Meet the Power Politicians of New York
By Aaron Short and Rebecca Baird-Remba July 27, 2020 9:00 amreprints
Every year, Power 100 includes a healthy share of the powerful and mighty from the world of politics or Gotham’s tangle of city agencies that can approve a zoning or junk a landmark status.
But with tax revenue in free fall, a public health calamity, and a looming eviction crisis on the horizon, as we began adding new politicians to our list, it no longer looked much like a real estate list.
We gave a number of politicians prominent places on this year’s list (uh, hello, Andrew Cuomo!), but this was the list of politicos that every good real estate macher should know.
Director of the New York State Division of the Budget
Putting together the state budget in a normal year is an enormously stressful process that involves hundreds of meetings, scores of compromises, and usually a couple of oddball policies crammed into it at the last minute to the delight and horror of Albany observers everywhere.
But this year, Robert Mujica, who advised state Senate Republicans before joining the governor’s office, had the unenviable task of redrafting New York’s $177 billion budget bill amid a pandemic.
“Our hearts break for the lives lost and families disrupted,” Mujica said. “The pandemic’s unparalleled toll on the economy has led to millions of job losses in New York and nationwide, straining finances at home and in government.”
Mujica made regular appearances on the governor’s televised coronavirus briefings, making sanguine pronouncements about the multiple fiscal challenges the state faced.
The necessary shutdown of the state’s economy will lead to a projected 14 percent drop in state tax revenue, a shocking about-face from the 7 percent increase the state forecast before the pandemic took hold.
Behind the scenes, he had to juggle the whims and wishes of state Assembly and Senate leaders over hours-long conference calls in the run-up to the budget’s April 1 deadline.
“The budget in New York must be balanced,” Mujica said. “We worked with the legislature as the pandemic was hitting to develop a budget flexible enough to calibrate during the year as the revenue picture cleared.”
That final budget included provisions to revamp Medicaid, keep education spending flat, alter bail reform, and most significantly give the governor the authority to cut state spending quarterly if revenues fall during the remainder of the year.
But the worst is not over. With unemployment hovering at 15 percent in May and the state counting on federal funding from Congress, which has yet to materialize, further cuts to localities and programs could be on the way.
“Through it all, we developed, and are implementing, a budget amid unprecedented revenue uncertainty, which has deepened as the federal government fails to identify the funding states need to support schools, health care, and the most vulnerable among us,” Mujica said.
Progressive leaders are pushing for the governor to adopt a tax on billionaires to make up a $13 billion shortfall and provide more assistance to workers hurt by the coronavirus’s wrath.
Mujica has dismissed a state tax hike in favor of getting Congress to provide financial support while the state continues its contact tracing program to contain the virus and follows guidelines for reopening the economy.
“As we turn the corner to focus on the economy, the focus turns to Washington,” he said.—A.S.
SUNY Empire State College President and chairman of the Reimagine Education Advisory Council
Jim Malatras wasn’t about to say no when the governor needed his help.
The SUNY Empire State College president had served as an adviser on educational and legislative matters since Cuomo was state attorney general and dealt with an array of crises including an 8-foot snow drift in Buffalo and an outbreak of Ebola, when he was state director of operations between 2014 and 2017.
But the coronavirus pandemic would test all of his faculties. The secretary to the governor, Melissa DeRosa, called Malatras in early March, asking if he would pitch in for three days and help Cuomo’s team respond to the crisis. Four months later, he’s still attending Cuomo’s nationally televised briefings and sitting in multiple three- to four-hour meetings to develop guidance for schools and universities to operate safely.
“This has shown that people have banded together,” Malatras told CO. “We have to think about how do you get business back and operational, and there’s been a willingness to work on these things.”
Malatras’ charge as chairman of the governor’s Reimagine Education Advisory Council was to draft school closure plans across the state as positive cases began to surge before he was embedded in the day-to-day demands of the governor’s coronavirus task force.
Soon his work turned to managing the state’s data shop and tracking the number of coronavirus tests, hospitalizations, ICU admissions and deaths, so the public could observe the state’s progress. Malatras and his team were also responsible for overseeing the use of ventilators at hospitals, so they could shift medical equipment to hot spots whenever necessary.
“We collected a ton of data including surveys, did modeling, and put together all the data you see in the morning briefings,” Malatras said. “The data dashboard came out of the shop I was managing.”
His latest challenge has been developing a responsible reopening plan for both schools and colleges amid pressure from the White House, which is demanding in-person instruction without a plan of its own.
“You have to present to people some level of comfort that policymakers tasked with dealing with these important things are trying to work though and protect people while also providing services,” Malatras said. “Any other way is really dangerous. And giving people false notions of what that could be gives people less confidence for if something goes wrong.”—A.S.
New York City Council Speaker
This was supposed to be the year that Corey Johnson broke away from the pack to emerge as a front-runner in the race to succeed Bill de Blasio in City Hall.
Johnson ramped up his public appearances last summer while the mayor was visiting early primary states during his ill-fated presidential run, and then pushed the mayor to add 250 miles of protected bike lanes once de Blasio returned from the campaign trail in the fall.
But 2020 hasn’t gone according to anyone’s plan. The City Council has been forced to contend with a public health crisis that has ravaged the city’s most vulnerable populations and laid bare shocking disparities between wealthy private hospitals and poorer public ones.
Johnson first warned against closing schools and offices and called on public health experts to establish guidelines. But he later said that “everyone was too slow” to shut the city down, and local leaders were “flying blind.”
By May, the Council passed a package of bills that would protect residential and commercial tenants from harassment and cap commissions for food delivery services. Johnson wants the city to improve its contact tracing program and expedite testing results through the summer.
“We need to remain cautious and always follow the science,” he told CO. “Every decision must be made with public health and public safety in mind.”
At the same time, the Council led a move to reduce the police department’s budget amid mass demonstrations following George Floyd’s killing in Minnesota.
Black Lives Matter activists called on the city to slash $1 billion from the NYPD, release police disciplinary records, and end discriminatory police tactics. Johnson said he was inspired by the demonstrators and decried police aggression taken against them.
“We are in a generational moment of reckoning, and it’s important that New York City not let this moment pass us by,” he said. “The awful response from the NYPD to the protests here showed how far we have to go and how much work lies before us.
But when budget plans emerged that merely shifted resources to other agencies without reducing the size of the police department, advocates called the move a “betrayal.” Johnson said he did his best and acknowledged the budget was a “starting point” for revamping public safety.
“We need to fundamentally reimagine policing in our city and transform the relationship of the NYPD to the city as a whole,” Johnson said. “One part of this is the need to shift resources from the NYPD and make investments in communities that confront the root causes of crime.”—A.S.
New York State Attorney General
Since taking office last year as New York’s State Attorney General, Letitia James has brought the passion she became famous for during her tenure as New York City Public Advocate to an office with significantly more power and clout.
In particular, she has tried to go after landlords and housing operators engaged in illegal activity. Last year, she secured $500,000 worth of rent credits for 82 rent- stabilized tenants in Brooklyn who endured harassment from landlord Coastline Real Estate Advisors. She also went after notorious landlord Raphael Toledano, who allegedly “harassed tenants through coercive buyouts, illegal construction practices and failed to provide his rent-regulated tenants with utilities, repairs, and other necessary services,” according to James’ office. Toledano agreed to pay $3 million in damages as part of a settlement. She also sued Zara Realty, which owns and manages 2,500 apartments in Queens, for allegedly charging tenants illegal fees and requiring that they sign illegal leases.
Her office has also pursued subprime mortgage lenders, merchant cash advance companies and hedge funds that were lending illegally and harassing borrowers.
James has also been at the forefront of cracking down on sexual harassment across a number of industries, including construction. She recently won a $1.5 million settlement for 18 former employees of a Long Island-based contracting firm—most of whom were Black women—in a case where the women suffered extreme sexual harassment on the job, including managers demanding sex in exchange for pay and overtime.—R.B.R.
Director of the New York City Department of City Planning; Chair of the City Planning Commission
The Department of City Planning has had a challenging year. The city rezoning process—formally known as the Universal Land Use Review Procedures (ULURP)—has been paused since the coronavirus pandemic began in late March, as the agency has struggled to figure out how to run livestream public meetings with testimony. Much to the relief of developers and architects, the mayor’s office recently announced that ULURP will return in August.
DCP was also close to kicking off the Gowanus rezoning before coronavirus derailed the day-to-day business of city government. Councilmember Brad Lander, who has represented the neighborhood since 2010 and has been working on the rezoning for several years, hopes to see it finalized before he leaves office next year.
Two other neighborhood rezonings initiated by the de Blasio administration also bit the dust in January, as the City Council members who represent those areas came out against them. North Brooklyn Councilman Antonio Reynoso opposed the city’s planned rezoning of Bushwick, which would have added 5,600 units of new housing to the neighborhood. Similarly, Councilman Rafael Salamanca revealed in an op-ed that he would publicly oppose a rezoning of Southern Boulevard in his South Bronx district.
To top it all off, neighborhood groups sued City Planning and the administration of Mayor Bill de Blasio last year over the rezoning of Inwood, a heavily Latinx neighborhood in upper Manhattan. However, an appellate court panel just upheld the rezoning, in a key victory for the mayor. The ruling reverses a lower court decision from December that had struck down the new zoning on the grounds that it didn’t take into account displacement and racial impacts.
Still, DCP has done at least one popular thing during the pandemic. It suspended zoning rules for public waterfront spaces and privately owned public spaces in late June.
“This Executive Order means that hundreds of gracious open spaces that dot our busy commercial districts and our waterfront are now available to help New Yorkers physically distance as we get back to work,” said DCP Director Marisa Lago in a statement. “Our local eating, drinking and retail establishments can temporarily expand into these spaces – all of which were created for the public’s enjoyment.”—R.B.R.
New York City Schools Chancellor
Richard Carranza won’t forget this school year anytime soon.
The schools chancellor, who was the mayor’s back-up choice after Miami-Dade superintendent Alberto Carvalho turned down the job in March 2018 on live television, has taken on some of the school system’s thorniest topics. He declared racially integrating the city’s 1,800 schools his top priority while urging the state legislature to repeal the specialized high school admissions exam, in order to diversify the city’s most competitive high schools.
But the arrival of a swift moving pandemic this spring brought its own challenges. Closing schools for an extended period of time was a “last resort,” Carranza initially argued in early March, because schools provide meals and supervision for more than a million students.
“This is an extreme measure that can be disruptive to day-to-day life, and the decision to implement will only be taken at the direction of public health experts,” Carranza wrote to families on March 3.
That concern was superseded by the public health risk unventilated classrooms posed to teachers, staff and parents. As cases started to rise, parents kept their children at home, and the teachers’ union called on the city to shut down all public schools on March 13. The coronavirus would claim the lives of 74 department of education employees including 30 teachers over the next two months.
Department of Education leaders quickly shifted to launch a remote learning program for the entire school system that would last the rest of the school year.
Carranza emphasized that teachers, parents and students needed to be “flexible” since this would not be a normal educational experience.
“The goal here is to remain academically engaged, the goal is to continue to try to master concepts, the goal is not to adhere to a lunch schedule, or adhere to a class schedule,” Carranza told NY1 on March 20.
School leaders are finding that reopening the system will be significantly more difficult. Carranza and the mayor announced a plan on July 8 that would mix in-person and remote instruction by having students attend school in shifts to ensure classroom sizes are capped at no more than a dozen. Parents demanded more of a say in the plan, while teachers warned that a partial, alternating reopening will damage students’ ability to learn over the long run.
And that’s if schools will even be allowed to reopen. Gov. Cuomo is mandating that any region must have a daily infection rate of lower than 5 percent over a 14-week period before students can return to classrooms.—A.S.