Government can be grubby work. The hours are long, the pay is poor and the rewards of all the hard work not apparent often until decades later.
And in New York, working in politics can bring its own special kind of hardships. Politicos must explain to out-of-town relatives about working in an environment that has descended into a state of national ridicule. They must field questions about indictments, and coups, and dysfunction.
But still, each year thousands of young people from across the state embark on and pursue careers in Albany and elsewhere and dedicate themselves to making government work better. Their work impacts millions of people’s lives. All of them deserve to be commended.
This year, in The Capitol’s second annual list of Rising Stars in politics and government, we highlight 40 people under 40 years old, all toiling away in statewide politics or for state government. The competition was fierce—hundreds of e-mails and phone calls suggesting people for the list streamed in to the office, and we spent many hours trying to cull the list down to just 40.
Those who made it onto the pages that follow represent a broad cross-section of political life in the Empire State. Featured are several elected officials who people in Albany say have an especially bright future ahead of them. Also included are policy analysts who make sure that all the numbers add up, advocates who aim to make the voices of the people heard, lobbyists who knows the ins and out of the legislative process, and yes, even a few hardened political scribes who are tasked to cover the whole thing.
All of them are still in the early stages of their careers. But if the past is any kind of predictor, their future—and the state’s future, with their help—is looking up.
Deputy Director of Election Operations, New York State Board of Elections
Joe Burns first got involved in local politics as a high school student in Syracuse, stuffing envelopes for then-Rep. Jim Walsh’s campaign.
He stayed active, and after law school Burns signed on as legislative counsel for State Sen. John DeFrancisco, where he remained until taking a position at the State Board of Elections, where he currently serves as deputy director of Election Operations.
In his role there, Burns deals with a wide variety of issues that pertain to election law. Things will be especially busy around the office for the next few months.
One of Burns’ major responsibilities at the Board of Elections is overseeing the state’s transition to optical-scan voting machines. He cited the recent special election in New York’s 23rd Congressional District as an example of a race in which many counties rolled out the optical-scan voting machines, and said that, for the most part, the shift had been effective.
“So far, it’s been quite a success,” said Burns. “It’s a big change, and the technology is new for a lot of people. But I’m confident that once everyone gets their feet wet and has some practice they will all be comfortable with it.”
How did your past jobs get you to where you are now? “Working for Sen. DeFrancisco and in the State Legislature gave me an education that I could never have gotten in college and in law school. I learned things there that directly led to me getting here.”
If you were not working in politics, what would you be doing? “I would hope I’d be coach of the Syracuse men’s basketball team. But I know that Jim Boheim is doing a better job than I would, and I know that Mike Hopkins will do a better job than I would when he becomes head coach.”
Five years from now, what will it say on your business card? “I’m not exactly sure what it will say, but I know that I will be working somewhere in the public policy process. No doubt about that.”
Who would play you in the movie? “Stanley Tucci or Joe Pantoliano. I think it would have to be somebody bald like that.”
Vice President, the Parkside Group
Violet Moss’ interest in politics began at home.
“We always had interesting discussions at the dinner table. We’d talk about the Oliver North hearings, or the hostage crisis in Iran. My dad gave me the yellow ribbon to wear to school,” she says. “When you grow up in an African-American family, you talk about politics—things like current events, international issues and race relations.”
While at SUNY Albany, Moss began working for the New York State Assembly as a research analyst focused on environmental issues and hazardous waste. She eventually landed on Speaker Sheldon Silver’s staff, and remained there for eight years, working as an analyst for alcoholism and substance abuse issues, before rising to become the senior analyst for the Assembly Health Committee.
That role started Moss on a long path of health care advocacy, leading to a sting at the Children’s Health Fund.
“I could never demonstrate that I actually was responsible for the passage of S-Chip reauthorization,” she said, “but I helped create the groundswell for it. I organized town hall meetings and I wrote position papers.”
Eventually, she landed at the Parkside Group, coming on as a vice president just over a year ago.
These days, Moss says she leans, “more toward advocacy. I do a lot of lobbying, but I’m a very good advocate. I like to fight for people who don’t have a voice, like children and members of underserved populations. I’m looking for more of those types of clients.”
How did your past jobs get you to where you are now? “It was just a natural progression. My job in the Assembly led to lobbying. I think I’m tenacious and focused, and everything I’ve done has been coordinated.”
If you were not working in politics, what would you be doing? “I would own a bed and breakfast by the ocean. It would have books, and flowers, and a bakery, because I love to bake.”
Five years from now, what will it say on your business card? “Owner of my own business.”
Who would play you in the movie? “Lena Horne”
Alexander Betke II
Of Counsel, Wilson Elser Moskowitz Edelman & Dicker LLP
Alex Betke has politics in his blood. He grew up as a member of a highly political family in the Town of Coxsackie, where his grandfather served as both the mayor and town supervisor. Currently serving as supervisor himself, Betke’s first of several elections—to a town board position—was way back in 1999, when he was just 22.
“It’s a small town, so you’re exposed to a lot of different things, be it local legislation that affects a local municipality or the administrative side of running a community, running a town,” Betke said.
Betke’s duties as supervisor intersect with his role at Wilson Elser, where he is of counsel. Betke specializes in governmental and corporate matters and devotes much of his time to municipal issues, such as zoning and land use.
The wide variety of issues handled keeps things interesting at Wilson Elser, which is lucky for Betke, since he has worked there his entire adult life. He began working there as an office clerk while he was a student at Siena College, where he majored in history, and continued while he attended Western New England Law School at night. Betke joined the firm full-time upon graduation.
“I’ve literally worked here from the ground up,” he said.
How did your past jobs get you to where you are now? “I started here as a runner while I was at Siena College and stayed on as a law clerk while I was at law school. It was really the encouragement of the partners in the firm that led me to law school and to continue to work under them.”
If you were not working in politics, what would you be doing? “I’ve never really thought about it. But to be honest with you, I really wanted to be a professional baseball player.”
Five years from now, what will it say on your business card? “Regional Managing Partner at Wilson Elser.”
Who would play you in the movie? “Al Pacino. He’s cool.”
Tara Lai Quinlan
Legislative Director and General Counsel, New York State Trial Lawyers Association
At her dinner table growing up, while talking about her day, Tara Lai Quinlan’s parents, both public-school teachers in San Francisco, encouraged her to do good work for those less fortunate, she said.
“The fight-for-the-underdog mentality was instilled in me early on,” she said.
Quinlan went on to UC Berkeley, where she did volunteer work counseling prisoners. After college, she worked for two years with HUD, and later clerked at the second court of appeals in Manhattan.
Now, Quinlan is the legislative director and general counsel at the New York State Trial Lawyers Association, one of the most powerful lobbying groups in the state. She helps write memos for gun safety and patient rights.
Quinlan said she uses her influence to continue to work for the underdog.
“You define yourself by who is on the other side of the coin of what you’re doing. On the flip side of what I’m doing is big-tobacco and anti-consumer groups,” she said. “I feel we’re on the right side of the issues.”
How did your past jobs get you to where you are now? “All of my jobs have helped me understand the issues here and really help me feel connected. And, practically speaking, I’ve done so much writing as a clerk and as an attorney that’s come in handy with what I’m doing now.”
If you were not working in politics, what would you be doing? “I’m happy where I’m at now. I have entertained the idea of working at a civil rights agency, though.”
Five years from now, what will it say on your business card? “Legislative director of some kind.”
Who would play you in the movie? “Rachel Weisz. I loved her role in The Constant Gardner.”
Communications Director, Senate Deputy Majority Leader Jeffrey Klein
Some people get bitten by the political bug right away. For Gwen Rocco, it took some time. She was hoping to be on the other side of the equation, writing policy papers and sifting through the nitty-gritty of city and state government.
“I thought I would be doing something on the research track,” she said. “Who knew?”
But she has no regrets, she says. Rocco got her start as a press aide to Bill de Blasio in the City Council, eventually shifting to press secretary, then transitioning to de Blasio’s public advocate campaign in 2009. She worked briefly as advance director for former City Comptroller Bill Thompson’s mayoral campaign. And last February, she made the move to Senate Deputy Majority Leader Jeff Klein’s office as communications director.
“It’s exciting,” she said, “being involved in day-to-day activities at the Capitol. As deputy majority leader, Sen. Klein is involved in everything from budget negotiations to helping his constituents in the Bronx.”
But with the budget still locked in limbo, and Senate Democrats hanging on to their majority by a thread, Rocco said she anticipates a busy summer.
“I try to take deep breathes when needed,” she said.
She says she has no political aspirations herself, preferring to work behind the scenes as much as possible. And even though her roots are in Pasadena, Md., Rocco says she is in an Empire state of mind.
“I’m in love with New York,” she said.
How did your past jobs get you to where you are now? “I have been very fortunate to work for some of the hardest- working elected officials in New York City and state, who have been willing to give me amazing opportunities to take on new challenges, learn and grow in their offices.”
If you were not working in politics, what would you be doing? “Probably some sort of public-policy research, and still trying to figure out what I really want to do with my life.”
Five years from now, what will it say on your business card? “I’m sure something related to politics. Right now, I’m just looking forward to the weekend.”
Who would play you in the movie? “Allison Janney”
Communications and policy director, Kathleen Rice 2010
Eric Phillips was weaned on politics from a young age. His mother, Kathleen Falk, was an active political presence in their home state of Wisconsin, serving as public intervenor, a sort of statewide ombudsman for natural resources, until the position was eliminated in 1995. Falk was elected Dane County executive two years later, but clearly had designs on higher office. Phillips’ first official political gig was working for his mother’s gubernatorial run in 2002. And while Falk ultimately lost to Jim Doyle, Phillips parlayed the experience working on his mother’s campaign to land a wide variety of gigs in his home state.
Enter Kathleen Rice and her campaign for Nassau County district attorney in 2005. A friend in Long Island recommended Phillips fly out and join Rice’s underdog bid. He did, and has never looked back.
“Nobody thought she was going to win,” he said. “She defeated a 31-year incumbent, and I was fortunate enough to be a part of that.”
Now part of Rice’s attorney general campaign, Phillips said he sees similarities between many of the communities around New York and those in his native Wisconsin, which is similarly comprised of struggling rural areas. There is also the added bonus of being involved in the only competitive statewide Democratic primary race this year. But developing policy and dealing with New York’s robust (and persistent) press corps often keep Phillips away from his true love: the golf course.
Such is politics.
And then there is the recurring theory that Rice is Andrew Cuomo’s favored candidate in the race, despite the attorney general’s continued refusal to endorse so far.
Phillips insists this does not make his job any easier.
“It just makes it a little more unique,” he said. “I’ve been in situations where no one was paying attention to my candidate, and I’ve been in situations where my candidate was the perceived frontrunner. Both situations are challenging.”
How did your past jobs get you to where you are now? “I was a wood-floor sander. I think that when you’re sanding floors its all about changing your method and technique, depending on the floor and its condition. And that’s what politics is.”
If you were not working in politics, what would you be doing? “I’d probably be a reporter, either on the political or baseball beat.”
Five years from now, what will it say on your business card? “Hopefully, still helping people in government and politics effect positive change in the world. That’s why I got into this job, and that’s why I’ll stay in it.”
Who would play you in the movie? “Bradley Whitford”
Executive Director, New York State Association for Affordable Housing
Alison Badgett has only been the executive director of the New York State Association for Affordable Housing since April, but her background in the issues dates back to when the New Jersey native got a job with a community-based organization in Trenton that ran homeless shelters out of college. She became immersed in many of the issues plaguing the city and saw how much of a problem affordable housing was to Trenton.
Badgett went on to hold posts as executive director of Mercer Alliance to End Homelessness and, more recently, worked as the senior policy advisor to former New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine, where she focused on housing, land use and redevelopment policy.
At her current job at the NYSAAH, which is the largest affordable housing trade association in the country, she lobbies legislators on affordable-housing issues. She is also looking to expand the membership base of the group and hopes to open up more chapters all over the state.
Badgett says the best part of her job is working with developers and legislators who are all trying to find creative solutions to building more affordable units.
“I get to work with creative people who share similar goals,” she said. “We’re making an impact on people’s lives, on a larger scale.”
How did your past jobs get you to where you are now? “I’ve always been able to work with people who are mentors in this industry, and that experience helps me now.”
If you were not working in politics, what would you be doing? “I’d be working for a public-policy think tank.”
Five years from now, what will it say on your business card? “One never knows. I hope to have a long, illustrious career.”
Who would play you in the movie? “Diane Keaton”
Governmental Analyst, Hinman Straub
Growing up in the tiny town of Valley Falls in Rensselaer County, Heather Evans was not exposed to a large variety of ethnicities, races or ideologies until she began attending SUNY Albany’s diverse campus.
Meeting those new people inspired Evans to get involved with SUNY Albany’s Student Association, and eventually led her to work in government. She worked with other students and state legislators on public education issues, stressing fair access and affordability of education for all residents.
“The diversity of the university system is what got me involved in politics,” she said.
While there, she met Assembly Member Ed Sullivan, of Manhattan, who was then chairman of the Higher Education Committee. They worked together on issues involving PELL grants. After she graduated, Sullivan asked Evans to join his staff.
When Sullivan retired, Evans signed on as a registered lobbyist and Legislative Director with Barrett Associates. Evans now works as a governmental analyst at Hinman Straub, working with education and government lobbying. Most of her work involves analyzing and drafting legislation for clients and dealing with strategic plans for campaigns, though her practice recently has gotten her back to her roots.
“Instead of doing just direct lobbying, or dealing with people on a business level, I’ve been working on a grassroots level,” she said.
How did your past jobs get you to where you are now? “I’m thankful that Michael Barrett of Barrett Associates gave me the opportunity to test the waters outside of politics.”
If you were not working in politics, what would you be doing? “I like organizing—I think in some capacity I’d be doing something with that or with advocacy.”
Five years from now, what will it say on your business card? “I hope in five years I’m here at Hinman Straub—whether it says principal or analyst, it doesn’t matter to me. It’s a good working environment.”
Who would play you in the movie? “I’ll go with Angelina Jolie, because I’d like to be an action hero.”
Legislative Director, Assembly Subcommittee on Workplace Safety
Allison Weingarten first realized she had a thing for labor while attending the Cornell University School of Industrial and Labor Relations. After a summer internship in Sen. Chuck Schumer’s Washington office, she knew she wanted to pursue her political interests after school.
Landing a position with Assembly Member Rory Lancman’s brand-new subcommittee put her at an ideal intersection of labor, legislation and policy, as the only legislative director for an Assembly subcommittee. Among her various duties over the past year, Weingarten drafted the subcommittee’s reports on H1N1 in the workplace and violence against workers in the juvenile justice system.
The juvenile justice report, in particular, has already had an impact.
“I have gotten calls from just regular workers who have said they see my work and they’re very happy with it and that it’s helping them,” she said.
While the work has at times been overwhelming, the experience has solidified Weingarten’s interest in labor issues. She would eventually like to work for a union or labor-advocacy group.
“I want to stay in the labor movement. I think it needs more young people,” she said.
Until then, Weingarten said her focus will remain on keeping New Yorkers safe on the job.
“Everyone really does deserve to come home after a day at work safely to their family and loved ones,” she said.
How did your past jobs get you to where you are today? “I’m still learning what I need for this position but, if anything helped me, it was my different internships.”
If you were not working in politics, what would you be doing? “Talk show host or a waterslide tester.”
Five years from now, what will it say on your business card? “I’m hoping it will say ‘Legislative Director’ for a union.”
Who would play you in the movie? “Ellen Page”
Team leader, Senate Democratic majority/Member, Albany County Legislature
“I was in the trenches in 2006, when Andrea Stewart-Cousins won. I was in the trenches in ‘07, when Craig Johnson got elected in a special; in ‘08, when Darrel Aubertine got elected in his special,” Chris Higgins said, listing his formative experiences. “I have been there.”
His Democratic campaign roots, though, go back deeper than that. In the mid-’80s, his father won his seat on the Dutchess County Legislature by only one vote. After law school, where Higgins specialized in civil litigation and election law, he briefly worked in private practice and for the state Board of Elections before becoming a legislative aide to then-Assembly Member (and future Suffolk County Executive) Steve Levy. He shifted chambers in 2006, working as an assistant counsel to the Senate Democrats, a job that was eventually re-branded as “team leader.”
He consults for Senate Democrats, going through their campaign petitions to make sure no errors slip through, as well as providing research assistance and legal advice for important statewide issues like racing, gaming and wagering.
Not content to just work for state lawmakers, Higgins was elected to the Albany County Legislature three years ago, where he set out sponsoring legislation to ban text messaging while driving and requiring plastic-bag recycling outside big-box stores.
“I’m relatively young,” he said. “I have a lot of energy. I don’t have any kids. I don’t have a wife. I don’t have a fiancée. I’m able to dedicate a tremendous amount of my time to public service.”
In the face of plummeting public opinion and a growing anti-incumbent mood, Higgins is a staunch defender of the Senate’s rank-and-file members—possibly because he may want to be one someday? He won’t say, but he will readily point out that his website, HigginsForAlbany.com, is office-neutral, leaving open the door for a future run for an undisclosed position.
“It doesn’t say ‘Higgins for County Legislature,’ does it now?” he said coyly.
How did your past jobs get you to where you are now? “Someone at the State Board of Elections told me about this position with the Senate minority at the time. I applied and wiggled my way in the door. I like to think my expert interviewing skills and my work ethic got me the rest of the way.”
If you were not working in politics, what would you be doing? “I’d probably be a pilot. When I was in college, I worked for a helicopter company.”
Five years from now, what will it say on your business card? “I definitely have higher political aspirations, but I don’t think I want to tip my hand quite so early.”
Who would play you in the movie? “Jonah Hill”
Reporter, Albany Times-Union
Jimmy Vielkind was looking for a summer job between high school and college and only asked that it pay more than minimum wage. He ended up at the Glen Falls Chronicle, expecting to do layouts. His first call to the editor placed him in a different position.
“I asked him if I was going to do layouts,” he recalled. “He said, ‘No, you’re a reporter.’ So I was.”
Vielkind is now in charge of Albany Times-Union’s political blog, “Capitol Confidential,” bringing skills he picked up blogging at the Observer’s “PolitickerNY” to his hometown paper. He has covered the Senate coup and subsequent shakeup, budget woes and the governor’s scandals.
Vielkind said he has always been a “geek” for state politics.
“Growing up in Albany, with no sports team, you follow the State Legislature instead,” he said.
His goal now is to make government more understandable for readers, noting that his most important role is informing citizens about candidates.
Currently also pursuing a Masters in Urban Planning at SUNY Albany, Vielkind continues to search for the clearest explanation of the often confusing issues happening in the government.
“I write for the paper that my mother and my kindergarten teacher read,” he said. “When writing about an issue, I think, ‘How does this affect them?’”
How did your past jobs get you to where you are now? “All of the papers I’ve worked at have given me valuable experience as a writer.”
If you were not working in politics, what would you be doing? “I’ve always wanted to be a barber. Either that or an aerospace engineer.”
Five years from now, what will it say on your business card? “I’ll be a journalist somewhere, probably writing about government. At some point it would be fun to be a columnist of some sort.”
Who would play you in the movie? “A young Robert Redford or Matt Damon, because they’re the good-looking blonde guys.”
Finance Director, Democratic State Senate Committee
For Michelle Gross, the finance director for DSCC, the bright spot of her job is not, in fact, raising money.
“Candidate recruitment is the best part of the process,” she said, adding that her position in finance means she gets to know aspiring elected officials early.
As the Democrats fight to retain and expand their majority in the Senate, Gross said she is proud of the slate of candidates they have for the 2010 election—and also of her role in getting them elected.
“There’s a lot that goes into a campaign that people don’t know about,” she said. “New Yorkers need a state government that works. The only way to do that is to run good campaigns, and that all requires money.”
Gross first got into politics through volunteering on Eliot Spitzer’s 2006 campaign for governor, working with Cindy Darrison, the managing director of the campaign. After graduating, Gross joined the newly-formed Darrison Barrett and Associates and continued to raise money for Democrats throughout the state, including Cy Vance and Carolyn Maloney.
The New Jersey native is now firmly rooted in New York, having worked with some of the top fundraisers in the state. She’d like to continue her work in state politics, but wouldn’t mind working on a presidential campaign in the future either.
“I like the everyday elements of the job—sometimes it’s crazy, sometimes it’s anything but glamorous,” she said. “But it’s knowing that once November comes, whether you win or you lose, you’ve done everything you could.”
How did your past jobs get you to where you are now? “What I’ve taken from each job—the people I’ve met, the work I’ve done and the lessons learned from the experiences—have been integral steps along the path towards where I am today.”
If you were not working in politics, what would you be doing? “I’d be a chef or a doctor.”
Five years from now, what will it say on your business card? “I’d like it to include something with New York State. Maybe a re-election campaign.”
Who would play you in the movie? “Natalie Portman”
Melinda Person stayed up the entire night before last month’s deadline to submit the state’s Race to the Top application, helping hash out a deal between the Assembly Democrats and the Senate on lifting the charter-school cap.
Those who know Person say, though, that such feats of endurance are not surprising: she is an avid triathlete, competing in Ironman competitions. So pulling an all-nighter at the Capitol seems easy by comparison.
“I feel like, ‘If I can do an Ironman, there’s nothing I can’t do,’” Person said.
As a lobbyist for one of the state’s most powerful interest groups, Person said she spends her time doing retail lobbying with lawmakers as well as helping with the union’s political action efforts, such as its well-known phone banking operation.
She has a long background advocating for education issues. Before joining NYSUT, Person worked as a staffer for the Assembly Ways and Means Committee on the Campaign for Fiscal Equity case.
But Person said her new job allows her to spend much more time with the union’s members and on the ground learning about their needs.
“Being outside, I felt a little more connected with the real-life impact of things than I did in the Capitol,” Person said.
How did your past jobs get you to where you are now? “I was a teacher in south Boston, and working in a school that had real needs in terms of getting funding.”
If you were not working in politics, what would you be doing? “I would be teaching, probably social studies or political science.”
Five years from now, what will it say on your business card? “I will either be in the same position, or another position advocating for educational opportunities for kids.”
Who would play you in the movie? “Sandra Bullock”
Chief of Staff, State Sen. Andrea Stewart-Cousins
Betsey Ball is happy to be called an optimist.
“You can never narrow expectations. I think the best way to inspire people and keep them motivated is to believe that even the smallest change has a ripple effect,” Ball said.
Ball has been having a ripple effect on local, state and national politics for years. She first got involved in politics as an intern for DC 37 straight out of undergrad at SUNY Albany. Her work there led to a position with the lobbying firm Yoswein New York, where she focused on, among other things, intergovernmental affairs and community organizing.
In 2000, Ball made the jump to presidential politics, joining the Gore/Lieberman campaign.
“It’s almost indescribable, the highs and lows of that experience,” said Ball, who stayed with the campaign all the way through the controversial Florida recount. “I look at it as a once-in-a-lifetime experience.”
Since then, Ball has been involved with numerous campaigns and elected officials, from Liz Krueger’s successful 2002 bid for State Senate to Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown’s re-election last year. She has served as Stewart-Cousins’ chief of staff since 2008, after working on her 2006 campaign.
Over time, Ball has shifted toward more staff positions than campaign positions, but she remains fulfilled working for the same goals that motivated her to walk down to the DC 37 office years ago.
“I’ve been very, very lucky in terms of knowing what the right moves are at the right times,” she said. “I just hope it never gets boring. I don’t think it will.”
How did your past jobs get you to where you are now? “Collectively, all of my experiences—how hard I’m working and what I do everyday—and that changes every day.”
If you were not working in politics, what would you be doing? “I would be extremely happy having anything to do with the Buffalo Bills.”
Five years from now, what will it say on your business card? “I would hope that the underlying message was that I was still working on the dream, to borrow from Bruce Springsteen.”
Who would play you in the movie? “Julia Roberts. I’ve always thought she played real-life people very well.”
State Senator, Queens
When José Peralta joined the State Senate in mid-March, he went from being one of 150 Assembly members to one of 62 senators. His staff size more than doubled, from five to 12.
But the biggest change since Peralta replaced Hiram Monserate has been in the way the Democratic conference started operating, he said, unifying on everything from lifting the charter-school cap, to preventing park closures, to a landmark bill protecting domestic workers.
“It was sort of like tranquility and happiness came over everything,” Peralta said. “Now, we’re getting down to business and have started voting in a bloc. The Amigos have calmed down to the point where people are saying that John Sampson has the ability to move big votes.”
Peralta is also already making a mark as the new chair of the Consumer Protection Committee, with a bill protecting consumers from bed bugs infestation moving quickly through the legislative process. He is fighting the potential merger of the state’s Consumer Protection Board into the attorney general’s office, which would save an estimated $800,000 but which he said could undermine the board’s performance.
Peralta said his approach differs from that of his predecessor, Monserrate, because Peralta tends to look at the big picture rather than reacting to every perceived slight. Peralta, for instance, remained diplomatic about a recent AFL-CIO flyering campaign in his district calling him out for a number of votes, even though he has only been in the Senate for a few months.
“You have to look at the big picture,” Peralta reiterated. “I come from labor, and have always been a friend to labor. We’re going to agree on the issues nine out of 10 times.”
How did your past jobs get you to where you are now? “I came of age at the New York City Central Labor Council. I was an overall utility player for them.”
If you were not working in politics, what would you be doing? “Lobbyist.”
Five years from now, what will it say on your business card? “Mr. Borough President [of Queens]”
What actor would play you in the movie? “Morris Chestnut”
Senior legislative assistant, Assembly Speaker Pro Tem Peter Rivera /Member, Albany Common Council
Thirteen years ago, Anton Konev arrived in the United States from St. Petersburg, Russia, knowing very little English. Today, Konev is a top aide to Assembly Speaker Pro Tem Peter Rivera, as well as an elected official in his own right.
What happened in between, Konev says, is classic America Dream stuff.
Konev says he was encouraged to get involved in local and state politics in part because how little community engagement he saw back in his home country. He helped organize an Albany crime-watch program, after being attacked by a gang outside of the university and finding little help from the police and university security.
“What better way to improve a community than to get involved yourself,” he said.
Konev works for Rivera, helping prioritize legislation for a whole host of issues, from education to workforce development to bills that would help disabled individuals. He is also an elected official himself, a member of the Albany Common Council, in a seat he won with 53 percent of the vote last year in a three-way race. Konev said he got his first taste of dirty politics when his opponents started slinging mud. Instead of firing back, though, Konev said he tried to keep himself focused on the issues.
Konev’s multilateral lifestyle leaves little time for a normal 26-year-old social life, but he has few regrets.
“Pretty much every night, if I’m not working late in the legislative office, I have some kind of meeting I have to go to,” he said.
When he is with his family, Konev says he often finds himself defending American democracy, especially with some of his more apathetic relatives.
“Some of my family doesn’t vote,” he said. “That’s always a big argument, because I certainly believe it’s one of the more fundamental rights.”
How did your past jobs get you to where you are now? “Working for the state was always my goal. Everything led to where I am right now. I didn’t really have too many jobs before. I was an intern, so that was a natural entryway into state politics.”
If you were not working in politics, what would you be doing? “Probably a lawyer or doctor.”
Five years from now, what will it say on your business card? “Three years from now, it will say Common Councilman for the City of Albany, because I plan on getting re-elected. I’m not sure what kind of opportunities will be available in five years, so I’ll leave it open-ended.”
Who would play you in the movie? “Arnold Schwarzenegger”
Marcos Crespo won a special election for assembly last year, but he started out in Albany at the bottom-most rung. He first came to the state Capitol as an intern for then-Assembly Member Ruben Diaz, Jr. in 2003, while he was a student at John Jay College. Crespo liked it so much that he stuck around for the summer working in the district office, and after graduation was hired by Diaz’s father, State Sen. Ruben Diaz, Sr.
For the elder Diaz, he served as an executive assistant, traveling with the Senator to Albany on session days and working out of the district office otherwise.
Crespo worked for the elder Diaz as controversy swirled around him over the last couple of years—for his joining of “The Four Amigos” prior to the Democrats taking control of the Senate, the subsequent coup, and his outspoken objection to gay marriage.
“The coup was like every day in Senator Diaz’s life,” Crespo said. “He’s controversial. There’s always a buzz around him.”
But he credits his time with Diaz, shuttling between Albany and the Bronx, with helping him get elected last year.
“That experience gave me the ideal background that helped give me the support I needed to run for the special election,” he said. “A lot of folks said, ‘Hey, you are the perfect candidate. You know Albany. You know the district.’”
Having worked for both the elder and the younger Diazes, Crespo sees himself as someone capable of melding the styles of the two men.
“I am more like Ruben in my demeanor, but more like the Senator in my ideals,” he says. “I consider myself a conservative on some issues. I am against same-sex marriage, I am pro-life. Junior is a bit more on the liberal side than his father, but in terms of his demeanor and the way I deliver my message, I am more diplomatic like Junior.”
How did your past jobs get you to where you are now? “The internship. That opened my eyes. When you are in Albany, you come in contact with a number of different organizations, and you realize the need in so many walks of life. You understand just how relevant public service is.”
If you were not working in politics, what would you be doing? “I’d be a painter. I’d be a member of DC9. Wherever they would send me, I would go paint.”
Five years from now, what will it say on your business card? “Member of the New York State Assembly, 85th district, god willing.”
Who would play you in the movie? “Myself. We are not getting paid until the budget is passed, so I’ll take the side job.”
Chief of Staff, State Sen. Craig Johnson
Rafe Lieber is no political novice. His position as chief of staff for State Sen. Craig Johnson is just one of many: he started his career as a staffer for Rep. Gary Ackerman right after college, and was working for the town of North Hempstead prior to joining Johnson’s team.
Yet he still sounds out of breath when he talks about the special election that put Johnson in Albany.
“It felt like a three-month campaign packed into 28 days,” Lieber said.
Lieber has been with Johnson ever since, involved in Johnson’s regular fights against some of the state’s biggest interests. Most recently, Lieber’s boss butted heads with UFT over charter schools—and came out not just alive, but with their approach carrying the day. For Lieber, political independence—a crucial for the senator—comes from picking your priorities.
“The district, Nassau, Long Island, New York—that’s the way we operate and that flies in the face of some people,” he said.
Lieber has been mentioned in the past as a possible candidate for office in Nassau County. He admits this is something he hasn’t ruled out in the future, but for now he is enjoying his time in Albany.
“As a political junkie, what better place can there possibly be than the New York State Senate?” he said.
How did your past jobs get you to where you are now? “I’ve been involved for so long, I’ve made a lot of contacts, I’ve met a lot of people. The town of Hempstead is eighty percent of the district, so Craig felt I’d have a good understanding of the issues and the district.”
If you were not working in politics, what would you be doing? “I’d probably want to teach history or social studies in high school.”
Five years from now, what will it say on your business card? “Secretary to Gov. Johnson”
Who would play you in the movie? “Michael J. Fox”
Deputy Press Secretary for Senate Majority
Travis Proulx comes to Albany from upstate.
Not upstate in the way most people think of upstate, as in “north of the New York City suburbs,” but upstate as in Lewis County, as far north as you can go in New York before hitting Canada.
He grew up 20 miles outside of a town with only 500 people in it, but his knowledge of the far corners of the state came in handy in his first job in Albany, where he worked for the Democratic conference trying to get papers in members’ hometowns to pay attention to what they were doing in Albany.
“A lot of times, senators would accomplish something in Albany, and you would just have to hope that it trickled down into the news of where they lived,” he says. “I would try to help members get credit in areas where Democrats aren’t necessarily viable candidates.”
Proulx came to Albany after a stint in State Sen. Liz Krueger’s office, and, before that, getting a degree at the City University of New York’s Graduate Center, where he interned for John Stossel at ABC News. That experience helped him learn how newsrooms decide what is newsworthy.
And, he says, there is nothing better than working in state government.
“People often assume federal politics is sexier,” he says. “But the reality is that what happens on the state level affects people’s lives far more than any other level of government.”
How did your past jobs get you to where you are now? “One of my first jobs was working for a higher education opportunity program that helps low-income and disadvantaged students succeed in college. I was in that program when I was in college, and I would not have gone to school otherwise. It instilled in me a passion for keeping programs like that alive and thriving.”
If you were not working in politics, what would you be doing? “Buying up dilapidated old houses and redoing them.”
Five years from now, what will it say on your business card? “Deputy Press Secretary for the Senate Super-majority.”
Who would play you in the movie? “The guy who plays Dwight Schrute in The Office.”
Principal, Abraham Crown & Associates
For most of her life, Jennifer Carlson has been surrounded by politics. As a child she recalled summers spent politicking for her grandmother, a town clerk in Niagara County, and other local candidates in western New York.
“While other kids were going off to summer camp, I was dropping literature,” she recalled.
In her late 20s, however, she found herself on the sidelines. A few years of getting away from it all in California had recently ended. Carlson was back in Buffalo, working with the YWCA to educate women on the importance of getting involved in government.
“I was sitting there one day and I thought, ‘What are you doing?’” she said.
Carlson has spent the past decade rectifying the situation. She started by getting back to her roots, working in local politics in Western New York. Her political consulting work took her as far away as Louisiana before she founded her own consulting firm, Abraham Crown & Associates, just a few years ago.
Who, exactly, is Abraham Crown? The firm is actually named after her dog.
“It had to be something personal, for ownership,” she said.
Carlson’s lobbying work has been credited with expanding the availability of alternative energies like solar power in New York State. Likewise, if the battle over selling wine in grocery stores is won by those in favor of it, they’ll have Carlson to thank.
Carlson sites her grandmother as the key to her success.
“I think my grandmother’s influence set me on the path, even if I didn’t recognize it at the time,” she said. “She would say, ‘Don’t just think outside the box; live outside of the box.’”
How did your past jobs get you to where you are now? “I really think it’s a reflection of how I grew up. It’s how I got to this place.”
If you were not working in politics, what would you be doing? “I’d be Lara Croft from Tomb Raider.”
Five years from now, what will it say on your business card? “It’s a surprise.”
Who would play you in the movie? “Ingrid Bergman”
Communications Director, Dan Donovan for Attorney General
Virginia Lam started her career in New York City politics nine years ago as an Urban Fellow, one of the people in the city’s program designed to introduce recent college graduates to public service by placing them in various agencies and departments.
Due to her extensive writing background—she was a journalism major at Northwestern—Lam was placed in the FDNY’s press office. There, she handled counter-terrorism education programs, issues on diversity within the department, and the health effects of Sept.11, as one of the department’s spokespersons.
Two years later, Lam got a call to join Mayor Bloomberg’s press office after his 2005 re-election, where she worked with what she described as some of the “brilliant minds in government.” Next up was a stint in the private sector, holding jobs at Ruder Finn and Howard Rubenstein’s powerhouse PR firm.
She joined Dan Donovan’s campaign for attorney general in May, working as his communications director. Lam is now in the midst of Donovan’s blitz tour of all 62 counties in the state, making up for lost time following Donavan’s wavering over whether to get into the race.
“The work that we do is important,” she said, “and it’s incredibly interesting to feel that you’re doing something that has a real positive impact on the lives of New Yorkers.”
How did your past jobs get you to where you are now? “I feel that I’ve been pretty fortunate in that each job has led me to the next one, and has been interconnected and built off of each other.”
If you were not working in politics, what would you be doing? “I’d be a journalist. I’d love to go back into reporting, and it could happen someday.”
Five years from now, what will it say on your business card? “In five years, I hope my business card says ‘Communications Director, Campaign to Re-Elect Dan Donovan Attorney General’!”
Who would play you in the movie? “Reese Witherspoon”
Republican State Comptroller Nominee
Over the past two years, Harry Wilson’s life has taken a rapid turn: from hedge fund manager at Silver Point Capital, to working on the Obama administration’s auto restructuring team, to winning the unanimous Republican nomination for comptroller.
Wilson said it all happened somewhat by chance. He became the only Republican in the leadership of the auto restructuring because he e-mailed Steve Rattner, who was leading the team and whom he had never met, his résumé. And after helping turn around General Motors, Wilson became a candidate himself only after he began searching for candidates to support in New York in 2010.
“Almost all those conversations ended with, ‘You should run. You should be one of those high-quality candidates,’” Wilson said.
Wilson grew up in the 7,000-person town of Johnstown in Fulton County, where he said he saw first-hand how upstate New York’s economic decline had affected families. His father’s generation, and grandfather’s, had spent their lives there, he said, but his own generation left for greener pastures.
“My generation—half the cousins live outside the state because they left to find jobs, including my sister,” Wilson said. “The half that are in New York, they spread all over the place. None of them are in Johnstown. It’s all over the map because the opportunity wasn’t there.”
Still, Wilson emerged to pay his way through Harvard and Harvard Business School, working odd jobs to pay the bills.
Though Andrew Cuomo is the odds-on favorite to be the next governor, Wilson said he was confident they could work together if both are elected. Notably, the Independence Party recently gave Wilson their line—he is the only Republican so far to get their nod—even as Cuomo is at the top of the party’s ticket.
Start your workday the right way with the news that matters most. Learn more