At a real estate lunch at the New York Bar Association last week, Bob Knakal, chairman of brokerage Massey Knakal, stood up and asked attendees to sign a petition to help find money to build a new $800 million station along the No. 7 line on Manhattan’s far West Side—one of many a real estate broker unleashed to amass signatures. The real estate industry has pushed the station, cut from a 1.5-mile extension due to rising costs, through grass-roots organizing and a new Web site (“Lost Station = Lost Jobs & Growth,” it reads).
The ringmaster of the push: Mary Ann Tighe, the tough-as-nails new chairwoman of the Real Estate Board of New York. Since taking over REBNY in January, Ms. Tighe has pushed the powerful lobby group onto a new political course. With obstacles blocking its traditional paths to power in Albany and City Hall—namely, a change to Democratic control in the State Senate and strict contribution rules in New York City—REBNY is expanding well beyond the traditional backroom lobbying by a select few.
Unlike in the past, the group’s campaigns for or against various issues—be it a subway station, taxes or housing legislation—will theoretically become far louder and more public, seeking the aid and partnership of whomever else might be affected outside of the real estate industry.
This more expansive approach is coupled with an attempt at essentially creating a political vehicle of Big Real Estate’s own—tentatively the Independence Party—with REBNY president Steven Spinola seeking millions to help elect a set of candidates to the State Legislature and the City Council.
“Once the political landscape changed, it became necessary to really engage things in a different manner,” Ms. Tighe said during an interview Monday afternoon at her office in the MetLife building. “This is not politics as usual, and we have to have a presence that’s somewhat different than the historic presence.”
Taken as a whole, REBNY’s approach rips a page from the playbook of one of the very forces that threatens its grip on power: labor. Some of the city’s more influential unions—the health care workers’ SEIU 1199, and building service workers in SEIU 32BJ, for instance—have used these organizing and political techniques for years, engaging their membership, often to great success on the legislative front.
THE ASCENSION OF MS. Tighe is a new turn in its own right for the 114-year-old organization, dominated at its top by a set of dynastic male landlords.
Ms. Tighe, the first woman to chair REBNY and the first broker to do so since the 1980s, is from a different mold. She grew up in the Bronx, started off in art history (once serving as an arts adviser to Vice President Mondale) and was a creator of the television network A&E. She has an image of perfection, one in which she talks openly about cosmetic surgery (her husband is a top plastic surgeon), sits with perfect posture and hardly looks her 61 years. Aggressive and intense, she has risen to be one of the top office-space brokers in the city.