Meet New York City's Most Powerful Bureaucrat
Illustration by Justin Francavilla
Ramon Martinez, the City Council's immortal man, has a lesson for the elected officials he out-earns and ultimately outclasses: Pigs get fed, hogs get slaughtered. Ask for enough and you'll do fine; ask for too much, and you'll suffer for your venality.
Martinez, who as the chief of staff to the City Council Speaker earns a salary on par with the mayor's, has been the legislative body's brain and enforcer for more than a decade, surviving and thriving even as the players and ideologies shift.
"Ramon walks into a room, sits down at the table, and says, 'Cut the shit, everyone, we're figuring this out,' " Manhattan Councilman Corey Johnson told the Voice. "He's always the guy who lands the plane."
If the Speaker, currently Melissa Mark-Viverito, can be regarded as the second most powerful elected official in the city, it's the sphinxlike Martinez who may be New York's most consequential bureaucrat.
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"He's someone who has a super deep realm of knowledge and historical perspective on the institution," said Christine Quinn, the former two-term Council Speaker, "and when you're Speaker, that kind of longer-term view is so critical."
Martinez declined to be interviewed for this story, which did not surprise Quinn, or anyone else who knows him. A quiet and intensely private man, Martinez is rarely photographed or quoted. He was born in Cuba but grew up in Queens and holds a J.D. and an M.B.A., from St. John's and Fordham, respectively. While Martinez won't reveal his age, Mark-Viverito's spokesman estimated him to be around fifty. Quinn described him as "grumpy," before correcting herself: "Ramon can be a little dark, in his own way."
Martinez has consistently been one of the top-earning public employees in the city since 2006, when he joined Quinn as a deputy to her chief of staff, Charles Meara. As chief of staff today, Martinez banks $222,209 a year, a figure that easily surpasses Mark-Viverito's $164,500 salary. Top governmental employees can occasionally out-earn their elected bosses, who have to go through the legislative process to seek raises, but Martinez's standing is singular.
Councilmembers and staffers don't question it, however. That's because Martinez's palette is so expansive: He is, among other things, responsible for knowing the quirks and peculiarities of the fifty other councilmembers so Mark-Viverito can advance her legislative priorities, often in concert with Mayor Bill de Blasio. He frequently visits their districts, takes phone calls, and massages egos. "He is part problem-solver, part psychotherapist," said freshman Bronx Councilman Ritchie Torres.
If a councilmember wants to know if a bill has any chance of becoming law, Martinez is the man to consult — he counts the votes and determines whether the bill can work in the context of the city's byzantine legal framework. On real estate development and zoning, where the council is most influential, Martinez is again the man in the middle, brokering deals and backing up members as they face down developers.
His effectiveness in negotiations extends to his relationships. He's still on good terms with Democratic U.S. Representative Joe Crowley, even after marrying and divorcing the sister of the powerful party boss. He held a lower-level post under Speaker Peter Vallone Sr. in the 1990s and worked as a prized political director on Hillary Clinton's 2000 Senate campaign, rubbing elbows with her campaign manager, de Blasio, and with Howard Wolfson, a top operative who became a deputy mayor under Michael Bloomberg.
"He was an absolute newcomer to Hillary's world and he managed to gain her confidence very quickly," Wolfson said, explaining that it was Martinez's job to acquaint the first lady with New York's tribal politics. Thanks to him, Wolfson added, "we avoided all kinds of landmines and pitfalls."
Martinez owes his job to patronage — Quinn stocked the council with Crowley allies when she took charge — but he's kept it on his own merits. When Mark-Viverito, riding a rising progressive tide, swept into power in 2014, Martinez's gig was thought to be in danger, since insiders expected the incoming Speaker to clean house. One well-connected source said Martinez sought instead to work for his old friend Bill de Blasio.
But the City Hall job did not materialize, and Mark-Viverito realized that, in a sea of freshman councilmembers, she needed Martinez's expertise. If anything, his power has grown under the progressive Speaker, who has looked to him to keep an ambitious — some would say overeager — body in check. The two share a bluntness that can be off-putting and a dogged work ethic that has propelled each to the upper reaches of city government. "It's been amazing working with him," said Eric Koch, a spokesman for Mark-Viverito.
Next year, Mark-Viverito will be term-limited out of office and a new Speaker will replace her. No matter who it is, it's become increasingly clear the Cuban kid by way of Queens County can cling to his perch as long as he wants to.
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