In memoriam 2019

Hector Figueroa, discussing the New York Fast Food Wage Board's recommendation for a $15 per hour minimum wage in 2015.
Hector Figueroa, discussing the New York Fast Food Wage Board's recommendation for a $15 per hour minimum wage in 2015.
a katz/Shutterstock
Hector Figueroa, discussing the New York Fast Food Wage Board's recommendation for a $15 per hour minimum wage in 2015.

In memoriam 2019

Saying goodbye to the political figures New York lost this year.
December 30, 2019

Like many before it, the past year in New York politics will be remembered for the major stories that rocked Albany, New York City and beyond – like Democrats taking over the state Senate and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio running, and dropping out of, the Democratic presidential primary. But 2019 will also be remembered as a year that New York lost some of the people who fueled those news cycles and dedicated their lives to public service, whether as lawmakers, activists or political leaders.

From a beloved union leader to a member of a Tammany Hall Democratic dynasty, these are a few of the figures who New York lost in 2019.

James McManus

James McManus, who died at the age of 84 in February, made a name for himself in Hell’s Kitchen, Manhattan, where he maintained an influential political club, and was called the “last of the city’s Tammany Hall Democratic party bosses.” He deftly carried on his family’s political legacy; his great-granduncle Thomas McManus began the political dynasty in the 1890s when he became the leader of Tammany Hall. James McManus served as a district leader and before that as an assistant administrator at the New York City Board of Elections. His most recognizable role, however, was running the McManus Midtown Democratic Club and his dominion over neighborhood politics.

Leonard Spano

There’s a reason that the Spano name resounds across Westchester County and that reason is Leonard Spano, the former Republican Westchester County legislator and county clerk, who died at the age of 88 in February. Described as a “gentle giant,” Spano cemented his family’s blue-collar political legacy over more than three decades of service in the aforementioned roles. Two of his 16 children – Yonkers Mayor Mike Spano and former state Sen. Nick Spano – followed in his political ambitions.

Mel Miller

Former Democratic Assembly Speaker Mel Miller, who died at the age of 79 in March, had an abrupt end to his career in public service in 1991, when he was convicted of felonies related to his private real estate work – convictions that were overturned two years later. What the Brooklyn politician is really remembered for is his 21-year tenure in the Assembly – where he battled with then-Gov. Mario Cuomo for power – and for being a founding member of the lobbying firm Bolton-St. Johns. Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie also credited Miller with being instrumental in creating the state’s Minority- and Women-Owned Business Enterprise program.

Henry Stern

Henry Stern may have been known as a New York City councilman from Manhattan, but much of his legacy comes from serving for 15 years as New York City’s parks and recreation commissioner, a tenure second only to Robert Moses. Stern, who died at the age of 83 in March, led the department under Mayors Ed Koch and Rudy Giuliani, first from 1983 to 1990, and then again from 1994 to 2002. The New York Times, who called Stern “a brilliant, combative grandstander who clowned in costumes, kissed catfish and crawled through the seal house in Central Park to get publicity,” wrote he was credited with making the city’s parks, playgrounds and beaches cleaner and safer.

Albert Buzzeo

Albert Buzzeo, a former Republican district leader in Queens and assistant commissioner in the New York City Department for the Aging, died at the age of 88 in May. Buzzeo joined the department under then-New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and continued in the post under then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg. A veteran of the Korean War and a former caterer, Buzzeo was said to have devoted his life to advocating for seniors.

Lew Fidler

Lew Fidler, a former New York City councilman and Democratic district leader, died at the age of 62 in May. In his 12 years representing southern Brooklyn, Fidler was known as an advocate for homeless youth and for aiding small businesses in the wake of Superstorm Sandy. “Lew embodied courage and compassion,” New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio tweeted after Fidler’s death. “He was a champion and protector to runaway youth and some of the most vulnerable kids in our city.”

Karen Johnson

Former Schenectady Mayor Karen Johnson died at the age of 77 in June, leaving behind a powerful legacy as the only female mayor in the city’s more than 200-year history. Johnson, a Democrat, also made history as the city’s first councilwoman, and then was elected to the first of her two mayoral terms in 1983. In her final year as mayor, she served as the president of the New York Conference of Mayors. Even after the end of her run as the city’s top executive, Johnson continued her life in politics, serving as a part-time Schenectady County legislator. After her death, it was announced that Johnson’s estate would donate $2.5 million to nonprofit organizations and educational institutions in the city.

Héctor Figueroa

The sudden news that 32BJ SEIU President Héctor Figueroa had died of a heart attack took many by surprise, including Gov. Andrew Cuomo who remembered the union boss as a “towering figure in politics” and a “hero of the labor community.” Figueroa, who died at the age of 57 in July, had had much to celebrate in recent years, including successfully pushing for higher wages for airport workers and fast-food workers. In one of the biggest political stories of the year – the fight over whether Amazon should build a new headquarters in Queens – Figueroa stood apart from his fellow labor leaders who opposed the plans. 32BJ SEIU had reached a commitment with the behemoth internet company for thousands of permanent, well-paying jobs for cleaners and security guards at the now-canceled HQ2. Since Figueroa was elected to lead 32BJ SEIU in 2012, the union’s membership – which includes building cleaners, security guards, doormen and window cleaners – grew by more than 50,000.

Richard Rosenbaum

Former New York state Republican Party Chairman Richard Rosenbaum died at the age of 88 in July. In addition to his leadership of the state Republican Party, however, Rosenbaum is remembered for helping to propel former New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller to vice president under President Gerald Ford. A native of Oswego, Rosenbaum was also one of the youngest people elected as a state Supreme Court justice.

Wendell Foster

The Rev. Wendell Foster, who died at the age of 95 in September, persevered through Jim Crow-era segregation in Alabama and came to New York City on a Greyhound bus when he was 13 and rose to prominence as a minister and the first black elected city official in the Bronx. It took him three tries to win his first race, but after those initial struggles, Foster spent 24 years as a New York City councilman. His old seat in the 16th District, which included Highbridge, Morrisania and Morris Heights, was then held for 12 years by his daughter, Helen Foster. New York City Councilwoman Vanessa Gibson, who currently holds the seat, told the Daily News that Foster’s work “paved the way for African American elected officials in the Bronx.”

Jay Kriegel

Jay Kriegel, a Brooklyn native who died at the age of 79 in December, had a hand in nearly every facet of New York City politics. A young chief of staff to then-Mayor John Lindsay, Kriegel led the effort to bring the 2012 Olympics to New York City, helped to create the Civilian Complaint Review Board and even dipped his toes into publishing by co-founding The American Lawyer magazine with Steven Brill. Described by Mayor Bill de Blasio as “a New York City patriot,” Kriegel left his mark on the city in more ways than one.

Annie McDonough
Annie McDonough
is a tech and policy reporter at City & State.
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