The real estate industry faces some big unknowns as 2015 gets underway. Thorny issues like terrorism risk insurance and 421a tax abatements will come up against a new political landscape in Washington, D.C., and new dynamics in Albany.
And as this plays out, there will be a new face representing the industry in New York City for the first time in 30 years. John Banks, a longtime lobbyist for Consolidated Edison, was tapped last month to take over as president of the Real Estate Board of New York. Outgoing President Steven Spinola will be stepping aside by mid-year after three decades at the helm of the powerful industry group.
In Banks, a veteran of politics and government affairs, the industry is getting an adroit advocate who is well-connected in the halls of power, and battle-tested when it comes to getting deals done, those familiar with his body of work told The Real Deal.
“I think he’s really a very, very wise choice. He really understands government and he understands policy and politics. He understands the private sector,” said Suri Kasirer, president of Kasirer Consulting and one of the top lobbyists in New York City. “He knows how to move things along through the government bureaucratic structure. He comes from a lot of different backgrounds and brings a lot of different skill sets.”
Banks, who was the vice president of governmental affairs at Con Ed for 13 years, will become REBNY’s president-elect in early March. Spinola will stay on during a transition period.
A comparison of their resumes shows the two have a lot in common.
Both figures loom large in Albany, where they have key relationships with some of the state’s most important lawmakers. Most notable are the “three men in a room” — Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos and Assembly Majority Leader Sheldon Silver — who are largely responsible for shaping government agendas.
Banks and Spinola even worked on issues where the worlds of real estate, energy and economic development overlap, such as rebuilding Lower Manhattan after the 9/11 attacks.
The Real Deal reviewed reports lobbyists are required to file with the state ethics panel to glean some sense of how active the two organizations are in Albany.
From 2012 through the first half of 2014, REBNY spent a little more than $1 million lobbying state officials. During the same time, Con Ed spent about $680,000.
The two also lobby in Washington, D.C., but in the nation’s capitol the edge goes to Con Ed.
REBNY has spent about $500,000 lobbying in Washington since 2010, outsourcing all the work to a District-based firm. Con Ed, on the other hand, spent $3.6 million during that time. And not only does the company do most of its own lobbying there, but Banks himself has worked on legislative issues in D.C.
Both men got their starts in Mayor Ed Koch’s administration. In the 1980s, under Koch, Spinola started out as the head of the predecessor to today’s city Economic Development Corp.
Banks began his career as an investigator in the mayor’s Office of Operations. He went on to serve as chief of staff to then-City Council Speaker Peter Vallone Sr., where he was largely responsible for the day-to-day activities of the Council from 2000 to 2002.
“He was an excellent solver of problems,” Vallone Sr. said. “Whether it was a major fire in the city somewhere, or a murder, or the stock market going down 600 points in one day…. There were a lot of major problems back then, and John always had a cool head. He was a very smart advisor on that end.”
Wizard of scheduling
Many people who know Banks said not only is he well-liked and well-respected, but he is also a very savvy political strategist.
That cunning was on display back in 2001, when Vallone’s chief of staff was able to outmaneuver then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani on a campaign-finance reform bill, a story reported by the New York Post and confirmed by those who were there at the time.
In March of that year, Giuliani vetoed a bill the Council had passed protecting the city’s four-to-one matching program for campaign contributions. In the following weeks the mayor sought to pick apart support for the bill, to prevent the Council from overriding his veto.
The task of lining up votes in favor of the law fell to Banks, and he appeared to have favorable numbers. But on the day in mid-April when the override vote was scheduled, a number of lawmakers were absent; the strategist cancelled the vote at the eleventh hour.
It appeared that Giuliani had won.
But Banks knew that in just a few days, the Council would be voting on a separate override measure, this one providing more funding for municipal-employee pensions. That issue was big with the unions, and Banks knew they would be out in full force making sure the lawmakers showed up.
When the Council reconvened, it passed both override measures. The end result was seen as a major victory for Vallone, but the strategy was all Banks.
Aside from his tactical prowess, Banks is also regarded as an honest and trustworthy operative, which is no small compliment, political insiders assured TRD.
Albany lawmakers pointed to the blackout of 2006 as an example of how Banks was able to put a human face to Con Ed during trying times.
“He made it look more user-friendly, rather than being looked at as a big conglomerate,” said state Assemblyman Keith Wright, a Democrat who represents Harlem and chairs the body’s Committee on Housing.
In addition to his roles in the public and private sectors, Banks also serves on the boards of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (an appointee of former Mayor Michael Bloomberg) and the New York Public Library. He was reportedly in the running to replace Dan Doctoroff when the Bloomberg-administration deputy mayor stepped down in 2007, and he served as a member of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s transition team.
Political strategist Hank Sheinkopf said he thinks Banks is a strong choice to serve as the bridge between politics and real estate.
“It gives them a serious institutional player and someone who really understands the legislature. Banks gives you his word, and he keeps it, in a world where very few people can be trusted,” he said. “It’s a master stroke by REBNY.”