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Albany's power people

New Yorkers are familiar with the big names on the front lines of the state's political battles. So here's a primer on the other power brokers -- the negotiators, number crunchers, map makers, advisers -- who get things done and wield considerable influence, out of the spotlight.

ALBANY -- There are Cuomo, Skelos, Silver.

Then there are people with names like Coyne, Meara, Percoco, Cunningham and Mujica.

Haven't heard of the latter group? Outside of Albany circles, they are the largely unknown players who serve as the pistons at the Capitol -- whether driving politics, policy or money.

It's the governor and legislators who get their names in the papers. But behind them are people who regularly influence things in New York's capital.

There are, of course, many who wield influence, but when the combination of factors -- importance of their position, impact, years on the job, skill sets -- is considered, the people included here are certainly among the most influential, least-known people beyond Thruway's Exit 23.

The battlefield officers: Brian Coyne, Jack Casey
Age: 49
Residence: Rensselaer County
Politics: Democrat
Key role: Assembly's director of legislative operations

When the end-of-session crunch is on and the Assembly is passing hundreds of bills a day, or all through the session for that matter, Brian Coyne is the traffic cop and scout for Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver.

An Assembly staffer for most of his adult life, Coyne's portfolio is vast. He oversees staffers who handle everything from the 150-member chamber's security to bill introductions.

Coyne's most visible role is directing floor operations -- ensuring enough Democrats are in their seats for a critical vote, keeping count of votes on upcoming bills, preparing for a hostile amendment by Republicans.

His master's degree in legislative administration from the University at Albany is put to use advising Silver and Majority Leader Ronald Canestrari on avoiding problems, paying attention to lawmakers' needs, scheduling votes on bills Democrats want to highlight, and juggling the dozens of committee and other meetings during the compacted legislative workweek in Albany.

Few feel the pulse of a legislative body as does Coyne, and his importance to Silver has only expanded in recent years.

He is a legislative mechanic and gives instant feedback on problems developing in a diverse house that includes downstate urban liberals and upstate rural and suburban moderates.

His job oversees the official Journal office, the document rooms that house the vast collections of bills and everything from print shops to security.

"Shelly keeps the sense of the house, but Brian keeps the precise numbers," said one longtime lawmaker. He grasps rank-and-file members' priorities back home.

In a chamber of large political egos, Coyne, like any influential staff member, has a reputation for knowing something key: the limits of a staffer versus a sitting lawmaker.

"He keeps the machine moving," said Assembly Majority Leader Ronald Canestrari.

Jack Casey
Age: 61
Residence: Troy
Politics: Republican
Key role: Senate Parliamentarian

An expert in the written rules on the state Senate's operation, Jack Casey's job is to serve as enforcer of the parliamentary ways of the chamber -- whether it's keeping debate focused or helping Republicans stop hostile amendments by pesky Democrats.

His knowledge of the rules was tapped during a 2009 GOP Senate coup.

"Jack's our expert on the rules of order and proper procedures of the Senate floor, said Senate Deputy Majority Leader Thomas Libous, a Binghamton Republican.Casey's roadmaps: Rules of the House and Mason's Rules of Legislative Procedure, which has as its main goal elimination of "controversy, confusion and litigation and will make public bodies more efficient in their work and more pleasant to work in." His additional goal: making the right calls while staying below the radar.

A 15-year Senate veteran, Casey stands at the podium next to the day's presiding officer -- a senator -- as he or she oversees floor debate from the podium. If he or she doesn't know a rule, Casey whispers it in the senator's ear.

In a house with a small GOP majority and Democrats working full-time to take back control, Casey's job is key to keeping debate moving and ensuring that something embarrassing does not occur to a GOP senator.

He's a partisan, but has ruled, rarely, against Republicans on procedural matters.

A Yale English major and Albany Law School-trained lawyer, Casey studied Shakespeare at Cambridge. He's a lawyer, was a newspaper reporter, and ran the Rennsselaer County GOP during the Joe Bruno days.

He's written several books with an eye on New York history, including the tale of a late 1800s' murder trial in Troy whose perpetrator got the electric chair.

A year after that 1994 book was published, Casey joined in talks to restore the death penalty in New York, a statute that would later be overturned in the courts.
***
Roman Hedges: The Redistricting Mapmaker
Age: 64
Residence: Albany County
Politics: Democrat
Key role: Political mapmaker

Look no further than Roman Hedges to find someone capable of being both wonk and major Albany influencer. If he were in medicine, Hedges would be a brain surgeon. Luckily for Democrats, he's not.

Hedges' most prominent role for more than a generation: mapmaker extraordinaire in the last three, once-a-decade redistricting rounds that decide who you will vote with for members of the Assembly and Congress.

Lawmakers and governors may approve the lines, but Hedges has been in the small, very small, group that devises the lines and defends them in challenges before courts and the U.S. Justice Department.

A demographic expert who has made no bones about the rights of politicians, and not independent bodies, to oversee redistricting, Hedges could tell you faster than any GPS the location of streets and neighborhoods in communities across New York -- and their demographic composition.

His title on this year's redistricting panel: "citizen representative." Democrats, for decades, can thank Hedges for their huge party domination of the Assembly.

His jobs over the years also made him the Assembly Democrats' expert on taxes and economic matters, and he was the lead negotiator in talks with counterparts in the Senate and gubernatorial administrations on key fiscal and economic matters.

When not teaching political theory to college students, he is the Assembly Democrats' representative on the board of the state Dormitory Authority -- making him a decision-maker for an agency with $40 billion in bonds, the nation's second-largest issuer of public debt, after California.

That big new state university building or Roswell Park Cancer Institute wing? Hedges had some hand in that. His official title today is the Assembly's professor-in-residence, where he directs graduate student scholars.

"He knows the geographic details of the whole state.

He's absolutely invaluable, not only for his institutional memory but for knowing what's legal and not legal [on reapportionment]," said Assemblyman Jack McEneny, an Albany Democrat who chaired the Assembly's redistricting effort this year.
***
The $20 Billion De-coders:
Jocelyn Dax
Age: 58
Residence: Albany County
Politics: Democrat
Key role: Assembly deputy director of budget studies
Shawn MacKinnon
Age: 43
Residence: Saratoga County
Politics: Republican
Key role: Senate Finance Committee assistant director

As members of Albany's smallest club, Jocelyn Dax and Shawn MacKinnon together oversee one of the most complex tasks at the Capitol, and one that directly affects the pocketbooks of more New Yorkers than any other.

They craft the formula that determines state aid to 677 school districts.

The formula they composed this year: $20,009,599,388 -- based on 19 measurements of such things as a district's wealth, its enrollment, and its proportion of limited English proficiency students.

The work is secretive, demanding and closely scrutinized by lawmakers. For state residents, the work Dax and MacKinnon perform helps shape the kinds of programs schools can offer, and the size of their property tax bills.

The job demands attention to detail -- algebra, geography and Politics 101 are job requirements -- and an ability to turn numbers into bill copy that, while in English, few people in Albany can actually decipher.

The two understand better than anyone the complex funding formula -- and its many variables with terms like "building aid," and "combined wealth ratio," and "tax effort aid" -- to accommodate New York's vast and varied student population.

Producing the annual school "runs" -- ending with a total state aid allotment for each district in New York -- is a high-stakes ritual.

Using Excel software, Dax and MacKinnon -- representing Democrats in control of the Assembly and Republicans running the Senate -- trade, in some years, more than a dozen "specs" for how the school formula should be shaped in what is the annual budget's most secretive set of negotiations.

When it's over, they sign a document releasing their work from a vault in the nearby Education Department and, with hand carts, haul copies across the street -- at precisely the same time -- to anxiously awaiting lawmakers.

This year's runs, 151-pages apiece, emerged from a Capitol elevator at 2:33pm on March 29.

Dax, who had planned to teach after getting a master's in education from New York University, calls her job the best at the Capitol, and her portfolio also includes fiscal work covering 10 different state agencies.

MacKinnon, who began as a Senate fellow in 1995 and has a master's from the University at Albany, also is charged with fiscal oversight and being the Senate's chief negotiator involving the state university system and the STAR property tax rebate program.

"Jocelyn is someone very devoted to what she does. She finds a lot of satisfaction using the mathematics behind the school formula to do good things," said Assembly Education Committee Chairwoman Catherine Nolan, a Queens Democrat.

"I have a buddy back home who has a T-shirt with C.T.G on the front. On the back, it says Call The Guy. Shawn's the guy," said Senate Education Committee Chairman John Flanagan, a Suffolk County Republican.
***
The Negotiator: Robert Mujica Jr.
Age: 38
Residence: Albany
Politics: Republican
Key role: Senate Majority chief of staff/Senate Finance Secretary

When Robert Mujica Jr. is rushing through the hallways here with folders in hand, it means key budget and policy matters are being discussed.

Mujica holds the powerful and unusual dual roles of chief of staff and top fiscal adviser to the Republicans who control the Senate.

That puts him at the table in talks on every major issue with the Cuomo administration and counterparts in the Assembly.

His negotiating counterparts say Mujica has the unique characteristics of both policy wonk and political tactician.

He is known to be a calming influence in sometimes heated talks. "He lays back, listens, knows where he wants to go and embraces the concept that less is sometimes better than more," said one fellow negotiator.

Mujica is respected by lawmakers for not getting out front of senators, either in public or at the negotiating table (a trait that some former top legislative staffers ignored to their peril).

Republicans say his expertise was wanted, with the offer of more money, by Democrats when they took control of the Senate in 2009. "Loyalty is not an attribute a lot of people have here.

He does have it," said one senator who recalled the episode. "I don't know any senator who has ever expressed a negative word about Robert." .

The son of Puerto Rican immigrants, Mujica lives in a small Albany world: his office is in the Capitol and he resides a few blocks away, across the street from the governor's mansion -- where, Cuomo jokes, he can keep an eye on him.

Mujica, who has a master's in government administration from the University at Pennsylvania and an Albany Law School degree, has been with the Senate for more than 15 years. All the Senate's central staff ultimately report to him.

He has sat on a state board that doles out billions of dollars in capital funding and is one of three board directors of a large voluntary retirement plan for tens of thousands of state and local government workers.

"He has the total confidence of our conference when he is negotiating with the Assembly and governor's office. That's critically important to the functioning of the legislative process," said Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos.
***
The Lobbyist: Brian Meara
Age: 60
Residence: Queens
Politics: Democrat
Key role: Influencer

There are 6,099 registered lobbyists in Albany. Maybe 100 or so have serious, serious juice. Maybe a couple dozen are uber-influencers. Brian Meara is in that last group, and has been for more than 20 years.

While he deftly works both political parties, his chief connection has been Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, whom he met in the early 1970s when Silver was a law secretary to a civil court judge and Meara was a court officer in Manhattan criminal courts.

Meara is one of the hall walkers -- the smaller army of lobbyists who are guaranteed to be here when lawmakers are here. He rarely carries paperwork.

In the silly world of the Capitol, insiders can even be judged on where they get to hang their winter coats. For Meara, that's an office just steps from Silver's Capitol suite.

Meara's Albany lobbying began in 1976 for the court officers union. Friends with the family of Saul Weprin, the late Queens Democrat and former Assembly speaker, Meara sometimes drove Weprin to Albany on session days.

But his ties with Silver go deep and wide, and in 2000 he was one of Silver's inner circle to help him beat back a coup attempt by a Democratic lawmaker from Syracuse.

Unlike many lobbyists, Meara never served in or worked for the Legislature. "It's maybe given him a more straightforward approach," said one lawmaker.

Meara worked on the 1977 New York mayoral campaign for former Gov. Mario Cuomo.

A skilled political tactician, Meara was turned to by members of Congress over the years -- and again this year -- looking to protect their districts during redistricting.

He is seen as a message dispatcher from Silver during key times. "Less wired lobbyists can't be trusted to do that," said another Albany lobbyist.

Meara's lobbying portfolio has 59 clients, including the New York Yankees, film studios, PepsiCo, drug companies, Verizon, Big Tobacco, the NFL, Buffalo's Delaware North and the University at Buffalo.

He and his two partners -- one of whom, the very-connected Mike Avella, is the former top counsel to the Senate Republicans -- are paid upward of $25,000 a month from their clients for the influence they can
bring to their causes in Albany.

"They know Shelly [Silver] trusts him in a way, so he could be an honest broker," one Albany lobbyist said.
***
The Political Shaper: Jennifer Cunningham
Age: 50
Residence: Manhattan
Politics: Democratic
Key Role: Managing director, SKDKnickerbocker political and communications consulting firm

It is not a stretch to say that Andrew Cuomo might not be governor and Eric Schneiderman might not be attorney general were it not for Jennifer Cunningham.

For it was Cunningham, with her many union and Democratic Party ties and masterly political skills, who helped bring Cuomo out of the cold following his disastrous and Democratic Party-splitting gubernatorial primary run against H. Carl McCall in 2002 to win the attorney general's job in 2006.

And it was Cunningham who helped shape the 2010 campaign by Schneiderman, her ex-husband, taking him from little-known state senator to the state's chief legal post and the national platform it commands.
Cunningham's power in Albany goes back to the early 1990s, when she served as a top aide to Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver.

Her fingerprints are all over major health care decisions in New York the past two decades -- and she is much to credit, or blame, for New York spending billions of dollars more on Medicaid over the years.

Credit, in part, goes to the tough ad campaign she ran in 1995 against Gov. George Pataki's health cuts. Pataki would eventually reverse himself and later rely on Cunningham's union, the potent Local 1199 health care group, for support.

Cunningham, a New York University law school graduate, stopped her lobbying work when Cuomo became governor.

She has frequent chats with the governor, who counts her among the few he trusts for candid assessments on such things as getting last year's gay marriage law passed.
New York candidates -- including Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz, for whom Cunningham provided advertising and strategic help -- paid her firm more than $9 million the past few years.These days,

Cunningham advises both Cuomo and Schneiderman, two statewide Type A personalities who don't always see eye-to-eye. "If you want to have someone who knows how the Cuomo administration thinks, she knows how they think," said one fellow political consultant.
***
The Lawyer: Mylan Denerstein
Age: 44
Residence: Albany County
Politics: Democrat
Key Role: Counsel to the governor

There are few job titles actually written into state law.

Mylan Denerstein's job is right there: Article 2 of the Executive Law authorizes the title of "Counsel" to the governor, responsible for advising the governor on pending legislation, issues of clemency and other legal matters.

Born in Manhattan -- and a product of P.S. 75 elementary school and Stuyvesant High School -- Denerstein is the chief legal adviser to the governor in a Capitol building already filled with lawyers, including the governor.

She is the most influential African-American staffer in Cuomo's inner circle, and she meets with him at least once a day.

Her job runs from mundane to crucial.

In a statehouse where hundreds of bills are passed and sent to the governor each year -- 664 last year during Cuomo's first legislative session -- it is Denerstein and her legal team who must comb through each of them to recommend to the governor whether he should sign or veto a measure.

Are they constitutional? Do they overlap, or conflict, with existing law? Is there a political reason to sign or veto a measure? All must be considered by Denerstein. If it involves bill language, it goes through her.

Denerstein has been on the front lines in successful talks between the governor's office and the Legislature that led to such laws as expansion of the state's DNA database to last year's gay marriage measure and the state budget.

Denerstein's legal advice includes the shaping of executive orders -- an area in which Cuomo has sought to expand his powers in some key areas, such as health care. She also counsels the governor on judicial appointments.Denerstein had been in line to possibly become New York City Fire Commissioner when Cuomo, then the state attorney general, hired her in 2007 as deputy attorney general for social justice to oversee such bureaus as charities, civil rights, health care and labor issues .

Colleagues say the Columbia Law School grad brings an affable personality to an often way-to-serious group of Cuomo insiders. "She is quick with a joke in tense meetings," said one Cuomo adviser.
"Mylan is everything you want in a counsel and top adviser -- she's smart, she's tough, and she has impeccable integrity. She is a true public servant in every sense of the words,'' said Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
***
The Confidante: Joseph Percoco
Age: 42
Residence: Staten Island
Politics: Democrat
Key role: "Free safety" of Cuomo administration

If you are a legislator, or a union boss, or business leader, when Joe Percoco talks, you quickly know he is talking for the governor. There is no more trusted aide to Gov.
Andrew Cuomo than Percoco, who has been running interference, collecting intelligence, pushing back against critics, and representing the views of Cuomo since he first began working for him at the U.S.
Department of Housing and Urban Development in 1999.

Born in the Bronx and raised in Rockland County, Percoco has been described as the Cuomo administration's free safety -- running all over Albany's field of play.

His title is executive deputy secretary to Cuomo. He is the lawmakers' go-to person for their concerns, whether on local problems or policy disputes. "Joe is the guy putting out fires and advancing the agenda of the governor.

When you are getting close to the top of an issue, it's Joe Percoco you are sitting with," said Sen.
Andrew Lanza, a Staten Island Republican. "He has to make the governor's position known, and if he does it forcefully every so often, he does it forcefully." .

Percoco is one of the liaisons Cuomo relies on to work out problems on legislation or even thorny budget items.

It gets down to the highly local level: it was Percoco on the phone a half dozen times one recent night to allay a lawmaker's concerns over Nik Wallenda's upcoming Niagara Falls tightrope walk.

Percoco also is the person the governor turns to for planning all his big public events.

From staging to making sure the right person is not standing next to the wrong person to ensuring the governor knows the names of the people for shout-outs or handshakes, Percoco's advance work is legendary.

It is those personal touches, encouraged by Percoco, that boost ties for Cuomo with rank-and-file lawmakers.

It is a skill honed when Percoco did advance work for the governor's father, Mario, back in the early 1990s. (Like Mario Cuomo, Percoco is a St. John's law school graduate.)
The stories of Percoco's work have become quick legends: cross the governor, and Percoco is the one picking up the phone. Lawmakers in both parties say there is more to him.

Yes, he is intense and fiercely attentive to Cuomo. "Some of his people say, 'This is what I've got to do, I don't really want to do it, but the governor is making me do it.' Never does that happen with Joe.

He is the true representative of the governor's position," one lawmaker said.

"He's the guy I go to when I need to speak to someone in the administration. He's also the guy I've gone to when I'm displeased with things Cuomo did. And he talked to me about it. There's no revenge or anything like that.

He handled it, and we moved on, and I appreciate that," said Assemblywoman Crystal Peoples-Stokes, a Buffalo Democrat.
***
The Consummate Insider: Michael Del Giudice
Age: 69
Residence: Manhattan
Politics: Democratic
Key role: Adviser, financier, fundraiser
Michael Del Giudice's name turned up on just one of the daily meeting schedules Gov. Andrew Cuomo's office released in 2011. But don't read too much into that: Del Giudice has been advising the governor and his family for decades.
His course syllabus: how Albany works.

If there is a permanent government, Del Giudice is it. In the mid-1960s, he was a top official in Nassau County. A decade later, he was the top staffer under Assembly Speaker Stanley Steingut. He was a top adviser to Gov. Hugh Carey, then Gov.

Mario Cuomo's chief of staff, where he first worked with current Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

He left Albany a generation ago, but his influence continued: he has been close over the years to Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver. He has raised bucks for Hillary Clinton.

And he was Andrew Cuomo's transition team chairman -- a crucial post that helped the governor find people to join the administration and focus on key issues.

People close to Cuomo disagree over Del Giudice's current juice with the governor, but all agree he has, at least, helped Cuomo understand the pitfalls of Albany.

Like many on the outside with inside ties to Albany, Del Giudice's private business concerns have a state hook.

He is chairman of Rockland Capital Energy Investments, a New York and Texas energy investment company whose holdings include investments in oil, natural gas and solar facilities.
New York is looking to greatly expand its energy transmission and generating capacities.

He founded Millennium Credit Markets, an investment banking firm. New York is looking to expand public-private partnerships.

And he is a director and major shareholder of Fusion Telecommunications International, a Manhattan-based Internet protocol provider of voice and data communications.

The governor this year proposed, and then dropped, a plan to keep New York from regulating Internet phone service providers.

Del Giudice, whose son is with Albany's biggest lobbying firm, is also on the board of Consolidated Edison and for years served on the board of Barnes & Noble.

He is also Silver's appointee and serves as vice chairman of the New York Racing Association, a racetrack group facing a new round of scandals that will, sources say, be a new test for relations between Cuomo and Del Giudice.

"He's a straddler between the private world and being a trusted adviser to the governor,'' said one Albany lobbyist.
email: tprecious@buffnews.com

 

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