Things can’t get much better for New York City’s lobbying industry.
Total compensation hit $95.4 million last year, up from $86 million in 2015 and far beyond the $62 million lobbyists took home in 2013, the last year Michael Bloomberg was in office. The winners so far have been those most closely tied to Mayor Bill de Blasio: James Capalino, an old friend linked to the Rivington House scandal, and Kramer Levin Naftalis & Frankel, the law and lobbying firm which represented de Blasio during federal investigations into his fundraising tactics. (He was eventually cleared of all charges.)
Further down the list, but never too far, is Constantinople & Vallone, the government relations consulting firm co-founded by Peter Vallone Sr., the former Speaker of the City Council. The firm took in a little over $3 million in 2016, representing a wide range of clients including TD Bank, Walgreens, T-Mobile, and real estate developers like Alma Realty, who were initially tied to a proposed affordable housing development on the Queens waterfront.
Now one of their own is making the relatively rare move of trying to join the legislative body they lobby. Keith Powers, who until recently served as vice president at Constantinople & Vallone, is a top contender for an open City Council seat on the East Side of Manhattan. Powers, a Democratic district leader and longtime activist, worked for State Senator Liz Krueger, a prominent progressive in the area, and former assemblyman Jonathan Bing before joining Constantinople & Vallone in 2011.
Powers’s old clients run the gamut, from those that jibe perfectly with his progressive campaign — he is in the running to land the Working Families Party endorsement — and to those that may cause him headaches. On the anodyne side, he has represented New York Junior Tennis & Learning and the Sports and Arts in School Foundation, for example.
He has also represented the owners and operators of Trump SoHo, the Bayrock Sapir Organization. (Donald Trump remains on the liquor license of the hotel.) Other Powers clients include the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, a fierce opponent of reforming the NYPD, and the GEO group, one of the nation’s largest for-profit prison operators.
Powers says his old client list will not affect him if he becomes a councilmember. “I have no deeper relationship or commitment than to my community,” he said in a statement. “We face serious challenges, from skyrocketing rents that are shuttering our small businesses and displacing our neighbors, to a president that opposes our progressive vision. My experience will allow me to fight these forces from my first day on the job.”
Typically, elected officials leave office to become lobbyists, not the other way around. Vallone traded in on his relationships in city government to launch a firm. Al D’Amato grew rich after he left the Senate to found the lobbying powerhouse Park Strategies. Mel Miller, a former Speaker of the State Assembly, is a counsel at the firm.
Common Cause New York, a good government group, recommended that Powers, if elected, should fully release his client list, agree to refrain from direct contact with former clients for at least one year, and seek an advisory opinion from the Conflict of Interest Board and disclose it to the public. “Anyone who has worked as a lobbyist before running for office should be careful to assure the public that they are putting the public interest before the interests of their former clients and will take appropriate steps to avoid the appearance of conflict,” said Susan Lerner, the executive director of Common Cause New York.
While Powers’s move from lobbying to politicking is somewhat rare — he will undoubtedly face legitimate questions about a client list that conflicts with his values and a firm that may have even more influence in a City Council that already includes Paul Vallone, Peter’s son — it’s not unprecedented. Several other elected officials, including one currently serving in the City Council and another in the assembly, have transitioned from lobbying firms into elected office.
Coincidentally, most come from Queens.
Before getting elected to the City Council in 1992, John Sabini was vice president of MWW Group, a government relations firm based in New Jersey that also lobbies New York government. Sabini, who briefly served as chairman of the Queens County Democratic Party in the 1980s, was also a state senator until 2008.
Barry Grodenchik, a current Queens councilman, was a lobbyist for the Parkside Group, a heavyweight in state lobbying and campaign circles. Grodenchik, whose clients included a local development corporation that once pushed the redevelopment of Willets Point, eventually left Parkside in 2010 to become deputy Queens borough president. He was elected to the City Council in 2015.
Assemblyman Ron Kim, also of Queens, was a fellow Parkside lobbyist before his election in 2012. 32BJ SEIU, the powerful service workers’ union, and the owner of the Indian Point nuclear power plant were among his clients.
Melinda Katz, the current Queens borough president, was a registered lobbyist with Greenberg Traurig, a powerful law and lobbying firm. Occupying the role between her stint in the City Council and her borough president campaign, Katz lobbied for a tobacco company, NYU, and Microsoft, among many others.
And this week, former councilman Robert Jackson kicked off his campaign to defeat State Senator Marisol Alcantara, a member of the Independent Democratic Conference. After leaving the Council, Jackson lobbied on behalf of a plastic foam company to fight a citywide ban on polystyrene products.
Powers, running to replace term-limited Councilman Dan Garodnick, is facing a crowded field of Democrats in a primary set for this September. Candidates include Marti Speranza, Bessie Schachter, Jeff Mailman, Diane Grayson, Maria Castro, and Vanessa Aronson.
Garodnick has not endorsed a successor.