RISING STARS: 40 UNDER 40

Written by City & State on . Posted in Features, Rising Stars.





Profiles by Jon Lentz, Laura Nahmias, Morgan Pehme, Nick Powell, Peter Rugg and Aaron Short

If you can make it in New York City, you can make it anywhere. And if you want to know who’s making it in the city’s political circles, this is the list for you.

Our seventh annual rundown of the city’s most promising young talent encompasses elected officials and hardworking staffers, muckraking bloggers and intrepid reporters, and well-connected lobbyists and union reps.

Apart from a Koch and a Giuliani (who bear the same last name as their famous relatives), none are household names—not yet, that is. Like our past 40 Under 40 honorees, who are now among the city’s most influential movers and shakers, this year’s Rising Stars are already well on their way to bigger and better things.


JEFF MERRITT
Senior Adviser to Public Advocate Bill de Blasio

Age: 34

Jeff Merritt’s job title at the public advocate’s office is broad, and that’s the way Merritt likes it.

“I am a jack-of-all-trades,” Merritt said. “I see my role as demonstrating that this office can have impact.”

As senior adviser, he has helped Bill de Blasio with his work on the Citizens United Supreme Court decision as the head of the national coalition for accountability in political spending.

Merritt, who has a master’s degree from Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs, is also used to thinking globally. After finishing grad school, he worked for the State Department and for USAID on promoting democracy in the Balkans.

“I’ve always been a politics guy,” Merritt said. “I thought if you wanted to push for social change, you had to work with or in government.”

If you were not working in politics, what would you be doing?
“I don’t like to say that I work in politics, but I could easily see myself going back to international democracy work. To me there’s nothing better than taking disengaged communities and helping people find their voice.”

Five years from now, what will it say on your business card?
“It would just say, ‘Innovator, doing big things.’ I don’t think I’ve ever had a business card with a traditional, detailed title.”

If you could have dinner with any person—living, historical or fictitious—who would it be, and why?
“It would be a toss-up between Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Steve Jobs. Roosevelt was somebody who understood how to harness the power of government. Steve Jobs had the ability to look not only at the times we live in now but to be able to look ahead and be able to create a vision that might take 10 years to develop.”

-L.N.


JACLYN KESSEL
Vice President, BerlinRosen

Age: 30

Jaclyn Kessel was a sophomore at NYU when the 9/11 attacks took place.

“That’s what got me into all of this,” she said. “I did what any liberal New York woman was doing at the time—I joined the Army. I thought the Army needed more progressive smart women.”

Kessel did so many push-ups in training that she permanently injured her wrists, resulting in a medical discharge from the service. She turned to politics, interned with then state Sen. David Paterson, and worked with the New York State Senate Democratic Conference on a strategy that successfully picked up the largest number of new Democratic seats in the Senate since 1968.

When Jonathan Rosen and Valerie Berlin left the Senate Democrats to start their firm, they took Kessel with them. Recently she’s been strategizing on the campaign to keep Walmart out of New York City, and working with the Freelancers Union, a rising political power.

Kessel loves the work. “It’s easy to complain, but it’s a lot more effective and fulfilling to go ahead and get your hands dirty,” she said.

If you were not working in politics, what would you be doing?
“I have to believe I would be a captain in the United States Army right now, which is just mind-blowing.”

Five years from now, what will it say on your business card?
“I wouldn’t change a thing. Just the other day my colleague said I would be buried here. Working at BerlinRosen has been such a pleasure and a privilege.”

If you could have dinner with any person—living, historical or fictitious—who would it be, and why?
“It would be Michael Jordan, and it wouldn’t be dinner; it would be one-on-one. I always respected the work he put in.”
—L.N.


CARA BERKOWITZ
Director of City and Federal Affairs, UJA-Federation of New York

Age: 33

Having already established herself as a fierce advocate for New York City health initiatives at the city’s Health Department, Cara Berkowitz saw UJA as an organization with a great reputation that would fit her like a glove.

“Plus, it was a promotion,” she said.

At UJA, the American University Law School grad has done invaluable work to broaden social service programs affecting New Yorkers of all ages and needs—be it advocating for better services for seniors or more accessible treatment for mental illness.

“My work helping to preserve and enhance social service program funding for the poor and vulnerable in the Jewish and broader community has never been more important or more challenging,” Berkowitz said. “I am proud that because of my efforts, seniors citywide have better access to senior centers, meals and elder abuse prevention resources, that families continue to have access to after-school and child-care programs, and that those with special needs get the support they need to succeed and live their lives with dignity.”

If you were not working in politics, what would you be doing?
“I’d love to work in the travel industry. I’ve been to about 45 countries. Zanzibar, Hong Kong, Mongolia. I love places that are exotic. I try to go places that aren’t the most common vacation destinations.”

Five years from now, what will it say on your business card?
“ ‘Deputy Mayor of Social Services.’ ”

If you could have dinner with any person—living, historical or fictitious—who would it be, and why?
“Jackie Kennedy. She was bright, she persevered, and she had a functional home life but still did a lot for the administration and had this beautiful family. I just think she’s a very classy woman.”
—P.R.


LARRY SCOTT BLACKMON
Deputy Commissioner for Community Outreach, New York City Parks Department

Age: 38

Over the past decade, the Bloomberg administration has added new parks at an unprecedented rate, renovated others and attracted record numbers to Central Park.

One of Larry Scott Blackmon’s jobs is to encourage and recruit local residents to take ownership of those parks.

“In an environment where resources are scarce, we rely on the partnerships with the private community and New York citizens,” Blackmon said. “Parks are everybody’s backyards, if you will.”

After joining the Bloomberg administration in 2005, Blackmon moved in 2010 to the Parks Department, where he oversees Partnerships for Parks and Green Thumb, two of the city’s largest community-based initiatives.

Blackmon, who was born and raised in Harlem, graduated from SUNY New Paltz in 1996. He got his start on Councilwoman C. Virginia Fields’ successful run for Manhattan borough president and later joined her office.

“It’s important that we protect the investments that the city has made going forward, and I’m proud to be a part of that effort, and cementing the mayor’s legacy,” he said.

If you were not working in politics, what would you be doing?
“Definitely acting or music. I play several instruments, so I’d definitely be in entertainment in some form or fashion.”

Five years from now, what will it say on your business card?
“I’ll leave it up to others to decide, but it better begin with ‘Larry Scott Blackmon.’”

If you could have dinner with any person—living, historical or fictitious—who would it be, and why?
“I would want to have dinner with James Brown, because I would want to get a better understanding of what it felt like to represent your culture, politically and culturally, over a span of decades, and what it would take to become inspirational and to have the type of impact that he had.”
—J.L.


KEN BIBERAJ
Vice President, The Russian Tea Room, and 2013 City Council Candidate

Age: 32

Ken Biberaj remembers growing up listening to his father broadcasting over the radio in Albanian for Voice of America, the U.S. broadcasting institution. When communism fell in Eastern Europe, Biberaj remembered the impact his father’s words had for Albanians, and that experience inspired him.

“It was one of those things where I grew up seeing how people would react, and it really taught me that one person in government can make a difference in people’s lives,” Biberaj said. “My dad did great things through government to help people, and he picked one vehicle that was good for him … I thought putting myself out there might be the best way for me.”

Over the past seven years, Biberaj has certainly done everything he can to raise his profile and bolster his candidacy for Manhattan’s 6th City Council District seat in 2013.

A graduate of American University and Harvard, Biberaj interned in President Clinton’s Harlem office, joined John Kerry’s presidential campaign in Florida and, while attending night school at New York Law, helped resurrect the iconic New York restaurant, the Russian Tea Room.

His campaign has already maxed out in its fundraising, giving him more time to focus on meeting his potential constituents and holding events.

“It’s exciting to be able to look back at those experiences and now take them to the local level,” he said.

If you were not working in politics, what would you be doing?
“Working in real estate and running the Russian Tea Room.”

Five years from now, what will it say on your business card?
“Hopefully it will say ‘City Councilman.’ ”

If you could have dinner with any person—living, historical or fictitious—who would it be, and why?
“I would love to sit down with Mark Messier. In ’94 I was in high school and loved the leadership that he showed when he took the Rangers to the Stanley Cup.”
—N.P.


VANESSA CHAMPION
Chief of Staff and Special Counsel, New York City Comptroller’s Office

Age: 33

One thing Vanessa Champion loves about her job is the chance to take an idea and develop it until it is made public.

On issues like the comptroller’s work on CityTime, Champion said, “Just watching that process has been an amazing experience, and to feel that you can have that type of change in government.”

Born to a Bolivian mother and British father, Champion left Bolivia for the U.S. when she was 3. Her fluency in Spanish isn’t the only thing that ties her to her mother’s homeland.

“Both my parents weren’t active in politics, but my family from Latin America and Bolivia was very political,” Champion said. “My great-uncle wrote a book on politics there, and a couple of my cousins continue to work on elections in Bolivia, so growing up I heard about it.”

In high school she worked for then Gov. Tom Ridge of Pennsylvania, and after graduating from Amherst College she moved to New York to join Carl McCall’s gubernatorial campaign.

She then attended law school and worked as a securities litigation enforcement attorney before jumping back into the political world, joining City Comptroller John Liu’s office.

“There are so many amazing opportunities to take the helm of things and see them through,” she said.

If you were not working in politics, what would you be doing?
“I would likely still be practicing as a securities enforcement attorney.”

Five years from now, what will it say on your business card?
“I hope it says ‘Partner.’ ”

If you could have dinner with any person—living, historical or fictitious—who would it be, and why?
“Growing up in Philadelphia and having gone to Penn, Ben Franklin is a fixture and the pride of Philadelphia. I would have to say he is the person I would pick.”
—J.L


STEVE STITES
President, Stites Communications

Age: 30

Steve Stites gets Republicans—and in New York, that can lead to a political career.

The native Texan has carved out a niche for himself advising outsiders, including outer-borough Republican elected officials such as Rep. Michael Grimm, state Sen. David Storobin and Councilman Dan Halloran.

There’s heavy burnout in the public relations field, but he’s still managing crises.

“Campaigns, for me, are fun. I get antsy after a few years on the job,” he said. “If I was sitting at a desk for five years, I would go crazy. I want a new district, a new challenge. There’s always a deadline. Election Day, you start anew.”

And sometimes his candidates even pull off an upset in a city where Democrats outnumber Republicans nearly 6 to 1.

He prefers the underdogs.

“People who register Republican have thought about it and they’re more well-informed,” he said. “They’re very nuanced, tend to care about issues that really do matter, like taxes and job creation. That’s what the Senate majority talks about. Other Republicans talk about all sorts of other stuff, but you don’t see it here.”

But his deepest loyalties are to his beloved Texas Rangers, who will have his full attention if they happen to play in the World Series on Election Day.

“I can do most of my political work on the phone during commercials,” he said. “Election Day happens every year. The Rangers might not go to the World Series again.”

If you were not working in politics, what would you be doing?
“Comedy writing. I’d be writing a sitcom in Los Angeles and keeping my Republican leanings to myself.”

Five years from now, what will it say on your business card?
“Hopefully I’m the president of a successful political consulting firm.”

If you could have dinner with any person—living, historical or fictitious—who would it be, and why?
“Mark Twain, because he was the greatest American philosopher since the Founding Fathers, and he was a lot funnier than they were.”
—A.S.


JUSTIN BRANNAN
Director of Communications and Legislative Affairs, City Councilman Vincent Gentile

Age: 33

You don’t get much more punk than Justin Brannan.

The communications specialist had a colorful history before returning to his native Bay Ridge to become Councilman Vincent Gentile’s spokesman.

He worked at Bear Stearns, had a gig as a bouncer on the Lower East Side, and toured the world for a decade as a guitar player in two hardcore punk bands, Indecision and Most Precious Blood.

Brannan swears he behaved himself.

“We weren’t in strip clubs or putting M-80s in the ice machine,” he said. “We were in our hotel room watching CNN.”

Brannan got into politics “by accident,” promoting nonviolent action for animal rights and welfare causes.

On the surface his relationship with Gentile makes for an odd pairing.

“Vinnie, to me, is the quintessential elected official,” Brannan said. “He’s not a politician. He truly cares about the community, and he has made public service his life.”

Brannan admires Gentile, and says he’s learning from the best. And Gentile is slowly learning about the hardcore punk scene, thanks to Brannan’s tutelage.

“I don’t think he understood it at first, but he saw we were a band with a message, not just sex, drugs and rock & roll,” he said. “We were selling ideas.”

If you were not working in politics, what would you be doing?
“I’d be doing some organizing. Organized labor is not to be underestimated. Growing up in a union family, I learned that.”

Five years from now, what will it say on your business card?
“I’d probably be hosting a radio show. I’m a big fan of 1010 WINS. I have a 1010 WINS tattoo.”

If you could have dinner with any person—living, historical or fictitious—who would it be, and why?
“Winston Churchill. I want to know who his tailor was.”
—A.S.


COURTNEY GROSS
Political Reporter, NY1

Age: 28

Before becoming a familiar face on NY1, Courtney Gross was an old-school print journalist.

“I never envisioned my career taking me to TV, but it’s been surprisingly challenging and exciting,” said Gross, who is a tad embarrassed to admit how much she enjoys her on-air job. “NY1 gives you the leeway to pursue stories that normally you wouldn’t see on TV, and that’s kind of why I got into journalism in the first place.”

Though Gross has only been at NY1 since June 2011, devotees of New York City politics have long been familiar with her work. For the four years prior, Gross had made her mark as a prolific staff writer for Citizens Union’s online publication, the Gotham Gazette.

Gross, who attended Emerson College, cut her teeth in journalism working at The Boston Globe. Upon graduating she returned to her native New Jersey, undertaking her first full-time position as a reporter for The Princeton Packet. There she had her initial (and eye-opening) experience covering politics at the local level.

“There were many, many nights that I spent in zoning-board meetings or school-board meetings where people were fighting over a traffic light,” recalled Gross, who quickly learned, “Oh, this is how government functions—or doesn’t.”

If you were not working in politics, what would you be doing?
“I would be a professional karaoke singer. I don’t think I could get paid for that, but maybe I could be a wedding singer.”

Five years from now, what will it say on your business card?
“ ‘Reporter.’ I hope I’m doing what I’m doing now, just better.”

If you could have dinner with any person—living, historical or fictitious—who would it be, and why?
“Susan B. Anthony … I find myself interested in women’s rights, just thinking about where we came from, and the struggles they went through, and trying to learn from that so we can be on an equal playing field some day.”
—M.P.


RUDY S. GIULIANI
Chief of Staff, City Councilman Eric Ulrich

Age: 28

As Rudy S. Giuliani put it, “there are good and bad parts” to sharing one of the most famous names in the world with his second cousin, the former mayor.

“When I was working at City Hall, I’d scare people with my emails,” recalled Giuliani, who was a legislative aide to Council Minority Leader James Oddo before becoming Councilman Ulrich’s chief of staff. “Once they got past that initial email and they realized it was me, then everything was fine.”

Giuliani, who actually is named for his father and his grandfather, both of whom are also named Rudy though they all have different middle names, is well aware of the responsibility that comes with his appellation.

“When people come up to me and tell me how much Rudy affected their particular life, that’s difficult to live up to, because they love him so, but I have to forge my own path,” he said.

Besides, he added, “it’s not like I have a say” in what his name is.

Not surprisingly, the GOP has already eyed Giuliani to follow in his cousin’s footsteps. Earlier this year, Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos approached Giuliani about challenging state Sen. Tony Avella, who represents the Queens neighborhood in which Giuliani grew up.

“I didn’t want to run for something just because my name is Rudy Giuliani,” said Giuliani, who ultimately decided he wanted to get more experience in government before determining whether to pursue elected office.

If you were not working in politics, what would you be doing?
“Definitely something in the automotive field. That’s my passion.”

Five years from now, what will it say on your business card?
“Five years is a lifetime in politics. Anything could happen next.”

If you could have dinner with any person—living, historical or fictitious—who would it be, and why?
“Abraham Lincoln, because he’s truly one of the greatest… leaders in history.”
—M.P.


NICK SMITH
Head of Political Media Sales, CBS News/CBS Radio

Age: 27

Growing up in Kansas City, Mo.—“a radio town,” as he describes it—Nick Smith would often arrive late to high school because he wanted to catch every minute of his favorite morning radio show. It was only natural, then, that Smith would later go on to work for that very station for five years selling ads before making the bold decision to move to New York three years ago.

Now leading the political media sales team at CBS/CBS Radio, Smith faces the challenge of selling radio advertising in an era where more people are glued to their television screens. But Smith has honed a sales pitch that he thinks will appeal to politicians and advocacy groups that want to deliver a real message rather than shock value.

“Radio makes sense,” he said. “If you’re going to convince somebody that your stance on an issue is right, don’t you want to do it in a setting in a car, where it’s alone, it’s intimate, where they can decide for themselves? Or do you want to do it in a setting where there’s a distraction, there may be other people in the room and the volume might be down?”

If you were not working in politics, what would you be doing?
“I would probably be a drummer or own a peanut-butter-and-jelly panini shop. I would also probably follow Metallica around the entire continent.”

Five years from now, what will it say on your business card?
“ ‘Leader, Innovator and Creator.’ And it may say something about Letslobby.com, but you will see more on that in six months.”

If you could have dinner with any person—living, historical or fictitious—who would it be, and why?
“I would like to have a roundtable with my favorite people: Melissa Kleiman, Lars Ulrich, my mom and Barbara Babian, because it would be fun, inspiration and a lot of love, mixed together.”
—N.P.


JULIE HOOTKIN
Vice President, Global Strategy Group

Age: 35

Though Julie Hootkin always had a fascination with politics growing up, she never thought she would end up in polling.

“It’s one of those weird things,” Hootkin said. “When I interview people for Global, you know, nobody really says, ‘Oh, I want to be a pollster when I grow up.’ ”

Nonetheless, upon graduating from Cornell, Hootkin joined the now-defunct Voter News Service, taking exit polls for the 2000 election, “an exciting and unpredictable time to be watching the returns come in.”

Now a veteran pollster with years of experience at top-flight firms like Global Strategy Group and Greenberg Quinlan Rosner in Washington, D.C., Hootkin is still captivated by what she discovers.

“It’s always refreshing for me to be at focus groups with clients, because it’s always a little bit eye-opening to hear from the horse’s mouth what people are really thinking and the language that they’re using to talk about it,” Hootkin said. “It’s a good reminder that sometimes we operate in this narrow world of conventional wisdom, but often there’s more out there for us to learn.”

If you were not working in politics, what would you be doing?
“I would probably be working for Real Sports on HBO. I’m a sucker for those athlete human-interest stories.”

Five years from now, what will it say on your business card?
“It will probably say ‘Senior Vice President at Global Strategy Group,’ and hopefully I will be working with lots of young, new candidates; maybe some great women candidates at the local level who can grow into the next generation of superstars.”

If you could have dinner with any person—living, historical or fictitious—who would it be, and why?
“Who wouldn’t want to dine with Liz Lemon? She’s a smart, successful woman with a sharp wit and good stories to tell—and she won’t order a salad with dressing on the side. My kind of girl.”
—M.P.


KAT KANE
Senior Associate, SKDKnickerbocker

Age: 28

Kat Kane was a journalist before she hopped the fence. After studying journalism and mass communications at NYU, she worked at MSNBC, CNN and NY1 before being inspired by the 2008 presidential elections to get involved in politics.

“I couldn’t help but think that I wanted to be on the other side, knock on doors and be part of what I saw as a movement,” Kane said.

Kane, who does strategic communications for SKD, was part of the team that worked to legalize same-sex marriage in New York State.

“The work really suits my personality because I can see the [different] sides of all issues,” Kane said.

In her free time, Kane is actively involved in the Manhattan Young Democrats, where she works to increase membership as the organization’s communications director. “It’s a lot to juggle,” she says, “but it’s really interesting.”

If you weren’t working in politics, what would you be doing?
“In my next life, I would love to work in a vineyard in Napa Valley. My sister just moved there last year. That’s my dream retirement plan.”

Five years from now, what will it say on your business card?
“I would love to add a graduate degree to my title. I’m still exploring that, maybe a master’s in public administration or a master’s in public policy.”

If you could have dinner with any person who would it be, and why?
“Ben Franklin, or any of the founding fathers. I feel like we invoke them so much in politics; I’d love to know what they actually think about the direction of the country. I just picture them kind of shaking their heads, like, ‘What did we start?’ ”
—L.N.


JOEY KARA KOCH
Acting Chief Asset Management Officer, Department of Citywide Administrative Services

Age: 35

Joey Kara Koch’s star is rising so fast at City Hall that since being selected for our 40 Under 40 list she already has been promoted. After 15 months as deputy chief asset management officer for DCAS, Koch was just elevated to acting director, where she will take the helm managing 55 city-owned office and court spaces.

It is no surprise that the New York native has climbed the ranks of the Bloomberg administration since she got her start working for the Department of Information Technology & Telecommunications in 2003. Her grandfather was a judge in New Jersey and her uncle is none other than the former mayor Ed.

“Growing up with politics around me, I learned from an early age that working in government and working to help people is something that is incredibly important, and it’s always been a driving force in career choices that I’ve made,” said Koch, a graduate of Tufts and Fordham Law.

Having already distinguished herself in government, would Koch ever consider making her own foray into electoral politics as a candidate?

“I’ve thought about it,” Koch admitted. “I haven’t come to a conclusion, but I’ve certainly thought about it.”

If you were not working in politics, what would you be doing?
“My fantasy job would definitely be to have my own show on the Food Network, and to travel around tasting food and being a Martha Stewart/Anthony Bourdain. The problem is, I don’t really cook.”

Five years from now, what will it say on your business card?
“Something related to New York and working somehow to better New York, whether it be in the private sector or in government.”

If you could have dinner with any person living, historical or fictitious—who would it be, and why?
“Probably my father, who died in ’95, to say, ‘Hi,’ get his thoughts on how I’m doing, and get a big hug. For sure.”
—M.P.


DODGE LANDESMAN
Vice President, Marriage Equality New York, and Member, Community Board 2

Age: 21

Dodge Landesman’s political career began with an improbable run for City Council at age 18—which would have made him the youngest member in the city’s history—though it was a campaign more about raising issues surrounding special education than actually winning.

Landesman credits Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign for stoking his political fire, despite his initially working for Obama’s primary opponent, former Alaska Sen. Mike Gravel.

“Involvement died down after the election, but I wanted to transfer the enthusiasm from the national political scene into the local political scene,” Landesman said. “Everybody needs an advocate, but you rarely see an advocate for special education students or the disabled in general, so I thought, ‘Why not take up the mantle?’ ”

Besides serving on Manhattan’s Community Board 2, Landesman is also the vice president of Marriage Equality New York, a member of the Future Civic Leaders’ board and does work for the 504 Democratic Club, which raises awareness for disability rights. Despite a résumé that would be the envy of a politician 10 years older, Landesman hopes to blend in and enjoy his college years at Fordham University.

“College is my oasis to be a normal 21-year-old,” he said. “I don’t try to dwell on my accomplishments too much. I just try to move forward and let my activism take me where it takes me.”

If you were not working in politics, what would you be doing?
“Working in a special education program, hopefully as a special education teacher.”

Five years from now, what will it say on your business card?
“I would like it to say ‘Gainfully employed.’ ”

If you could have dinner with one person—living, historical or fictitious—who would it be, and why?
“Jerry Brown, the governor of California and my political idol. We would bond over our mutual eccentricities and our long-shot campaigns when we were very young.”
—N.P.


JON PAUL LUPO
Chief of Staff, Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz

Age: 34

Jon Paul Lupo knew he would return to his native Brooklyn one day, but it took a Magellan-esque route to get back.

A graduate of Emory University, Lupo joined Jim Webb’s senatorial campaign in Virginia in 2006, and later worked on Sen. Tim Johnson’s re-election campaign in South Dakota. After a pit stop working for Artur Davis’ unsuccessful gubernatorial campaign in Alabama, Lupo returned to Brooklyn in 2010 and got a job as communications director for Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz.

“I grew up going to Midwood Field when Marty’s concerts were there,” Lupo said. “To be in Brooklyn now during this renaissance with the Nets and the [Barclays Center] arena, that was really important to me.”

Now chief of staff, Lupo is focused on revitalizing 4th Avenue and a proposed amphitheater and casino in Coney Island—not to mention keeping up with Markowitz, who attends everything from ribbon cuttings to middle school talent shows.

“For me, I’m the kind of person who would prefer a job where you’re going 100 miles per hour and stuff is constantly happening, because that’s what I love to do,” Lupo said.

If you were not working in politics, what would you be doing?
“When I was a kid, I thought it would be really fun to be a sports agent.”

Five years from now, what will it say on your business card?
“I consider myself someone who likes to be behind the scenes and make government work for people. I wish it could say ‘Marty Markowitz’ [somewhere] on it, I’ll put it that way.”

If you could have dinner with any person—living, historical or fictitious—who would it be, and why?
“Steve Jobs. Not only am I a huge consumer of Apple products—but just to get the perspective of someone who was able to uniquely combine a sort of sense of what people want before they know they want it, with the drive to make it happen.”
—N.P.


CHRIS KEELEY
Political and Communications Director, Community Voices Heard/CVH Power

Age: 30

Chris Keeley remembers the moment he became aware of the structural barriers facing low-income families. When he was 14, he and his friends were raising money for a food drive so that a woman could buy a turkey for Thanksgiving. When they gave her the turkey, she became upset because she had no refrigerator.

This incident led him to work for service organizations and later for AmeriCorps, where he served in a Chicago soup kitchen. Now at Community Voices Heard, an organization that advocates for low-income people, Keeley cringes when he hears conservatives deriding the social safety net as a “redistribution” of tax dollars.

“Over the last 35 years we are seeing more of those programs that are part of our social fabric being torn apart,” Keeley said. “We’re seeing the impacts on the community level and we’re seeing the impacts on the family level. What we need to be talking about is the role that the social safety net plays in our overall social fabric.”

Since beginning his work at CVH nine months ago, Keeley has done everything from transporting voters to voting booths to pushing for repairs in public housing.

“Our organizational model is that it’s the low-income individuals that are the public face of the organization,” he said. “I’m here simply to support the work that they’re doing, and that’s the most powerful piece of the work at CVH.”

If you were not working in politics, what would you be doing?
“Probably running a homeless shelter.”

Five years from now, what will it say on your business card?
“ ‘Political and Communications Director.’ ”

If you could have dinner with any person—living, historical or fictitious—who would it be, and why?
“Dorothy Day. Her ability to do deep analytical thinking around social teachings—I think having a conversation with her, having a meal with her, would be timeless for me.”
—N.P.


MEGHAN K. LYNCH
Chief of Staff, Councilwoman Annabel Palma

Age: 35

Meghan Lynch, a native Brooklynite from Sunset Park, took a circuitous route to the City Council staff, but it’s also where she got her start in politics.

“My first job was for my council member, every summer in high school, and when I came back to the Council, I realized that at age 14 I already knew where I belonged,” Lynch said.

After college at Smith and earning a master’s in public health at Tulane, Lynch headed back to New York, where now she gets to apply her advanced degree in Councilwoman Annabel Palma’s office, working on issues related to general welfare.

“I’m very lucky to have been given the opportunity to take a more active role internally in promoting the things that Annabel and I agree are important,” Lynch said. “Her faith in me has been incredible.”

Lynch enjoys working with Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s Health Commissioner Thomas Farley, and said the Council can play an outsize role in influencing public health.

“If your elected officials are not supporting passing and promoting policy, then nothing is going to happen,” Lynch said.

If you were not working in politics, what would you be doing?
I think I’d be working in the media in some way. Part of me says probably tabloid media, like the National Enquirer … [or] somewhere in entertainment media. I think I’d be an amazing beauty editor. I’d have to be a beauty blogger about what really works, because I can’t support things I don’t believe in.”

What will it say on your business card in five years?
“No matter what, it will equate to ‘Boss Lady.’ ”

If you could have dinner with any person—living, historical or fictitious—who would it be, and why?
“Julia Child. That’s a woman who enjoyed life and food. She lived an extremely interesting life on her own terms.”
—L.N.


LINARA DAVIDSON
Special Assistant, Manhattan District Attorney’s Office for External and Community Affairs

Age: 30

Working with Manhattan’s first new district attorney in 34 years, Linara Davidson knows she is in a unique position to enact change.

“I really do feel like this is history in the making,” Davidson said. “It’s been a chance to develop new ways for law enforcement and the D.A. to interact with each other, new ways to prevent crime, to do community affairs. I get to build relationships and inform for the common cause of New York City remaining one of the safest cities in the country.”

Davidson first got into politics after graduating from NYU with a degree in English. Since Davidson was uncertain about her future plans, a friend suggested she try working on state Sen. Velmanette Montgomery’s 2006 campaign as a volunteer coordinator. Once she had gotten a taste for politics, she was hooked. From there the Harlem native returned to her community as a liaison for Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer before joining newly elected Manhattan D.A. Cyrus Vance’s office in 2009.

Among her most rewarding work has been informing people about the way law enforcement is redirecting cash seized from drug dealers to do good, like funding youth programs such as the “Saturday Night Lights” sports training initiative.

“The way our office is able to interact with the community is amazing,” Davidson said. “This is a great time to be here.”

If you were not working in politics, what would you be doing?
“I would be singing somewhere. I enjoy singing jazz. I was classically trained growing up and did a lot of stuff in high school and college.”

Five years from now, what will it say on your business card?
“ ‘Commissioner Davidson.’ ”

If you could have dinner with any person—living, historical or fictitious—who would it be, and why?
“Zora Neale Hurston, the author of Their Eyes Were Watching God. She was a fabulous woman. She was just so fierce. That book kind of framed the way I chose to see the world.”
—P.R.


RAFAEL ESPINAL
New York State Assemblyman

Age: 28

When Rafael Espinal won a special election for an Assembly seat last fall, he faced two formidable opponents: Jesus Gonzalez, a Working Families party candidate who secured a slew of union endorsements, and Deidra Towns, daughter of Rep. Ed Towns and sister of Assemblyman Darryl Towns, who vacated the seat to serve in the Cuomo administration.

“I attribute it to my hard work,” Espinal said of his 2011 victory. “I didn’t use any negative campaigning against my opponents. I was up at 6 a.m. doing subway stops, going to bed at 11 p.m. at night, and not attacking, just talking about my district and constituents’ concerns.”

Espinal’s inclination toward public service began with his parents, who emigrated from the Dominican Republic to New York City. When he started working for City Councilman Erik Martin Dilan, it felt natural to him to be engaged in constituent services.

“It wasn’t that foreign to me to be involved, since my parents were involved in the local church and with soup kitchens,” Espinal said. “So before I started working with [Dilan], I was always involved in the community.”

One of his proudest accomplishments in his short time in office was organizing a gun buyback program, which was a huge success.

“We were able to remove nearly 200 illegal guns off our streets,” he said.

If you were not working in politics, what would you be doing?
“Seriously: I would be a high school teacher, teaching creative writing or English. Jokingly: I’d be a Hollywood director.”

Five years from now, what will it say on your business card?
“ ‘Community Leader.’ ”

If you could have dinner with any person—living, historical or fictitious—who would it be, and why?
“Frank McCourt. His books were what really got me into English and literature and creative writing. And I’ve always wanted the opportunity to meet him, and I never got the opportunity, because he passed away a few years ago.”
—J.L.


JAKE DILEMANI
Vice President, The Parkside Group

Age: 26

Jake Dilemani loves politics, but it’s certainly not genetic.

“People ask me, but I don’t come from a political family at all. They’re very engaged, they talk about issues, but they’re not political,” said Dilemani, a vice president at Parkside, a top Democratic consulting firm.

Dilemani, an NYU graduate and New York City native, got his start in politics on John Kerry’s 2004 presidential campaign. Dilemani worked on several races in New York City before joining Parkside.

Asked what he loves about working in consulting, he thought for a second before answering, “I’m a glutton for punishment.”

“I’m competitive, and I like the idea of a contest,” he continued. “I like the idea of pushing forward an idea or a candidate that I believe in, the idea that that person is better for the community that he or she represents”—and “as a Democrat, I just like beating Republicans.”

In his free time, Dilemani can be found at his drum kit. “People were saying, ‘You need to get a drum set, to get out that aggression,’ ” Dilemani said, noting that the kit is electronic, so he can plug it in to headphones and bang away without annoying the neighbors.

If you were not working in politics, what would you be doing?
“I would probably be something in the music industry. I guess I should say I would hope to be, because I don’t know if I could make it. For all I know I’d be a sous-chef.”

Five years from now, what will it say on your business card?
“I’m not entirely sure, but hopefully it will still be something I enjoy.”

If you could have dinner with any person—living, historical or fictitious—who would it be, and why?
“Fiorello La Guardia. That was a tough one.”
—L.N.


TERENCE O’BRIEN
Deputy Director, The Plumbing Foundation City of New York, Inc.

Age: 30

Terence O’Brien cut his teeth in politics navigating the convoluted world of the New York State Senate. A Syracuse University graduate, O’Brien quickly got a job doing campaign work, and later, legislative duties for the Senate Democrats.

O’Brien then dove into lobbying and advocacy, and was hired by the Plumbing Foundation. He soon realized that his lobbying duties were similar to his Senate jobs.

“I had many different hats working for the Senate,” O’Brien said. “Here I have one hat, and I have total time to focus on working with the plumbing industry and making sure that the legislation is crafted so that the people of New York City are safe.”

The “one hat” is somewhat misleading, as O’Brien actually has a hand in many different facets of his organization. On the lobbying side, he is currently helping develop a branding campaign for green technologies including using solar technology for hot water and heat. But his everyday activities involve everything from dealing with contamination in water pipes to the illegal distribution of plumbing licenses. His top priority is making sure plumbers are doing their job in accordance with the law.

“Plumbers really do safeguard the health of New York City,” he said. “Everyone says [every] city’s water is second to ours, and it’s true. It’s clean water because plumbers do things according to what the law mandates them to do.”

If you were not working in politics, what would you be doing?
“I’d be making craft beer 9 to 5, seven days a week.”

Five years from now, what will it say on your business card?
“Hopefully, ‘Director of the Plumbing Foundation.’ ”

If you could have dinner with any person—living, historical or fictitious—who would it be, and why?
“Bruce Wayne, because the guy knows what he wants and protects the people of Gotham City, similar to what the foundation does, without people knowing.”
—N.P.


PATRICIA ORNST
Regional Managing Director, Community and State Affairs, American Airlines

Age: 39

Patricia Ornst spent two years after college “living in a bubble” in the Czech Republic, traveling the continent and enjoying the European lifestyle. When she returned to New Jersey, Ornst’s parents confronted her: Time to get a real job.

Always attracted to politics, Ornst moved to Washington, D.C., and worked for a nonprofit trade organization representing North American airports. When she moved to New York City, she got a job as director of aviation for the New York City Economic Development Corporation.

“[Airports] are such an important piece of infrastructure that bring people together,” Ornst said. “Globally it’s the piece of the puzzle that connects everyone. Airport infrastructure and transportation infrastructure as a whole are so important, and there’s not [as much] attention put on those issues as there should be.”

Ornst then joined American Airlines, which filed for bankruptcy a month after she started. While the airline’s precarious situation changes the dynamic of her job to lobbying about fiscal issues instead of concentrating on air traffic infrastructure, Ornst says the airline’s fortunes can only go upward.

“It’s a bright future for American Airlines in New York,” she said. “We were once the largest airline in New York, and today we’re probably in third or fourth place. We would love to get back to that top spot.”

If you were not working in politics, what would you be doing?
“If I were to go back to school, I’d go back for art history, and probably become an art museum curator, travel around the world and pick art for different museums.”

Five years from now, what will it say on your business card?
“ ‘Executive at American Airlines.’ ”

If you could have dinner with one person—living, historical or fictitious—who would it be, and why?
“John Adams. He’s responsible for so much in our history, and I’d love to have an opportunity to sit down with him and hear his perspective.”
—N.P.


RACHEL AMAR
Community & Government Relations Manager, Waste Management

Age: 35

Few people enjoy dealing with New York’s junk—but Rachel Amar is a special breed.

The former political operative once worked on Al Gore’s 2000 presidential campaign in New Mexico, guided Bill de Blasio’s district office when he was in the City Council and helped manage the Prospect Park Alliance.

These days she helps Waste Management work with cities and municipal governments to clean up residential garbage.

“There’s no typical day, but I’m not hauling trash,” she said.

Colleagues in government were initially skeptical about her career move, but Amar has no regrets. So far she has founded an environmental group in the South Bronx with the company’s recycling office and helped secure a “green locomotive” that will export waste by rail from East Williamsburg. During her tenure the Wildlife Habitat Council recognized the company for its environmental work at sites near the Harlem River.

And—following Jay-Z’s advice—she knows when to change clothes and go, whether it’s packing a pair of work boots with metal toes for a tour of transfer stations, or a power suit and heels for a Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce meeting.

Amar still misses politics, but now deals with literal instead of metaphorical refuse.

“Nobody likes waste; everybody wants to see it shipped out as quickly as possible, and I do believe that Waste Management is the best at exporting that,” she said.

If you were not working in politics, what would you be doing?
“I would be the owner of the Buffalo Bills, and I would take them to the Super Bowl.”

Five years from now, what will it say on your business card?
“I’m looking to get my MBA, so we’ll see where that takes me.”

If you could have dinner with any person—living, historical or fictitious—who would it be, and why?
“Albert Einstein. We’d eat fish at a Mexican place.”
—A.S.


ROBERTO PEREZ
Host and Producer, The Perez Notes, and columnist, El Diario

Age: 35

Roberto Perez launched his media career by coming in through the back door—literally.

His friend brought him through WBAI Radio’s back door to visit the studio about five years ago. Perez liked what
he saw.

“My friend was José Rivera’s first chief of staff and took me under his wing,” Perez said. “I worked hard, earning my chops the hard way, getting dissed and everything. Most people said, ‘We don’t know who the hell you are, beat it.’ Some said yes.”

One of the first elected officials on his program was Hiram Monserrate. That was when Monserrate was going to take on then state Sen. John Sabini before Sabini cut a deal to
bow out.

“[Monserrate] prematurely announced he was getting endorsed by 1199, and Azi [Paybarah] picked up on it, calls Patrick Gaspard, and that created a few waves. That stands out,” Perez said.

Perez calls himself an “insurgent” journalist, because he gives a platform to Latinos in city and state politics. So far he has interviewed 400 people for his podcast.

He hopes to meet San Antonio Mayor Julián Castro one day, but says former Gov. David Paterson is still his best interview.

“We talked sports first because we’re both Mets fans,” he said. “He’s very witty and a lot of fun.”

If you were not working in politics, what would you be doing?
“I’m a big college basketball fan, especially the Kentucky Wildcats, so maybe writing and talking about college basketball.”

Five years from now, what will it say on your business card?
“Running the Latino version of El Huffington Post. Natch, we’ll rename it The Perez Notes.”

If you could have dinner with any person—living, historical or fictitious—who would it be, and why?
“Martin Luther King Jr. And César Chávez is joining us at the table.”
—A.S.


LAUREN PASSALACQUA
Deputy Press Secretary, Mayor’s Office

Age: 26

Talk about trial by fire for a fledgling flack.

When she was straight out of NYU, Lauren Passalacqua’s first two communications jobs were in the offices of governors Spitzer and Paterson, fending off the trials and tribulations those administrations faced.

“Early on I really benefited from being able to watch professionals handle really difficult situations,” Passalacqua said.

Though the challenges she encounters now as Mayor Bloomberg’s deputy press secretary are less explosive, her work is no less demanding. But after having continued to hone her skills on Andrew Cuomo’s successful gubernatorial campaign and as a spokeswoman for Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, Passalacqua is more than up to the task of handling her fast-paced, high-stakes role in the mayor’s office.

Passalacqua, a native of Berkeley Heights, N.J., savors her position, and admits to still getting goose bumps climbing the stairs of City Hall each morning.

“You realize the impact that you have on a lot of people,” Passalacqua said, before refining her statement, ever careful, just like a press secretary should be. “That is, the impact that the people you work for have on a lot of people. Less so me.”

If you were not working in politics, what would you be doing?
“I could see myself doing something related to teaching. When I was in sociology and studying it, the whole act of conversing with people and learning from one another and leading instruction, that was very compelling for me.”

Five years from now, what will it say on your business card?
“ ‘New York City.’ All I know is I want to be here.”

If you could have dinner with any person—living, historical or fictitious—who would it be, and why?
“Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s COO. She makes provocative, thoughtful and realistic observations about how women approach their careers and think about success, and she leads by example. I think a conversation with her would be insightful—and, most importantly, fun.”
—M.P.


VITO PITTA
Senior Government Relations Specialist, Pitta Bishop Del Giorno & Giblin LLC

Age: 26

When he was a child, Vito Pitta’s aunt would tell him he was born with his hair already parted. All he needed was the briefcase.

Growing up in a family dedicated to organized labor, Pitta says that his earliest memories are of labor rallies. In his office there’s a photo of the young Vito—no more than 3 or 4 years old—on the shoulders of Rev. Jesse Jackson as the then presidential candidate campaigned in Manhattan.

“I think that picture really says it all about what I was going to do in terms of labor and politics,” Pitta said.

Today the Brooklyn Law School grad works to advocate successfully for organized labor at a time he feels it isn’t popular to do so.

“You have to educate people and tie organized labor in to the general society, because sometimes it’s viewed as a segregated part of our economy, and it shouldn’t be,” Pitta said. “All the things that have been achieved through organized labor—the weekend, overtime, the 40-hour work week—these aren’t things that are always at the forefront of people’s minds, and sometimes it’s taken for granted these were hard-fought victories.”

If you were not working in politics, what would you be doing?
“One of my other passions is foreign language, so something related to that. Maybe teaching a foreign language or something related to linguistics.”

Five years from now, what will it say on your business card?
“The same thing, with a D.C. address.”

If you could have dinner with any person—living, historical or fictitious—who would it be, and why?
“Franklin Delano Roosevelt, because I think we’re in need of a lot of the big ideas he had during his administration, right now.”
—P.R.


NED BERKE
Editor and Publisher, Sheepshead Bites

Age: 28

Ned Berke didn’t set out to be a tech pioneer when he created the blog Sheepshead Bites.

The Sheepshead Bay native started the news website in 2008 while working at a television trade magazine, thanks to a generous nudge from Bob Guskind at the Brooklyn Blogfest.

“Guskind singled out Sheepshead Bay as an area that had a lot of great stories,” said Berke, who launched the site about two weeks after the event.

The website has grown in the past four years, and just a few weeks ago Berke helped launch a new professional association, Local Independent Online News Publishers, covering about 100 publishers nationwide.

But don’t call these ventures “hyper-local blogging.”

“Who knows what that even means—this is neighborhood-based, local online news, where the publisher is involved and has a stake in the community,” he said.

Drawn to the area’s idiosyncrasies, Berke still attends community board meetings and Cyclones games.

“People in southern Brooklyn speak in sound bites,” he said. “People tell me, ‘I’ve lived here all my life, and I never knew anything that was going on until I started reading Sheepshead Bites.’”

If you were not working in politics, what would you be doing?
“I don’t know. This is what pumps through my veins.”

Five years from now, what will it say on your business card?
“I hope it still says ‘Editor and Publisher,’ but I hope it’s done in better type.”

If you could have dinner with any person, who would it be, and why?
“Either Mark Twain or [Ralph Waldo] Emerson. They’re among the most fascinating minds of American culture, and a lot of what they said still resonates today.”
—A.S.


MATT COWHERD
Co-Founder, New Kings Democrats

Age: 36

Matt Cowherd had little idea who Vito Lopez was until Cowherd became a delegate candidate in 2008.

Cowherd focused on spurring volunteer efforts in Brooklyn for the presidential race. When Obama won, he wanted to transfer the energy he and his colleagues had generated to local politics by forming a political club.

Lopez wasn’t exactly welcoming.

“We sent a letter to Vito saying who we were, trying to recruit people to run for county committee,” Cowherd said. “He let it be known that he knew where I lived and could have me thrown out on the street. I was taken aback that I was being talked to that way by my own representative.”

Cowherd began to work outside the political machinery over the next four years. He met with other progressive clubs, fielded candidates for local and borough-wide office—and even won a few, including Lincoln Restler’s state committee upset in 2010.

And when Lopez resigned after a sexual harassment scandal, the party adopted reform proposals that it had rejected for the past four years.

“It is progress in a relatively short amount of time, facilitated by Vito’s demise,” Cowherd said. “We’re benefiting from that circumstance. It requires you stay with it, work hard beyond one election cycle.”

If you were not working in politics, what would you be doing?
“I’d like to make films, probably some kind of documentary.”

Five years from now, what will it say on your business card?
“It’s going to say the same thing it says today, which is ‘New Kings Democrats.’ Reform takes time.”

If you could have dinner with any person—living, historical or fictitious—who would it be, and why?
“Lawrence Lessig. I just finished his book Republic, Lost, and he not only shows how money corrupted Congress but outlines a plan to stop it.”
—A.S.


URSULINA RAMIREZ
Senior Policy Advisor for Education, Social Welfare and Service Delivery, Public Advocate’s Office

Age: 28

When Ursulina Ramirez arrived in New York City in 2007 after growing up in La Puente, Calif., and attending UC Santa Barbara, it was hardly love at first sight.

She missed her mother’s Mexican food and the beach, not to mention the gorgeous weather. But after several years working for advocacy groups and now for Bill de Blasio, Ramirez couldn’t picture being anywhere else, even though her office is “under-resourced.”

“We’ve been working really hard since I first came [to the Public Advocate’s office] in 2010,” said Ramirez. “It’s long hours. It’s a lot of hard work. There’s only three full-time policy staff, including myself, so we all wear a lot of hats and love what we do, so it kind of makes things move a little bit quicker.”

Ramirez’s focus over the last year has been improving special education services. Ramirez was also instrumental in helping the city’s Administration for Children’s Services revamp policies for medically fragile children in the wake of the murder of 4-year-old Marchella Pierce by her troubled mother.

“I’ve been very lucky as a first-generation college student to get the opportunities that I’ve had,” she said, “and I wanted to really make a difference for students and families who come from low-income neighborhoods, and work on policies that can really help the New York City system.”

If you were not working in politics, what would you be doing?
“All my life I wanted to be a paleontologist. I loved history, and I loved geology and learning about dinosaurs.”

Five years from now, what will it say on your business card?
“Executive director of a multiservice organization, anything from youth development to families to economic issues.”

If you could have dinner with one person—living, historical or fictitious—who would it be, and why?
“César Chávez. He was a very important figure in the Mexican-American community and to my family.”
—N.P.


SYDNEY MORRIS
Co-Founder and Co-CEO, Educators 4 Excellence

Age: 27

As an undergrad at Tulane University, Sydney Morris evacuated from New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005. She waited days to return, and when she was finally back, she was drawn to the city’s schools.

“I saw in those extreme circumstances the impact a school could really have,” Morris said.

That lesson stayed with her, and Morris returned to New York City to teach. But while she loved the classroom, she hated not having a say in district policies.

“I realized that while I had so much control and autonomy and responsibility, it was not matched by what I was feeling outside the classroom,” she said. “It was evident I had no say in the broader decisions.”

To give teachers a voice, Morris co-founded Educators 4 Excellence. What started as a handful of educators in the Bronx is now a national network with more than 7,000 members—approximately 5,000 of whom work in New York City. In 2011 the organization opened a second branch in Los Angeles.

The group worked with government officials to devise a method for reviewing teachers when layoffs were proposed in 2011.

“I think that was the first real demonstration of the power of teachers coming up with a rational, real-sense policy solution,” she says.

If you were not working in politics, what would you be doing?
“Teaching. I taught second and third grade in the Bronx and absolutely fell in love with it.”

Five years from now, what will it say on your business card?
“Hopefully the same thing it does now.”

If you could have dinner with any person—living, historical or fictitious—who would it be, and why?
“Amelia Earhart. I have this vivid memory of reading a biography about her when I was really little and always being so inspired by a woman who ventured out to do something new and exciting and daring.”
—P.R.


ANDREW RIGIE
Executive Director, New York City Hospitality Alliance

Age: 30

When the proprietors of 300 prominent restaurants and nightclubs banded together earlier this year to launch the first citywide industry association to represent them, they turned to Andrew Rigie to lead the organization.

Though Rigie might seem a little young to head such an important association, he knows the business as well as anybody.

“I was born and raised in the hospitality industry—fourth generation,” said Rigie, whose family owns the Sugar Bun Bakery and Café in Howard Beach. “I grew up working in the industry as a young boy rolling rugelach and taking naps on bags of flour.”

Rigie studied management at the Institute of Culinary Education before landing a job at the New York State Restaurant Association, where he worked for eight years before assuming his current position.

Rigie, who calls himself a “political foodie,” is excited about representing his industry in the halls of government at a time when issues like the soda ban are prominent in civic debate.

“In these days where we see more government regulation and very intense competition, it’s not enough to be just a great chef or hospitable host,” Rigie said. “You have to be a real, true businessman, too.”

If you were not working in politics, what would you be doing?
“Eating! Working in a restaurant.”

Five years from now, what will it say on your business card?
“I want the same title, but I hope we have a lot more employees and team members with New York City Hospitality Alliance business cards.”

If you could have dinner with any person—living, historical or fictitious—who would it be, and why?
“It would be with my grandfather, who passed away many years ago, but was always thrilled to see me enthusiastic about whatever it was that I was doing. He loved food, loved politics and he loved to hold court, so I’d love to sit and talk about politics over a great meal with him.”
—M.P.


KIRSTEN JOHN FOY
Minister, President of Brooklyn Chapter of the National Action Network

Age: 36

Growing up in a biracial household in Crown Heights, Kirsten John Foy experienced firsthand how people are treated because of their skin color. The experience motivated Foy to challenge differences that perpetuate racism and hatred, a powerful example of which was when he was arrested last year during the West Indian Day Parade for trying to walk along a restricted path to a lunch for city officials at the Brooklyn Museum.

“What I learned most personally from that experience is that individual officers, who may have the best of intentions, the purest of motives, the deepest commitment to their jobs, can have their actions corrupted and jaded by bad policy,” Foy said.

Foy, a former top staffer to Public Advocate Bill de Blasio who now heads the Brooklyn chapter of Rev. Al Sharpton’s National Action Network, believes that one of those policies, the police department’s stop-and-frisk initiative, has done more harm than good in stopping gun violence, while damaging community relations with the police force in the process. Stop-and-frisk, he said, creates a mentality that people who come from a minority community, “don’t have the same legal or constitutional protections that other people are afforded.”

If you were not working in politics, what would you be doing?
“I’m a Pentecostal minister, and much of my work has always been viewed through the prism of ministry, whether it’s social justice ministry or prophetic ministry. If I was not doing social justice ministry and prophetic ministry together, I’d probably just be doing prophetic ministry.”

Five years from now, what will it say on your business card?
“ ‘Council Member of the 36th Council District of Brooklyn.’ ”

If you could have dinner with any person—living, historical or fictitious—who would it be, and why?
“As a Pentecostal minister, I’m bound by a covenant that requires me to say that above all names, I choose the name of Jesus Christ. He’s the most powerful human figure in all of human history.”
—N.P.


DONOVAN RICHARDS
Chief of Staff, Councilman James Sanders

Age: 29

Donovan Richards never imagined he would work in politics, a dirty word in Jamaica, Queens—“poli-tricks, we called it”—much less become a leading candidate for City Council.

When a close friend of his was murdered in 2003, Richards, then 19, attended a meeting at his local church hosted by Sanders. The youngest person present, Richards spoke out against gun violence and attracted Sanders’ attention, leading to an entry-level position in his office.

Richards rose through the ranks, working every position in Sanders’ office over the past 10 years before becoming chief of staff. His outlook on politics evolved largely due to his perspective that the job is about serving the needs of the community, be it negotiating truces with gang leaders or halting the expansion of a federal prison in his district.

After helping Sanders win his Senate seat last month, Richards is now aiming to fill his mentor’s shoes. He hopes to provide an avenue for young people in his district to get involved in community service.

“If we are going to change the dynamic in Southeast Queens, we have to create opportunities for young people to lead. I think I can be a good model,” he said. “I’ve been through the battles, I have the scars and I know how to win.”

If you were not working in politics, what would you be doing?
“I would be working for some nonprofit trying to make a difference, trying to make sure that middle class and everyday Americans all have an opportunity to get the American dream.”

Five years from now, what will it say on your business card?
“I’ll still be the councilman, because I won’t be termed out yet.”

If you could have dinner with any person—living, historical or fictitious—who would it be, and why?
“The President. I would want to have dinner with someone who shook up the political world as well, in a sense.”
—N.P.


TUCKER REED
President, Downtown Brooklyn Partnership

Age: 32

As president of the Downtown Brooklyn Partnership, Tucker Reed is charged with coordinating the neighborhood’s unprecedented growth, overseeing four business improvement districts and answering to 120 board members, all of whom “keep me very busy.”

But despite the job’s complexity, it’s a cakewalk compared with the last place he worked: Baghdad.

Prior to joining the Partnership, Reed spent 13 months with the State Department as chief of staff of the Baghdad Provincial Reconstruction Team, a group of diplomats and experts rebuilding the city.

“There’s so many impediments to progress, and I’m not just talking about operating in a war zone,” Reed said. “I had worked in a bureaucracy in New York City. I thought, ‘Hey, I can get agencies to work together, I’ve done that before.’ But we had Department of Defense, Department of Commerce, Department of Agriculture, the military, our coalition partners…and that’s before you even start to work with your Iraqi partners.”

Burnt out after his State Department stint, Reed returned to Brooklyn, an area he knew intimately, as the founder and executive director of the DUMBO Improvement District and later the director of special projects for Two Trees Management.

Though Brooklyn is easier to grapple with than Baghdad, Reed jokes that it’s not altogether different.

“We have our own version of sectarian conflict from time to time as well,” he said.

If you were not working in politics, what would you be doing?
“I’d be a foreign service officer in the State Department.”

Five years from now, what will it say on your business card?
“ ‘Season Ticket Holder, Brooklyn Nets.’ ”

If you could have dinner with any person—living, historical or fictitious—who would it be, and why?
“The Brothers Karamazov, all three. Allen Ginsberg said everything you need to know about life is in that book. I’d like to know if they agree with that synopsis, after a few vodkas.”
—M.P.


KATE TAYLOR
Staff Reporter, The New York Times

Age: 32

After years of covering the New York City arts world, first for The New York Sun, and then for The New York Times, Kate Taylor was ready to apply her journalistic skills to a different subject matter.

“I kind of had a hankering to work for the Metro section and do a really newsy, exciting beat like City Hall, and they gave me that opportunity, which was lovely,” said Taylor, who has been covering city politics for the Times for just over a year.

Taylor, a native of California and a Harvard grad, chose a fascinating juncture to dive in.

“Obviously, the fact that we’re coming up on a mayoral election makes it a particularly exciting time,” Taylor said.

Taylor still loves the theater, and appreciates the shared stagecraft of her areas of expertise.

“I wrote a story a few weeks ago about Lin-Manuel Miranda, the composer who wrote In the Heights … about how he had written jingles for candidates that his father, the political consultant Luis Miranda, was working for, so that was kind of a perfect coming together of my political and arts beats.”

If you were not working in politics, what would you be doing?
“I would still be writing … I’ve had some fantasy about covering business, but I don’t know if that’s one I will ultimately fulfill.”

Five years from now, what will it say on your business card?
“ ‘Reporter,’ I hope.”

If you could have dinner with any person—living, historical or fictitious—who would it be, and why?
“Henry James, because he’s my favorite author, and I feel like he’s the historical figure I’ve most built up a personality for, in my mind, from his writings, so it would be really interesting to see what he was actually like—and I am sure that he would have fascinating observations about the New York City of today, having had fascinating observations of the New York City of his day.”
—M.P.


STEFAN RINGEL
Media Relations Director, City Councilman Jumaane Williams

Age: 26

Fifteen minutes into his job as Councilman Jumaane Williams’ media relations director, Stefan Ringel was scrambling to organize a press conference about the temporary protected status of Haitians.

Cobbling together social media skills learned during Tom DiNapoli’s comptroller campaign and lessons from a grad school class on campaign management, he frantically called up reporters who had no idea who he was.

“There was one photographer at that press conference and nobody else,” Ringel admitted. “I’m pretty sure that photographer was somebody for another elected official.”

Ringel’s behind-the-scenes work has gotten far more attention since then. After last year’s West Indian Day Parade, Williams received widespread attention and raised tough questions about racial profiling in the aftermath of his rough treatment by the NYPD.

And the night the Occupy Wall Street encampment was broken up, Williams relayed to Ringel that a bloodied Councilman Ydanis Rodríguez was in handcuffs, which Ringel tweeted.

“Five minutes later, we were trending on Twitter in New York and Los Angeles and Brooklyn,” Ringel says. “I think that was the first night I got a call from the BBC.”

Ringel, a Ridgewood, N.J., native, said he’s proud of taking Williams’ passion, putting it into words and “translating his message and his work to a wider audience.”

If you were not working in politics and government, what would you be?
“A sports analyst.”

Five years from now, what will it say on your business card?
“I will say that I am more confident than ever before that I will have a business card to distribute.”

If you could have dinner with any person—living, historical or fictitious—who would it be, and why?
“My father passed last October. I would so much love to have dinner with him now and just express to him the joy that I have in my career now, because he was the one who got me set on this path.”
—J.L.


NATALIA SALGADO
Deputy Political Director for New York State SEIU 32BJ

Age: 30

The trick to Natalia Salgado’s job isn’t just getting a 50-year-old janitor into a room with some of New York’s most powerful people. It’s that she can get those people to really listen to the janitor.

“I don’t know if it would be possible to work in politics any different way,” Salgado said. “It’s a tricky game, and there are people just into politics for acquisition of power, but doing it for my membership is what gets me up every day.”

Salgado, who started out in social work, says she could not have thrived in a bureaucratic institution, even though she would have made more money working in government. She needed to be part of what she calls la lucha—“the struggle.”

Most of SEIU 32BJ’s members are in the position that Salgado’s family once was. Born in Colombia, Salgado was 2 when her parents came to the United States. It wasn’t until her father got a union job cleaning buildings in downtown Philadelphia that she really knew stability.

“It gave my parents the ability to save money, me the ability to get a college education, to know I can go to the doctor and have a little girl and know I would be taken care of,” she said. “To be able to serve the same people as my family is incredibly powerful to me.”

If you were not working in politics, what would you be doing?
“I would either be a social worker or an organizer.”

Five years from now, what will it say on your business card?
“ ‘The consummate organizer.’”

If you could have dinner with any person—living, historical or fictitious—who would it be, and why?
“Frida Kahlo. Frida in some ways was a very complicated woman who, despite all her adversities, managed to focus her genius to create pieces of art. I’m a sucker for the tortured soul.”
—P.R.


JOSEPH SCIORTINO
Chief of Staff, Staten Island Borough President James Molinaro

Age: 25

When Joseph Sciortino was a kid, he dreamed of being a diplomat.

“I always had a passion to be a special envoy, to go out there in the world,” Sciortino said. “Through mentors and life experiences I developed a passion for international affairs and urban affairs—how to make a city like New York even better and greater for everyone who works here.”

Sciortino, the Staten Island borough president’s chief of staff since May, first applied with the Manhattan borough president. But a top official in the Staten Island office called and invited him to drop by.

“The next day he gave me a call, said, ‘[The] chief of staff is leaving in a couple of weeks … [and] we’d like for you to replace our special assistant to the borough president,’ ” he said.

Sciortino, who speaks Italian and has a master’s degree in global development and social justice, says he still might eventually do something more international. But for now, he finds his work rewarding.

“Every day there’s a little accomplishment or a big accomplishment, whether it’s handling an issue with a constituent, or working with other electeds or agency officials and creating a new project, or how to better the system,” Sciortino said. “We work on a very grassroots level as well. That’s really a true gem of this office.”

If you were not working in politics, what would you be doing?
“Working for the U.N.”

Five years from now, what will it say on your business card?
“ ‘Deputy to the U.S. Ambassador to the U.N.’ ”

If you could have dinner with any person—living, historical or fictitious—who would it be, and why?
“Theodore Roosevelt. It’s his passion for others, his zeal for life—and he was a great diplomat and statesman. And he lived by the principle by putting others first.”
—J.L


JENIFER RAJKUMAR
Democratic District Leader

Age: 30

She may be a new district leader, but she’s no political neophyte.

Last year, Lower Manhattan’s Jenifer Rajkumar defeated a 20-year incumbent endorsed by the entire Democratic establishment to join her running mate Paul Newell as a district leader.

“We won by running a strong grassroots campaign, [energizing] new voters, lot of minorities, younger people,” she said.

Rajkumar has pursued social justice and political causes from a young age, but her campaign helped her connect with her neighbors and get them involved in city politics.

“You run a campaign, you hear everybody’s stories and engage everybody, and by the time you get elected, you feel you can make a difference, and you’re ready to act on the things you have heard,” she said.

Her parents have encouraged her new interest in combative politics.

“On Primary Day my parents came out to help support me, and some people in the neighborhood said they voted for me because of my parents, which is nice to hear,” she said.

The highlight of her time in office so far was speaking with middle school girls at the Lower East Side Girls Club about leadership and public service.

“One said she wanted to be president and another wanted to be governor,” she said.

They should get in line behind Rajkumar.

If you were not working in politics, what would you be doing?
“I would be a social justice entrepreneur finding different ways to improve people’s lives.”

Five years from now, what will it say on your business card?
“ ‘Community Servant.’ Everything is on the table. I’m looking for the best way to make an impact. Whatever it will be, it will be community.”

If you could have dinner with any person—living, historical or fictitious—who would it be, and why?
“Alice Paul, the woman who bravely launched a hunger strike in our country’s first civil disobedience movement, so women could vote.”
—A.S.

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Comments (5)

  • Juan Pueblo

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    So few Latinos are “rising stars”. What’s up with that? Neglect or fact? or both! Estamos jodio…

    Reply

  • Tom Shcherbenko

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    Natalia Salgado is my hero! 32BJ Rocks!

    Reply

  • Picky

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    The photos arent matched to the bios,

    Reply

  • Roger Sen Gupta

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    Congratulations to Jenifer Rajkumar!

    Reply

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