JAMES M. ODATO
If Gov. Andrew Cuomo appoints retired lawyer Karen Feldman as Adirondack Park Agency chair he will make some people happy—especially Feldman herself.
“I don’t want to sound effusive, but I enjoy it,” she said a few days after the November APA meeting, her third as acting chair. “We have an opportunity to make a difference to New Yorkers.”
Her widely expected appointment would signal an opening to a larger pool of future candidates for the job, as she would be the rare agency leader selected from outside the Adirondack Park. That’s a problem for some park residents who prefer a full-time neighbor as chair, though some who have previously lobbied against outside candidates have dropped that opposition in her case.
Feldman said she cannot say if or when she may be appointed full-fledged chair. But the 61-year-old outdoorswoman, who likes to ski, golf and fish, is running the agency superbly, according to her predecessor, Sherman Craig.
“I have been very impressed with her willingness to listen to all sides,” said Craig, of Wanakena, who retired in July from the $30,000-per-year post. Among her attributes, he said, “she is a lawyer, and one of the things about being chair is following the rule of law.” He added that her having an Adirondack second home and experience in the metropolitan region gives her a breadth of familiarity with the state. “I hope the governor appoints her,” he said.
If he does, Cuomo will be breaking the unwritten rule that the APA chairman must live within the park. Feldman’s home, in Hudson, Columbia County, is well south of the blue line, a three-hour drive to the APA headquarters in Ray Brook. Local government groups in particular have usually pushed for in-park chairs.
Cuomo nominated her as an APA member about 5 1/2 years ago. Active in Democratic politics for years, Feldman has been a behind-the-scenes campaign strategist and election adviser. She volunteered on campaigns for Hillary Clinton, former New York City Mayor David Dinkins and the late Rep. Geraldine Ferarro, the latter two whom she considers close friends. More recently she has been involved with the campaigns of Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand and Rep.-elect Antonio Delgado. She has been a paid adviser for state legislative races, including those of Assembly members Didi Barrett and Carrie Woerner.
One of Feldman’s paid political consulting assignments had a nexus with Cuomo. She represented Denise O’Donnell in 2006 when O’Donnell competed with Cuomo for the Democratic Party line on the ballot for attorney general. She also was paid to help Susan Zimet in her unsuccessful bid to become a state senator that year. Zimet has become the chair of the Women’s Equality Party, which gave Cuomo an extra line on which to run this year.
Feldman was a corporate lawyer until 1993, when she was hired to head the tennis organization for female athletes. She served as executive director of the WTA Tour Players Association through the mid-1990s. A captain of the women’s tennis team at Yale University, she spent a few years as a pro.
“I was a good doubles player—managed to sneak into the US Open one year,” Feldman said. She said she likes to work as a partner and it is with that spirit that she approaches APA affairs. She said she wants to hear from multiple interests and respects the analysis of APA pros. “It’s really a team effort, not just with my board, but also our staff. Their input is extremely important.”
Lawyer Fred Monroe, the former chairman of the Warren County board of supervisors and a longtime watchdog of the APA from his leadership posts with the Adirondack Park Local Government Review Board and the Adirondack Association of Towns & Villages, said he has traditionally argued against a non-park resident heading the APA. In fact a few years ago he objected to then-APA member Richard Booth’s proposed appointment as chairman when the Spitzer administration was testing the waters.
“We always thought the chair should live in the Adirondacks,” he said. “We did oppose Dick Booth, even though we know he is a smart guy … . I called him and told him that he would be a good member but (we) prefer a chairman who lives in the Adirondacks and is subject to the decisions of the APA.”
He said he would make an exception with Feldman because she and her long-time partner, Tom Williams, are Adirondack property owners.
Feldman said Williams has owned a farm in Paradox for 22 years—9 acres with a farmhouse—which the couple uses frequently. A few years ago they also acquired a 1,600-acre fishing, hunting and hiking camp at West Canada River.
“It sets a precedent,” Monroe said, “but at the same time she pays taxes here. She has a very good sense of the issues, I think.”
Some aren’t as flexible. Town of Horicon Supervisor Matt Simpson said he has nothing against Feldman—“I think she’s a fair broker,” he said—but he wants the chair to be a park resident. As president of the Adirondack Association of Towns & Villages, Simpson told Cuomo’s deputy secretary for the environment, Venetia Lannon, that he thinks the chairman needs to be someone who understands the lives of those living in the park by being there daily. For much of the fall, Lannon, who left the Cuomo administration in November, had been canvassing interested parties about Feldman, including environmental organizations.
Neil Woodworth, executive director of the Adirondack Mountain Club, said he has worked with Feldman on a project to find a biocontrol method for the hemlock woolly adelgid, a nonnative tree pest. He declined to give his opinion of her becoming the head of the APA.
John Sheehan, spokesman for the Adirondack Council, said the organization doesn’t necessarily object to her as chair. The key, he said, is whether Cuomo appoints strong environmentalists to join her on the board.
When Protect the Adirondacks Executive Director Peter Bauer was contacted by the governor’s office about Feldman’s candidacy he responded, he said, by saying she would be a loyal soldier for Cuomo and willing to do as the governor directs whether it “was rational or legal or not.”
Feldman said Bauer is off base, and that an opinion piece he authored recently is incorrect. “I’m not an election lawyer; I’m not an operative of the governor,” she said. “I’m not beholden to anyone,” she said.
She knows she has supporters in the Capitol and she hopes she gets appointed, she said, but the matter is in the governor’s hands. The Senate would have to approve any new members to the APA and there are two vacancies and four expired terms, including Feldman’s. The governor gets to appoint the chairman without legislative action.
Still, he often seeks input from the public officials, particularly from Betty Little, the veteran North County senator who won re-election. Feldman said she was grateful that Little, a Republican, and Democratic Sen. Liz Krueger from Manhattan wrote letters to Cuomo recommending her for the APA. Cuomo received a separate letter of recommendation for Feldman from Gillibrand.
Little has known Feldman for years, meeting her through Williams, who was president of the Adirondack Landowners Association, Feldman said.
Recently, the Queensbury lawmaker said she told the governor’s office that she supports Feldman as chair, although she did say she maintains a preference for in-park APA members. She said her endorsement comes because Feldman has shown a strong work ethic and understanding of issues. She said it was apparent when she was approached by a Cuomo aide that the administration desires Feldman to head the board.
Feldman said her APA post is her last job. In the role, she hopes to focus on improving diversity in the park (a Cuomo goal), fighting invasive species, and finding solutions to overuse of park areas.