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Tuesday, September 26, 2023

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He calls the shots for the governor of New York State. He lives in Colorado.

With the Democratic nomination all but certain last spring, New York Gov. Kathy Hochul and her campaign began planning pre-emptive TV ads to head off Republican attacks already surrounding rising crime.

The ad’s creators cut out a 30-second ad highlighting Ms. Hochul’s plan to keep city streets and subway trains safe. She told her campaign manager she was eager to see it on air and previewed it for donors at a private screening on Park Avenue.

But the ad never served. After several rounds of debate, a voice came out loud. “Let’s focus on abortion,” Adam C. Sullivan wrote in a note to senior strategists, which was seen by The New York Times. Crime can wait.

A year later, the decision has been seen by many in Ms. Hochul’s orbit as a damaging miscalculation, nearly unnerving her Republican challenger and costing Democrats their House majority. It was also a testament to the little-known clout of Mr. Sullivan, a little-known operative who used his close relationship with Ms. Hochul to become the most powerful political force in New York.

Mr Sullivan, 42, has no official job title and no social media presence. From his home in a mining town in Colorado, he runs a small consulting firm that provides strategic guidance on issues such as public safety away from the streets of New York City, where some residents are unnerved by criminal activity. Much of his generous compensation — estimated at hundreds of thousands of dollars — is hidden in campaign records.

Yet 18 months into Ms. Hochul’s tenure, Mr. Sullivan’s fingerprints can be seen all over New York, according to more than two dozen people who have worked closely with Mr. Sullivan.

He helped Ms Hochul build her management team, advising her on key early hiring; crafting two multibillion-dollar state budgets; and running a 2022 campaign that lacked vigor criticized by Democrats. Most recently, he helped the governor resolve a failed effort to impose Judge Hector D. LaSalle on the state’s Supreme Court.

Now, as the de facto head of Ms. Hochul’s political operation, Mr. Sullivan has been tasked with reviving New York’s struggling state Democratic Party. The outcome could have a big impact on Democrats’ chances of retaking the House.

The extent of Mr. Sullivan’s reach from afar is unusual even by the standards of the Zoom era, confounding many in the club’s political establishment in New York and angering many on Ms. Hochul’s own team.

Most governors have a trusted, all-encompassing enforcer who carefully maintains their political standing. Ms Hochul met her in 2011 when Mr Sullivan helped her win Special House election No one thought she could. But it’s rare for someone in his position to call in from 1,700 miles away, or have so few relationships with key stakeholders.

“Managing New York politics in Colorado is like managing the Ukraine war in New York,” said Charlie King, a veteran Democratic strategist. “You can be a really good tactician, but things move very fast on the ground and you might not be close enough to the action.

Many who work directly for Ms. Hochl’s political team and government hold harsher views. The Times interviewed more than 15 people at all levels who said Mr Sullivan was considered a divisive presence. They recounted anecdotes of him belittling subordinates, especially young women; marginalizing those who disagreed with him; telling young workers that the governor didn’t know their names; and often passing the buck when things went wrong.

The aides and advisers insisted on anonymity for fear of reprisal. But they say Mr. Sullivan has contributed to Ms. Hochul’s political decline while evading public scrutiny.

In a written statement, Mr Sullivan did not directly dispute the characterizations but noted the intensity of the campaign. “I’ve always tried to be respectful to everyone, and regret that someone feels I’m not living up to that standard,” he said.

The governor’s spokeswoman, Julie Wood, who made no mention of workplace concerns in her own statement about Mr. Sullivan, said Ms. Hochul “values ​​his thoughts and guidance.”

“Ultimately what drives her decision is what is best for New Yorkers,” Ms. Wood said.

There are also questions about how and by whom Mr Sullivan is paid, as he is not a state employee.

Since 2021, the governor’s campaign has paid approximately $50,000 directly to “ACS Campaign Consulting,” a limited liability company controlled by Mr. Sullivan. But he received more money through a secret arrangement that rewarded him with cuts to campaign advertising, according to four people with direct knowledge of the matter. Assuming the arrangement meets industry standards, he could net at least $500,000 — a figure he doesn’t dispute.

The Times could only identify one other current client of Mr. Sullivan, the Alliance for Reform, a nonprofit founded by rappers Meek Mill and Jay-Z, among others, to change probation and parole laws. Mr. Sullivan would not name the other clients, but said none had had business before New York state. He added that he “has never been paid to lobby or influence the governor.”

The governor turned to other outsiders for help: The state paid nearly $2 million to Deloitte and Boston Consulting Group to help her with her State of the Union address. Others in Ms Hochul’s audience included her top government aide, Karen Persichilli Keogh; Jeffrey Pollock, her longtime pollster; Daniel French, until recently the Syracuse General Counsel of the University.

While most of these advisers are well-known in political circles, even basic biographical information about Mr. Sullivan has been difficult to find. Ms. Hochul mentioned him in prominence only once, on stage after her win last November. He appears to be the sole employee of his consulting firm, working most of the time from his home in Leadville, Colorado, and aside from occasional trips to New York, he is an avid skier.

Of more than two dozen lawmakers, union leaders and campaign strategists contacted by The Times, only a handful were able to correctly identify him.

“I’ve never met him, I’ve just heard bad things about him — sorry,” said Liz Krueger, an influential Democratic state senator from Manhattan.

Supporters of Mr. Sullivan described him as a brilliant tactician who steered Ms. Hochul through the aftershocks of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s resignation and helped her win a full tenure, even a bumpy one.

“Maybe he’s not the New York defector who knows everyone, but Adam has an unquestionable record of success,” said Jesse Fassler, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand’s longtime chief of staff.

Mr. Sullivan began his career as a political agent in 2000 and ran his first New York race in 2008, the same year he helped Ms. Gillibrand win re-election in the House.

In early 2011, fresh off his stint on the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, Ms. Hochul, who was the Erie County clerk at the time, decided to run in the special House election in Western New York. She hired Mr. Sullivan as her campaign manager because of his experience running special elections and his conviction that she could win, a belief shared by few. Despite the slim chances, she did it.

This has been a boon for Mr. Sullivan. He presided over a Senate race in New Mexico in 2012 and served as campaign manager for Sen. Mary Landrieu’s unsuccessful re-election bid in Louisiana in 2014 until he was abruptly fired weeks before Election Day.

Ms. Landrieu said in an interview that she had replaced Mr. Sullivan because she was losing and wanted a more familiar team. After that, Mr Sullivan’s political work dried up, and Ms Hochul appeared to be his only major political client since 2015.

Things started to change in the summer of 2021, as it became clear that allegations of sexual harassment would force Mr. Cuomo to step down. Ms. Hochul has only a small circle around her, and she relies on Mr. Sullivan to help build a government, including the selection of Brian A. Benjamin as lieutenant governor, who attended Sullivan’s wedding in 2018. (Mr. Benjamin later resigned amid federal corruption charges.)

Mr. Sullivan has taken a more active role in the campaign, with his involvement in media strategy, Ms. Hochul’s day-to-day schedule and larger decisions such as how to allocate millions of dollars on ad campaigns, including one he intervened in last May. .

In this case, the campaign produced and tested the ad “Safe” to highlight public safety changes approved in the state budget. Ms. Hochul and other advisors pushed for airing throughout New York. In communications seen by The Times, Ms. Hochul’s campaign manager, Brian Lenzmeier, wrote that she was “firmly convinced that we need to include criminal advertising, rather than just focusing on abortion.” (Mr. Lenzmeier declined to comment.)

But Mr Sullivan has often insisted that crime is a losing issue for Ms Hochul. He believes the campaign’s resources are best spent motivating Democrats to address abortion rights, so he’s pushed to limit public safety messaging or gun laws in places like Long Island. Ultimately, it wasn’t until October, when Republicans had already unleashed a frenzy, that the campaign meaningfully challenged crime statewide.

Ms. Hochul survived by just 6 percentage points in the overwhelmingly Democratic state, and some party leaders credit her crime-fighting approach with helping Republicans win congressional seats. Representative Nancy Pelosi, the former House Speaker, told The Times’ Maureen Dowd that Ms. Hochul needed to “respond to the crime earlier, not 10 days before the election.”

Allies of Mr. Sullivan said he supported the campaign’s pledge to prioritize attacking Ms. Hochul’s Republican opponents on abortion. Mr Sullivan declined to comment on campaign strategy.

Since then, he has also resisted any quick course corrections within the state Democratic Party. He and Ms. Hochul backed its chairman, Jay Jacobs, who has become a punching bag for Democrats, especially those on the left.

Allies of Mr. Sullivan say he and Ms. Hochul want to strengthen the party, but they can describe only vague plans. Meanwhile, Democrats across the country seemed not to wait, announcing their own $45 million New York political machine.

“Adam was the first person to pick up the phone and give me support,” Mr Jacobs said in an interview. “I don’t think the governor has any agenda other than to be successful.”

susan beach contributed research.

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