.”
Even after serving as an Assembly staffer after college, Burgundy Magoon was still trying to discover her career path. Then she was handed the transportation and elections portfolio, finding herself immersed in debates and negotiations on early voting, congestion pricing, upstate transit systems, election reform, Gateway and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.
Puzzling through issues like the future of Penn Station and the new rail tunnel under the Hudson River, and being part of a working group figuring out how to bring congestion pricing to New York, Magoon saw the issues she was working on were not just for the near term.
“These are things that will outlast me,” she says.
Magoon moved to other portfolio areas, and she started taking on analysis of public authorities and issues before the state Public Authorities Control Board. She describes the entire process as “learning on the go” but says she thinks that works well for the policy world.
Magoon jumped to the top lobbying firm of Brown & Weinraub earlier this year, and says she has been learning the industry perspective and seeing more than a narrow slice of government.
“It has been unique, and I get a view of all policy,” Magoon says of her early days in government affairs.
An Albany veteran at 32, Magoon sees herself staying on the same path she’s been on and not seeking office herself.
“I enjoy putting a critical thinking cap on and diving into the weeds,” she says. “I don’t see myself in the spotlight.”
A Buffalo native who spent several years working and living in Central America, Meghan Maloney de Zaldivar returned to the City of Good Neighbors determined to get more involved in social justice issues and organizing – despite people telling her the Buffalo area wasn’t ready for it.
Maloney de Zaldivar pushed ahead with her work, focusing on helping undocumented immigrants in Buffalo and around upstate. Her resolve to help undocumented workers only grew following the 2016 raids on several Buffalo restaurants and ultimately led her to found the nonprofit Justice for Migrant Families and to work with the New York Immigration Coalition.
“During the Trump era, the work of the community around immigrant rights grew,” she says. “There has been a lot of change, particularly in upstate communities. There are a lot more support systems in place.”
Maloney de Zaldivar has been very involved in organizing around legalizing driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants, including organizing to bring 500 people to Albany for a rally, ringing the Capitol in a sea of green shirts. She counts this rally as one of the proudest achievements of her organizing career.
Now, as she travels around upstate, particularly in rural farming communities, she sees the impact of her efforts when workers show her their hard-won driver’s licenses – but she knows her work isn’t over.
“We are working to make sure that everyone who is detained can have an immigration attorney,” she says. “This work continues to motivate me.”
Finding herself in the North Country after receiving her law degree from Rutgers University, Renee McFarlin has made economic development her focus.
The economic development theme goes from her time in Rep. Elise Stefanik’s district office to her work as Clinton County’s economic development director and now with Capitalize Albany Corp., following her move to the capital city.
Much of McFarlin’s work has been focused on small businesses. During the pandemic, she has been focused on the grant programs Capitalize Albany Corp. sponsors for small businesses, including for post-pandemic recovery. A key area that she has been focusing on is grants for small businesses to pursue renovations and purchase new equipment as part of the economic recovery.
“I was given the support and free rein to shape these programs,” she says.
While her work in Stefanik’s office focused on helping businesses and local governments navigate federal permitting and funding issues, she says her time in Clinton County mirrors her work in Albany, but with some differences.
“The terrain in Clinton County is so diverse,” she says. “You have a town or hamlet with a few hundred people and then you have Plattsburgh with 20,000 people – the center for the entire Northeast corner of the state.”
While she has enjoyed working with elected officials and the relationships she has developed, McFarlin does not see herself joining their ranks one day.
“I have felt my work has been most important at this level,” she says.
While most kids learn about government through classes or the news, Nick Morelle spent his childhood on the campaign trail alongside his father, Rep. Joe Morelle.
“Seeing his dedication to his constituents and to his hometown of Rochester really inspired me from a young age,” says Morelle, whose interest in government affairs came out of this early exposure.
Morelle began working on local campaigns with the Monroe County Democratic Committee before joining an Albany-based lobbying firm, Ways & Means NY, where he tracked legislation on a variety of issues and worked with transportation, health care and higher education clients.
In 2018, he joined Ostroff Associates, where his days involve doing deep dives into myriad issues his clients are facing, always keeping in mind that all clients, big or small, are entitled the same amount of care – something he learned early on from firm President and CEO Rick Ostroff, whom he considers a mentor.
Morelle is especially dedicated to shaping gun control policy in the state, working with Everytown for Gun Safety to “limit the amount of senseless death due to gun violence.”
His latest efforts on the gun control front involves advocating for victim compensation laws that would remove barriers survivors face when collecting money.
“Here New York is doing a lot of good work between the Legislature and the government, working hard to strengthen our gun laws,” he says. “We have more to do in this area, but we’re really putting our best foot forward. We’re not sitting idly by.”
Mary Mueller embarked on a career in journalism to make a difference in people’s lives. After nearly a decade in TV news, her passion for storytelling and her curiosity about policy issues led to a transition, as she took a role as director of communications for then-state Sen. David Carlucci.
“I always had this deep desire to understand legislation – how it actually impacted people, not just the talking points that an elected official would give you,” she says. “What I’ve taken from journalism is the importance of having more voices be a part of the conversation.”
Mueller went on to serve as communications director in state Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins’ district office and as vice president of public affairs for the New York City Economic Development Corp. before landing in her current role as press secretary for state Comptroller Tom DiNapoli in October. She has since generated press coverage around the comptroller’s work on post-pandemic economic recovery and government audits, flagging waste and noncompliance and digging into such hot-button issues as artificial intelligence and homelessness.
Asked about her most significant professional accomplishments, Mueller recalled her work drawing attention to two bills during her time in Carlucci’s office: a measure allowing domestic violence survivors to report an incident of abuse anywhere in the state and another bill that established a framework for the state’s first domestic terrorism law.
“For the first time, in the Buffalo shootings, they used that law,” she says.
Kristen Murphy’s career began in the district office of then-Assembly Member Kevin Cahill, where she ultimately became his chief of staff. The experience helped Murphy become well-versed on a variety of issues, including insurance law – Cahill was chair of the Assembly Insurance Committee at the time – something that has become a key part of her current role.
After a brief stint at public relations firm Gramercy Communications, Murphy found her groove at the lobbying firm Tress Capitol Advisors in 2016.
“Working on the outside of politics,” she says, “I really grew, and I came to understand the political world as a whole.”
Today, Murphy works with clients to ensure their priorities are taken seriously in Albany and provides them with the tools they need to succeed. As Tress Capitol’s senior lobbyist, Murphy has made recent advancements in mental health, public health and reproductive justice areas, advocating for a bill that requires insurers to cover a portion of fertility treatments and preservation.
“This is something that a lot of my friends and certain family members have gone through – it’s very near and dear to my heart, and we were very successful at it,” Murphy says.
Additionally, Murphy worked to advance a bill that allows children’s summer camps to hire licensed mental health professionals – an issue that has taken on an increasing sense of urgency since the onset of COVID-19. “I was really, really happy about that,” says Murphy, reflecting on the achievement.
Carl-Harry Nau’s original goal was not the Assembly speaker’s office but to be a teacher.
Following a stint as a student adviser at Harlem Children’s Zone, he realized the classroom wasn’t the right fit. While no longer in education, the lessons he learned from the classroom remain with him, giving him the desire to fight to get resources to those in need. Following his school stint, Nau worked on programs to better promote recycling in New York City Housing Authority buildings and launched an after-school and mentoring program for children.
“What we wanted to do was to give the students someone they could look up to and ask questions,” he says, “to give those things back to them that we did not have growing up.”
Nau says the program was successful, with student suspensions decreasing and grades improving. He says the program also worked to get students interested in going to college.
In the speaker’s office, Nau sees his most important role as connecting Assembly members with executive agencies to address constituent issues.
Nau is quick to remind those looking to succeed in Albany that the workday does not end once you leave your office
“There is room to grow and room to move around,” he says. “You got to get started and take your time to get to know the people. In Albany, 9-to-5 is where you get the work done – and 5-to-9 is where you get to know the people and get your name out there.”
When Matt Orama was a child growing up in East Harlem, his father owned a hardware store in Astoria. Among the things Orama remembers most vividly from that time are the long hours, the sacrifices and the safety issues – memories that drive much of his work today.
During stints as the assistant district manager with Community Board 8 on the Upper East Side and as a lobbyist for Columbia University, Orama worked on an array of small-business issues. Now with CMW Strategies, Orama is working with Collective Action to Protect our Stores, a consortium of small-business groups pushing a comprehensive legislative package in Albany to reduce retail thefts and assaults.
“Right now is a critical time for the city and state to stand up for small business,” Orama says.
Orama advises aspiring young staffers to be confident.
“I am a person of color, I was born and raised in East Harlem,” he says. “When you are 21 and working in the speaker’s office and then Columbia, there can be a bit of imposter syndrome.”
Orama first became involved in government as an intern for then-New York City Council Member Melissa Mark-Viverito and moved up the ranks in her office after college. Now a public affairs veteran at 30, Orama says he misses government and would like to return, though he sees himself more of a Sam Seaborn than a Jed Bartlet.
“I never say never,” he says. “You never know what will call you into service at that level.”
For Hersh Parekh, the borough of Queens – where he was born and raised – is the throughline that connects his entire career.
“It’s where I wanted to have an impact,” says Parekh, who grew up in Elmhurst, later lived in Rego Park and now resides in Jamaica. “Fortunately, I had the opportunities to actually do that.”
Parekh served as then-Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s Queens regional representative, a role in which he was immersed in the redevelopment of the John F. Kennedy International and LaGuardia airports. The experience led him to his current post handling government and community relations at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, where he serves as the point person on a variety of projects in addition to the two major airports. With the two multibillion-dollar airport projects – LaGuardia is “substantially completed” and JFK is back on track after pandemic-related delays – Parekh is excited about the benefits coming to Queens, as well as the $2 billion in LaGuardia contracts going to minority- and women-owned business enterprises.
“It’s not just about investing in the airports, but also investing in the communities around the airports, whether that means workforce development, or MWBE contracting opportunities, or educational opportunities,” he says.
Parekh, who once worked for the Queens Democratic Party, did not plan on being in government, but eventually saw its upside.
“It touches every part of every person’s life,” he says. “It’s a place where you can have an impact, make a difference, but also do that locally.”
Sam Parker knows that in the digital age, internet access is not just something that’s nice to have – it’s everything.
“Ensuring that all communities, especially rural communities, have access to broadband internet connection is just necessary in a 21st century economy,” he says. “During the pandemic, we saw this with telehealth needs where lack of access to the same level of care that other residents in urban and suburban environments have was obvious.”
Earlier in his career, Parker worked on a number of political races. In 2019, he took a position as a special assistant for the Executive Chamber before being promoted to the governor’s Capital Region representative during the coronavirus pandemic.
During his state government work, Parker saw firsthand the lack of pandemic medical access due to broadband scarcity. When he saw a job posting at Charter Communications that involved addressing these issues, he knew he “needed to work on broadband buildout” as the state built its ConnectALL program.
Through ConnectALL, federal funding will be allocated to communities across the state with the aim of ensuring equity surrounding broadband access. Parker is proud to have worked on Greene County’s request for proposal for broadband buildout and is focused most on helping underserved rural populations in the North Country and Capital Region.
“We’re really just waiting to see how the program is going to shape up,” he says, “and so I’m excited to learn about how it’s all going to function and to witness its impact.”
Starting off her college career at Mohawk Valley Community College, Taryn Rackmyer never expected to end up at SUNY’s imposing headquarters overlooking the Hudson River lobbying for the state university system – she expected to have a career in social work.
“I realized that being on the front lines doing that was a little too emotional,” she says of social work, although she still wanted to find a way to serve her community in a productive way.
Rackmyer ended up studying public policy and accounting before moving to the University at Albany. She started her career in the state Senate as a budget analyst focused on general government. She took on the hodgepodge portfolio when it contained such hot-button debates as the Social Equity Cannabis Investment Fund and alcohol law reform.
Rackmyer says the pace in Albany can be taxing but that taking part in milestones like negotiating the final language of the Social Equity Cannabis Investment Fund and working to end transcript holds at SUNY make it worth it.
“It’s been hard, but I am an optimist,” she says.
Rackmyer says she encourages others to get involved in public policy, noting the good work being done in Albany.
“So many people have a bad perspective of politics,” she says. “There are problems, but the majority of staffers and legislators are really in it for one good reason or another. They are here because they want to make a difference. No one becomes a staffer for money or fame.”
Early in her life, Bianca Rajpersaud had aspirations of becoming a lawyer focusing on mental health and criminal justice reform. As a first-generation Afro Latina and West Indian American hailing from Staten Island, Rajpersaud later pivoted her focus to better help her community by working in government relations and advocacy.
“I realized I wanted to utilize my platform, my relationships and my knowledge of state government to help nonprofits and organizations across New York to navigate the red tape that the government presents,” she says.
After working with the Association for a Better New York and then-Assembly Member Michael Cusick, Rajpersaud moved to the private sector, settling into her current position at Davidoff Hutcher & Citron LLP. As the associate director of government relations, Rajpersaud supports and advises minority- and women-owned business enterprises, as well as technology and art institutions, helping them navigate legislative matters, certification processes and funding procurement.
Rajpersaud recently played an integral role in the establishment of the state Vendor Advisory Council alongside her client, Information Technology Industry Council, in bringing together government stakeholders and cybersecurity experts to issue recommendations on tech security.
While many of her clients are high-profile, Rajpersaud also works with hyperlocal organizations such as the Yemeni American Merchants Association.
“It all stemmed from being raised by two immigrant parents and the hurdles that we had to go through growing up on Staten Island,” Rajpersaud says. “It really ignited that fire in me to want to be an advocate.”
After interning with WRI Solutions in graduate school, Elizabeth Roberts was welcomed to the team as a program manager following the completion of her degree.
Roberts hit the ground running, overseeing the Chafee Funds Program of New York State, which distributed COVID-19 relief funds to New York’s foster youth. The project’s two-month timeline exemplified Roberts’ capacity to produce at a high level on a tight schedule.
Today, Roberts manages a project for individuals with developmental or intellectual disabilities, creating informational guides to help community members navigate independent living. Roberts became involved as an intern with the Tools for Independence Initiative, a now three-year project. She now leads the state Office of Children and Family Services-sponsored project overseeing related focus group facilitations and training.
“My hands are in both policy and practices – things that involve entire communities – and creative solutions filling the gaps in existing services,” Roberts says.
She is also leading a project funded by the state Office of Children and Family Services, coordinating the state Citizens Review Panels for Child Protective Services. The volunteer-based panel evaluates the policies and practices of such services in New York and meets with state representatives to share their findings.
“The biggest things for me are compassion, accessibility and access – they lead everything that I do,” Roberts says, adding that “bringing in those social work aspects to things that you might not expect them to be in keeps the affected communities … at the forefront of the discussion.”
Katie Shane always knew that she wanted to focus on equity in her career. “Whether that was nonprofits or civil rights legislation, I really saw myself there,” she says. “I fell in love with labor doing student labor organizing. It touches on every issue I really care about.”
The Florida native’s activist work started in college at New York University, where she studied social movements and led the successful campaign to make NYU the first private university to raise the student worker minimum wage to $15 an hour. She went on to work as deputy political director for the New York City District Council of Carpenters and served as campaign manager for Crystal Hudson’s successful New York City Council run in 2021 before becoming deputy political director of Local 338 RWDSU/UFCW.
“I like to work on a lot of issues that might not come to people’s minds when they work on labor,” she says of her work at the union, which is supporting farmworkers, fighting for abortion access, child care and helping to pass legislation to modernize the Public Employment Relations Board.
Shane is proud of the union’s efforts to build social equity in the cannabis space, especially in communities disproportionately targeted during the war on drugs.
“It’s rare for retail spaces to have health insurance and benefits like this,” Shane says. “We’re also trying to show folks the different job opportunities out there that are in cannabis and that they can have a good job in this industry.”
Matt Slater caught the political bug at 7 years old. On a trip to Washington, D.C., with his mother, Slater recalls seeing then-President Bill Clinton pass by in his motorcade and growing so interested in politics that he sent Clinton an eight-page letter.
This passion drew him to Saint Anselm College in Manchester, New Hampshire, where he found himself quickly immersed in a state where closely vetting presidential candidates comes a close second to the state’s official motto of “Live Free or Die.” Slater was there for the crowded 2008 presidential primary where bumping into presidential candidates such as John McCain in a diner or Joe Biden keynoting a pancake breakfast was the norm.
“There is nothing quite like New Hampshire presidential politics,” he says.
After college, Slater was chief of staff to then-state Sen. Terrence Murphy of New York and ran the New Hampshire Republican Party before being elected Yorktown town supervisor in 2019.
In the chaos of the coronavirus pandemic, Slater rolled out new communications methods, including nightly updates and increased use of social media.
With his work in local government leading to the state Legislature, Slater says he’s not sketching out his future.
“When you make plans, God laughs,” he says.
While stressing he’s focused on the Assembly, Slater has advice for those looking to follow in his footsteps.
“You miss all the shots you don’t take,” he says. “You can’t be afraid to take a risk. You should not be afraid to fail. You can learn from that.”
– Profiles by John Celock, Aliana Jabbary, Alice Popovici & Erica Scalise
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