Two years ago, Kathryn Garcia lost a bid to be the most powerful official in New York City — now she’s one of the most powerful in the state.
As Gov. Kathy Hochul’s director of state operations, Garcia, 53, oversees a whopping 96 agencies, ranging from the Olympic Regional Authority to the MTA.
“Every day is different,” Garcia told THE CITY during a wide ranging interview from her Murray Hill office earlier this month. “Every day, I look at my calendar and think, ‘Oh, that’s the day I’m having.’ And by the time I get to around 11 [a.m.], I’m having a different day.”
After just barely losing to Eric Adams in the 8th round of the Democratic mayoral primary in June 2021, Garcia decided to take a job as Gov. Kathy Hochul’s director of state operations on Sept. 1 of that year.
The role is somewhat familiar to Garcia.
She previously served as former Mayor Bill de Blasio’s sanitation commissioner and go-to troubleshooter, earning high marks for removing snow from city streets, overseeing NYCHA temporarily and helping feed hungry New Yorkers as the emergency food czar in the early days of the pandemic.
Now, every morning officially starts with an 8 a.m. conference call with Hochul and some other members of her inner circle, according to the governor’s public schedule posted online.
But sometimes it begins even earlier.
On a random Wednesday last month, Garcia first spoke to “emergency folks” after a snowstorm hit some upstate spots hard, she said.
She then took her regularly scheduled call with Hochul before moving on to “folks in cannabis” as well as “someone from one of our unions about some of their ongoing contract negotiations.”
A lifelong municipal worker — she started with the Department of Sanitation as a 22-year-old intern before stints at the Department of Environmental Protection — she has long had a good relationship with labor groups. Early in the 2021 mayoral race, when her profile and poll numbers were still low, she landed key early endorsements from the unions representing sanitation workers.
As a youngster, she also babysat for the children of former Office of Labor Relations commissioner Robert Linn and considers him a mentor.
She has also built a good relationship with the Public Employees Federation, the second-largest municipal labor group in the state.
“She’s no pushover,” PEF President Wayne Spence told THE CITY. “She’s definitely very New York. She’s a straight up street fighter. You’re not going to get one over on her but she has a sense of empathy for the workforce.”
Whenever major changes are coming, she calls to give Spence a heads up before it hits the media. “That never happened before,” he said. “The governor has a good watchdog in her.”
In her role as director of operations, one of her first meetings in Sept. 2021 was with Benny Boscio, the head of the Correction Officers Benevolent Association, according to her public schedule obtained via Freedom of Information Law by THE CITY.
She also met with Greater New York Hospital Association President Kenneth Raske and former 1199SEIU union President Dennis Rivera that same month shortly after joining the Hochul team, the records show.
The topics of those meetings were not listed in the schedule, which was only released after THE CITY spoke with her in person.
But the leaders of those health care-related groups are now pushing the Hochul administration for additional funds in the state budget to bring back 850 psychiatric beds that were taken offline at the start of the pandemic.
“I’ve chatted with a couple of the deputy mayors within the last week, there are many things where the state and the city need to work closely together, usually up against things that we want from the federal government,” Garcia said. “And New York City is part of the state. We want people to do well here.”
She is also friendly with her replacement, current Sanitation Commissioner Jessica Tisch, the two women have both said.
“Due to the fact that many former commissioners commented on me all during my tenure, I made a pledge never to comment on my former colleagues, but I do as always miss them,” Garcia said, noting she was “astounded” there was nearly no snow in New York City this winter.
The state did struggle to deal with a historic blizzard in the western region in December.
At least 37 people died during a massive snowstorm that dumped over four feet of snow in the Buffalo region late last year. Many emergency vehicles got trapped in the snow and at least one victim died inside her car while waiting to be rescued.
A Cast of Characters
As in her previous role with the city, Garcia is now involved in some of the most high-profile, and bureaucratic, issues facing the state.
They include dealing with the long stalled Gateway Program to double the two mainline train tracks between New York Penn Station and Newark, N.J.
Garcia has had multiple meetings with federal officials and other power brokers involved in the project, according to her public schedule. In January, the Biden administration announced it had set aside $292 million for the Hudson River tunnel upgrade and expansion. The overall project is expected to cost at least a billion dollars, according to reports.
She has also met with some controversial figures.
In her role overseeing the State Liquor Authority (SLA), Garcia and Ingrid Lewis-Martin, the mayor’s top adviser, met privately with the owner of the concert venue Avant Gardner, according to Gothamist. The owner, Juergen “Billy” Bildstein, has complained that the SLA unfairly targeted the venue with steep fines and a special monitor to oversee its affairs.
Garcia also oversees the state’s Gaming Commission, the entity in charge of the decision process on the location of up to three casinos in the city. Among those bidding to win licenses are Mets owner Steve Cohen, music mogul Jay-Z, real-estate scion Stefan Soloviev, Gristedes Supermarkets CEO John Catsimatidis, and Hudson Yards developer Stephen Ross.
She says she’s not weighing in on the decision — expected to bring in an initial $500 million license fee from each selected casino operator, with much of that going to mass transit funding — but has met with some of the applicants.
“I don’t really have a preference,” she said. “I’d like to see them do well and see our tax revenues do well and support the MTA. But I don’t have a strong preference for which one it is.”
“I’ll let the gaming board do their thing,” she added, declining to say how soon the decision might be made.
‘I Get to Do A Lot of Really Fun Things’
On the criminal justice front, Garcia acknowledged the state prison system is struggling to abide by legislation restricting the use of solitary confinement, which went into effect on March 31, 2022.
The Department of Corrections and Community Supervision has issued internal “emergency” regulations that allow officers to supersede the new solitary confinement restrictions, New York Focus reported.
“They’re really working hard to make sure they’re implementing the whole deck,” Garcia said. “I’ve actually gone up and looked at some of our maximum-security [prisons], about how they’re doing, and it was a big change for them. But they have every intention of meeting the letter of that law.”
As for her own future, she’s not interested in talking about another run for mayor, or some other elected office.
She also shot down rumors that she is interested in taking over the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. Richard Cotton has been the executive director there since 2017 after being appointed by disgraced Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
“I’m really excited to be doing what I’m doing,” Garcia said, downplaying any move. “I get to do a lot of really fun things that are also incredibly impactful — not everyone gets to do that.”