How former liberal operative Josh Isay became the default paid-media guy to the New York establishment
On February 16, Josh Isay’s current and former clients dominated the local news. New York governor and former client Andrew Cuomo was threatening to usurp the duties of Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, a more recent client. The New York Times ran a 1,400-word article on Connecticut governor Dannel Malloy, who was elected in 2010 with Isay's help. Analysts debated Deutsche Boerse’s proposed purchase of another Isay client, the New York Stock Exchange.
Asked later that day about the Malloy and Schneiderman stories, Isay, a 41-year old political and media consultant, evinced a disinterest at odds with his reputation as a detail-obsessed image-broker, brushing off Malloy and claiming not to have read Schneiderman closely.
Most likely, Isay was just being guarded. Though he has worked for Michael Bloomberg, Christine Quinn, Bruce Ratner, Scott Stringer, Joe Lieberman, Charlie Crist, Caroline Kennedy, the New York Stock Exchange and Benjamin Netanyahu—or maybe because he already moves in such powerful circles, and no longer feels the need to market himself—Isay has become a private person, loath to appear on television or at political events, reluctant to take interviews and, usually, entirely uninterested in discussing himself. It may, as his friends and family say, derive from a natural shyness, but that’s a shyness he’s only in recent years begun to indulge, as he expands his professional roster to include corporate clients, many of whom might consider a regular slot on NY1 to be more liability than asset.
“I think there’s something between glad-handing and J.D. Salinger, and I’m probably somewhere in between,” said Isay.
JOSH ISAY SELLS ADVICE TO NEW YORK POWER BROKERS from his place of business at the end of a labrynthine hallway on the fifth floor of a building on Broadway, between Houston and Prince streets. The offices have the feel of a genteel law firm in the days before mass corporatization forced American workers into sterilized beige cubicles. The walls are decorated with old political posters, the conference room floor sprouts a shabby red white and blue rug, beneath a glass table, next to a clanging radiator.
Isay is a slight, hirsute man with a runner’s build and a face that, though not unattractive, would send a caricaturist’s pen into spasms of delight—the furrow between his eyes, the dimpled chin, big ears, prominent nose, slightly wayward teeth. He lives with his wife, the former Schumer aide Cathie Levine, and two children in a $3 million apartment on West End Avenue.
He speaks quickly, and obliquely, issuing generalities about the importance of hard work and good staffing.
“The company would not be where we are if it wasn’t for putting together a really good team,” said Isay. “The trick to success in business is to do a really good job with the clients you have and then more clients come in.”
In 2006, the firm hired Stefan Friedman, a former New York Post reporter and the son of former HarperCollins CEO Jane Friedman. Since then, the firm’s corporate clientele has come to comprise between 30 and 40 percent of SKD Knickerbocker's business. In 2007, Isay brought on Jennifer Cunningham, a powerful union lobbyist who is the ex-wife of Attorney General Schneiderman and a close confidant of Governor Cuomo.
“This is the only place I considered,” said Cunningham, who was previously executive vice president of the most politically powerful union in New York, 1199 SEIU.
In addition to NYSE, the firm has been hired by a host of corporate and union clients, including Thor Equities, the firm that sparred with the city over the redevelopment of Coney Island; the Rudin family, which controls some 14 million square feet of real estate in New York City; Genting New York, a subsidiary of the Malaysian gambling giant that won state approval to install slot machines at the Queens Aqueduct; and Education Reform Now, the Joel Klein creation that’s battling teacher unions in New York. (Anita Dunn, Isay’s partner in D.C., is advising a group with a similar agenda: Michelle Rhee’s StudentsFirst.)
Meanwhile, Isay seems to have worked at one time or another with all of the best-known politicians in New York City, many of whom have competed for the same office, and, at times, for their consultant's attentions: Stringer and Quinn, who both want Bloomberg's job; TLC commissioner and former councilman Yassky, who was beaten in a brutal congressional primary by another Isay client, Yvette Clark; longtime Manhattan DA Robert Morgenthau and his protege-turned-bitter challenger, Leslie Crocker Snyder.
Most of the time, it seems, Isay's work in opposition to onetime clients has not been held against him.
“It makes a big difference when he’s on your side,” said Yassky. “He’s been on my side and he’s been on the other side, and it’s a 180 degree difference.”
Some attribute Isay’s current, oversize presence in New York to having won a war of attrition, picking up pieces after erstwhile competitors, like Glover Park, Global Strategy and Dan Klores, for various reasons, left space in the local campaign-and-advocacy-messaging market as they pursued other, more convenient revenue-generating activities.
Now, as a friend and fellow consultant put it: “He’s the preeminent media guy in New York."
As is often the case with these sorts of things, Isay's access to power has begotten more access to power. So, for example, the fact that he came up with Schumer, and has kept that relationship in excellent repair has been all the credential he's needed with countless Democrats; the fact that he became a go-to media guy for Bloomberg opened up doors outside the party, and outside politics entirely.
“Certainly, his relationship with the mayor put him out there in the corporate world in a way he wasn’t before,” said Ken Fisher, a former councilman and borough president candidate who is now a lobbyist.
Isay, unsurprisingly, thinks that analysis is reductive.
“I don’t think there’s a Bloomberg campaign stamp of approval,” said Isay. “Our firm has worked for the Obama campaign, senators and governors and mayors, and we obviously have a credibility as a firm with the clients that we work for that I think companies respect.”
JOSH ISAY HAS BEEN A POLITICAL ANIMAL since he was four, according to his mother, Jane Isay. His family history makes that somewhat less surprising than it sounds.
Isay’s maternal grandfather, Abraham Franzblau, was an psychiatric consultant to the surgeon general during World War II, according to Jane Isay, and his best friend was an adviser to Franklin Roosevelt.
As a child, Isay was fascinated by the Nixon impeachment trial, in part because the revered constitutional scholar Charles L. Black was writing a book about the impeachment that was being published by Josh’s mom.
“Charles was in and out all of the time, and those conversations sparked Josh’s passion for politics and government," she recalled.
“It was during the Nixon impeachment era, if he said something naughty, we said, ‘Josh you shouldn’t talk like that. And he’d say, ‘Erase that from the tape,’ referring to the missing tape.”
Isay, one of two brothers, grew up on the Upper East Side, and attended Friends Seminary, where he was, by all accounts, a mediocre student. Even so, he squeaked his way into Washington University, in St. Louis, where he majored in political science.
After graduation, he took a job in then New York Attorney General Robert Abrams' press office. When Abrams unsuccessfully took on Republican Senator Al D’Amato in 1992, Isay acted as his press secretary. (Nearly ten years later, when Isay briefly defected to the corporate sector, working as head of government relations for Doubleclick, he hired Mr. Abrams to advise the firm on privacy issues.)
“I knew then that he was an extraordinarily bright guy who was destined to go far,” said Abrams recently. “He was the low man on the totem pole in the campaign, and he sat in a room diligently reviewing clips, writing memos, and from time to time I was briefed by him. I was always impressed with how sharp he was, how crisp, how his analysis was on target.”
From 1994 to 1996, following a stint working in the public advocate's race for Mark Green, Isay joined then-congressman Chuck Schumer's office as press secretary. Then, in 1996, Isay went to Robert Toricelli’s campaign for U.S. Senate, working under Robert Shrum.
The following year, Isay had his first experience with client-list awkwardness, signing on as a spokesman for Schumer in his underdog campaign to unseat D’Amato. One of Schumer's primary opponents was Isay's former boss, Mark Green.
“When he started working for Schumer, there was a lot of resentment,” said political consultant Michael Oliva, who worked for Green at the time.
Hank Morris, then considered something of a behind-the-scenes guru of New York political consultancy—a spot Isay seems to be growing into now—led Schumer’s political strategy. In 2002, Isay told The New York Observer, “Hank is my mentor and one of my closest friends, and will remain so," he said. "I consider him the smartest person in New York politics and maybe anywhere."
Last week, Morris was sentenced to up to four years in prison for selling access to New York’s pension funds, controlled by his client, former comptroller Alan Hevesi.
The race against D’Amato was both nasty and innovative. Schumer’s team—which paired Isay with another young up-and-coming operative named Howard Wolfson, with whom he later fell out—won plaudits for pioneering the use of rapid- response TV advertisements at the state-wide level.
“At one point, D’Amato put an ad on the air and in the same day they had a response ad,” recalled Oliva. “In other words they’d already predicted the ad. At the time, that was revolutionary at a statewide level.” Following Schumer’s win, Isay became his chief of staff. He established himself as a hard worker, and a reluctant shmoozer.
“Every night in the Capitol Hill office buildings, some lobbying group or some trade association or advocacy group would have a cocktail function,” recalled Yassky, who was then on Schumer’s staff. “He was never one to go hang out at the social functions. First of all, he works unbelievably hard.”
By 2000, Isay’s star had risen so rapidly that he turned down offers from both Al Gore and Hillary Clinton to instead become a lobbyist for DoubleClick. But soon the dot-com bubble collapsed and Isay returned to politics, joining Hank Morris’ firm, Morris, Carrick & Guma. Isay worked as a spokesman for Hevesi, who was running for mayor in the 2001 Democratic primary against Bronx Borough President Freddy Ferrer and Mark Green.
At the time, Isay was a visibly aggressive advocate for his clients and for himself; he maintained a regular presence on television and in the papers.
(“He used to do a little television on NY1, and he was always very boring,” his mother said.)
Following Hevesi’s loss, Isay set out on his own, joining forces with Dan Klores and Jonathan Prince to form Isay, Klores, Prince. Their first client was Andrew Cuomo, who was making his disastrous first attempt for the governorship, running in the primary against Carl McCall. It was an ugly race on many levels, including in the papers.
(One delightful example: "I'm not going to say a bad word about Carl McCall," Isay told The New York Times in 2002. "He gets himself in enough trouble as it is." "In order to be elected, you have to be liked,” countered Hank Sheinkopf. “His negatives are very high. Carl's are not—because people like Carl.")
Following Cuomo’s defeat, Isay’s firm disbanded, and he founded a new company called Knickerbocker Partners with a young prodigy named Micah Lasher, then a 20-year-old NYU student who worked against Isay's candidate, for Mark Green, in the 2001 mayoral campaign. Isay began building his firm in earnest. In 2005, Knickerbocker Partners merged with Squier Knapp Dunn in D.C., a group headed by three powerful political operators, including former White House communications director Anita Dunn. The same year, Isay scored Bloomberg as a client, in addition to Morgenthau and Stringer. In mid-2006, he joined other Bloomberg operatives to help embattled senator Joe Lieberman beat back Democratic nominee Ned Lamont in the Connecticut general election.
The same year, Isay began his pursuit of the corporate class, hiring Friedman to spearhead the effort. Isay acquired yet more firepower with the addition of Cunningham. Today, they are the three principals, in partnership with Bill Knapp, Hilary Rosen and Anita Dunn in D.C, who together employ about 40 members of staff, dividing their time between political campaigns and non-political clients like AT&T, Microsoft, Time Warner and Pfizer.
The corporate part of the business is what they call "strategic consulting," which essentially means helping to formulate messages that enable their clients to navigate potentially tricky political, regulatory or media terrain. Both the corporate and the political clients ostensibly benefit from the same essential asset: Isay’s knowledge of how reporters, politicians and regulators process information.
“We come up with a good plan, we’ll tell you how we think we should execute it, we’ll execute it, we’ll be patient and when the normal sturm and drang happens, we will try to stay focused on what our goals are,” said Isay. “We will not deviate from our plan unless we really learn new information that makes us. I think there’s kind of a calmness under pressure. But also, really executing and delivering.”
Isay is said to take his clients' losses very personally.
“Because he’s so into his clients, meaning he’s so deeply in, when they suffer failures, he suffers with him,” said Jefrey Pollock, president of Global Strategy Group and a good friend of Isay. “When he was doing a really rough campaign this year, the Charlie Crist campaign, he became really close to Crist. When the campaign wasn’t going well, you can see Josh suffering along with him.”
IF THERE WAS EVER A TIME JOSH ISAY could be neatly categorized as a "Democratic operative," that time is over. He is now the guy who could represent Quinn or Stringer or some other Democrat if those are the choices for mayor in 2013, but who is just as likely to represent the next Bloomberg, if and when one surfaces, if that candidate is the one he likes best, and has enough money, and looks likely, with some expert help with messaging, to win.
Certainly, he will not feel constrained by any sense of partisan duty.
(As one of Isay's consultant friends put it, "Josh is highly motivated by making profit, which is fine.")
When the Democratic primary electorate rejected Joe Lieberman in Connecticut, Isay (like Schumer, and other Democratic senators) helped Lieberman beat the Democratic nominee in the general. Isay did his best to help Crist, the former Republican governor of Florida, who became an independent only when it became clear that he was going to lose his Senate primary. Outside American politics, Isay has worked for Netanyahu and Israel's Likud Party, which is increasingly explicit about its ideological alligment with the U.S. Republican Party. (There was a tradition, dating back to the Bill Clinton era, of top Democractic consultants working for Likud's opponents; Netanyahu's first American guru, by contrast, was Arthur Finkelstein, the reclusive archconservative who masterminded the rise of former governor George Pataki and the Senate campaigns of Al D'Amato.)
Isay describes himself, in the context of Israeli politics, as “a bit of a hawk, actually.”
“It is hard to apply our domestic left-right views on to the politics of Israel,” he said. “I think that basically there’s only one country, one side that truly wants and can bring their people a peaceful settlement at this point. That’s Israel. I don’t see a partner for peace. If you don’t have a partner for peace, it’s hard to argue with Netanyahu’s position, for me.”
As far as American politics is concered, Isay said, “I consider myself kind of a, what is Koch’s expression? A liberal with sanity. I think that’s Koch’s expression.”
It's difficult from the outside to calculate precisely how much the firm takes in these days, and Isay declined to say anything specific about revenue. But it has grown, since Isay started it less than a decade ago, into a serious money-maker. To cite one example of the profit taken in from just one client (albeit a big one) in one election cycle: The New York City campaign finance database indicates that, in the 2009 election, Bloomberg's campaign paid Squier Knapp Dunn $61.4 million for mailings, TV ads and consulting. Assuming the standard 10 to 15 percent cut of a media buy applied here—and assuming every bit of the rest of that money actually went out the door in the form of salary and expenses, which it almost certainly didn't—SKD would have taken in well upward of $6 million.
Even if the mayor never runs for public office again, that type of revenue is unlikely to dry up for Isay and Knickerbocker anytime soon.
“He’s always my first call when I’m looking to hire someone to do ads,” said Bradley Tusk, a prominent consultant who, like Isay (and Wolfson) is a former Schumer aide who went on to a big payday for Bloomberg.
Isay will likely get a piece of President Obama’s reelection campaign in 2012, perhaps playing a bigger—and proportionately more lucrative—part than in 2008, when Knickerbocker SKD handled mail in the northeast, and television in the west.
“I don’t know how they’re going to organize it for the next presidential,” said Isay. “But Anita [Dunn] was communications director for the White House and will certainly play a role in whatever they want to do.”
He didn't say anything explicit about what his own role would be. But then, as usual, he didn't really have to.
Correction: Dannel Malloy's campaign for governor was not "managed" by Isay, as the original version of this article said. Isay was a paid consultant. Malloy's official campaign manager was Dan Kelly.