The Closing: Suri Kasirer

The veteran NYC lobbyist on buying without a broker, political divides at home and batting for the Midtown East rezoning 
By Rich Bockmann | May 01, 2019 01:00PM

Suri Kasirer (Photo by Axel Dupeux)

Suri Kasirer is one of New York’s most active lobbyists and often recognized as one of the most powerful women in the city. Her eponymous firm, which employs about 30 people, earned the most among the city’s lobbying groups last year with $12.9 million in total revenue, up from $11.5 million in 2017, according to the city clerk’s office. In the more than two decades since she launched her business, Kasirer has helped influence major initiatives, including the rezoning of Midtown’s Vanderbilt Corridor and the Cornell Tech campus on Roosevelt Island, and her roster of clients now includes SL Green, Vornado, Tishman Speyer, Silverstein Properties and Two Trees, among others. Though real estate accounts for more than half of her business today, she and her associates work with clients in the technology, education, health care and nonprofit sectors as well. Kasirer also sits on the boards of the New York League of Conservation Voters, Citymeals on Wheels, the Women’s Leadership Forum and the New York Building Foundation, and is one half of a political power couple. Her husband, Bruce Teitelbaum, was a chief of staff for Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and has gone into real estate development since leaving the public sector in 1999. But Kasirer said their professional lives don’t mix. The couple live in a condo on Broadway and West 73rd Street with their three children. 

DOB: Oct. 28, 1958
Lives in: Upper West Side
Hometown: Glendale, Queens
Family: Married with three children (a daughter, 12, and twin boys, 10)

Did you always have an interest in working in politics and government? My father was a Holocaust survivor, and I was very young when he would tell me these stories every night. As a child, I always worried a lot about how I would survive if there was another Holocaust, who I knew and how I could protect my family. That really led to my own interest in figuring out how to make a change and how to influence those in a position of authority.

What was your family life like? I grew up in a two-bedroom Mitchell-Lama co-op in Glendale. There were four of us, so it was a little tight. My brother slept in the living room. My mom still lives in that apartment. My father passed away two years ago.

What did you do for fun? I used to horseback ride as a kid and hang around with my friends. We had a stable not far from our apartment building, and I rode until I was about 15.

Were you a good student? I was an activist. I was always involved in student government and always meeting with principals and teachers to explain how students felt about something. I got a longer lunch hour. Little things that meant a lot as a student.

And you went to Yeshiva University? Yeah, I studied history and sociology. When I graduated, I founded this organization called the Council for the Rescue of Syrian Jews. I did that for a period of time, and I also did some teaching.

Did you have an idea for a career path when you graduated? I wanted to have the experience of being both in politics and in government, and so I worked on the Clinton campaign, which was an amazing experience. Then I went to work for Mario Cuomo as his liaison to the Jewish community.

When did you decide to start your own business? I started my business [in 1997]. I was doing some consulting work out of my apartment. I was representing the Jewish League at the time, and they called me and said, “We have the office next door available.” I said, “Okay, but I don’t really have any staff.” And I then said, “Well, I guess I should hire somebody to answer the phones.” That was my first hire, and I realized that I had a business.

Were there a lot of women in government relations then? Yeah, there were women in government relations. There weren’t a lot of business owners that were women. Over the years there have been one or two, but not many.

Did you find that challenging? I think, in general, women are held to a very, very high standard. People tend to want to second-guess you. And I think oftentimes we, as women, don’t necessarily speak with the same authority as men — even though they may not be as sure of themselves on a particular topic.

Have you seen any changes with the #MeToo movement, either in government relations or in real estate? Not really. I mean there are a limited number of women in real estate as owners and very few as CEOs. And I think, as women, it’s probably difficult to get financing. There are some very powerful women out there that are doing great things, and I hope they’re going to lead the way to change.

You worked on the Midtown East rezoning on behalf of SL Green. What was that process like? We worked on it from the very beginning, at the end of the Bloomberg administration. We realized very early on that the politics weren’t going to come together for that. But SL Green already had an anchor tenant, and they really couldn’t wait for the new administration to work on a second rezoning. So we came up with this idea of having the Vanderbilt Corridor.

What’s been the most challenging project that you worked on? The Cornell Tech project was very challenging. We went in with a $2 billion project and 200 million square feet in a small community. And when we did, people weren’t that receptive. At the end we worked really hard on the ground to build a tremendous amount of support in the community.

What was the feeling like when they won the bid? Oh, it was so exciting. We were up against Stanford, and we perceived that as our biggest competition. Every time Mayor Bloomberg and Bob Steel would talk about the project they would say, “Well, if only we could get Stanford!” We really needed to demonstrate that we were going to be the hardest-working people in town.

Who were some of your first real estate clients? I represented Trinity Real Estate … I represented a lot of people in the Downtown area through my relationship with the Alliance for Downtown New York. Early on I represented Goldman Sachs and did some work for their real estate group. But I very much started in the not-for-profit space and from there built the real estate practice.

There was a controversy early on with your relationship with your husband. You were banned from lobbying the Giuliani administration after it came to light that you were advocating for special parking privileges for Goldman, even though you hadn’t registered as a lobbyist at City Hall. We were trying to solve a very local problem [at Goldman’s headquarters in the Financial District]. And at the time, it was really a community board issue, and one would argue that I didn’t have to register. But it was very hard to explain the lobbying laws and the registration laws, and once you have to start explaining you lose the battle. But that’s how you learn from controversy.

How did you and Bruce meet? I was working on the Dinkins campaign, and I met Bruce because he was on the other side of that. When Giuliani won, I called Bruce and said, “If I could ever be helpful in terms of dealing with the Jewish community …” It was his first stint in government. We got invited to a Friday night dinner together and we started talking, and the rest is history.

Did you talk about politics in the beginning? It sounds like you two are opposites sides of the coin. Yeah, we don’t talk about politics a lot because we tend not to agree on politics. People always say, “I can’t believe you married a Republican,” because I’m very much a liberal Democrat. But I would say that Bruce and I came together on two very important issues: We’re both against the death penalty and both pro-choice. But we certainly don’t agree on Israeli politics — Bruce is very right-wing on Israel, and I’m very much to the left — and we don’t agree on Democratic politics.

Are your children starting to form political opinions? It breaks along gender lines. My daughter says she is a Democrat; the boys say they’re Republicans.

When did you buy your first home? We bought our first home in the Hamptons. And it was a big discussion as to whether we should buy a bigger apartment in the city or get a second home that could give us a little break from the city. We chose to do that, and that was before we had three kids.

And you bought a condo a few years back, right? Yeah, at 2112 Broadway. When my daughter was born, we were in a small rental and we needed a bigger apartment. I pointed to that building, the Apple Savings Bank, and I was like, “There is a big sign up there that says those apartments are for sale.” Bruce came back one day and said, “I have a surprise for you. We have an interview to see the model apartment.” It was a real stretch for us at the time, and we negotiated because we didn’t use a broker — we just literally came in off the street because of the sign.

What do you think is the most substantial legislation in the works now impacting real estate? There is a lot of legislation that’s of concern to the real estate community, and there’s a number of things that we’re following for our clients. We get quite a number of submissions on things like commercial rent control and the rent stabilization bills. We just worked on the greenhouse gas emissions bill.

Do you think the real estate industry is optimistic about how the commercial rent bill will play out?  I think it’s really important to keep the dialogue going. I think that it’s very hard sometimes for politicians to understand the impact of their legislation on business and the people who are on the ground doing the work. I think it’s super important to spend the time to educate people and keep logging time about it. I’m not ready to give up on anything yet.

What about the impact high rents have had on store closures? No one wants empty storefronts, but it’s hard to force people to keep stores open that don’t work. Sometimes you have to let the market adjust itself.

You’ve been involved in fundraising for the mayor and Corey Johnson. Does it happen often that you have potential conflicts that you have to think about avoiding?  I had a side business that did fundraising for a long time, and I always felt like it was hard to get people elected and then lobby them, so I really shut down that part of the business. I might encourage clients of mine who feel excited about a particular candidate to support a candidate, but I’m out of the fundraising business.

What about representing a range of private clients? Are there conflicts there?  I try to be very careful about conflicts. I represent the Hotel Association, and I would not represent Airbnb. I represent the American Cancer Society, so I would not represent the cigar companies.

Each year your firm is at the top of the city’s lobbyist rankings. What separates the wheat from the chaff in your line of business now?  First of all, obviously, you need to have relationships. You need to understand government and politics and the intersection of the two. But I think, most importantly, you need to have a strategy, and then you need to be nimble enough to be able to constantly change that plan.

—Edited and condensed for clarity.