Legislative Director Matt Gewolb on Overseeing the City Council’s Legislative Agenda

Matt Gewolb, Legislative Director, NYC Council.

Matt Gewolb, Legislative Director, NYC Council.

Matt Gewolb began serving as Legislative Director for the New York City Council under Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito in June 2014. Although he holds among the most powerful staff positions at the Council, Matt is revered for his modesty, incredible intelligence and for putting the goals of the Council before all else. The 32 year old already has amassed a resume with diverse experiences, achievements and outcomes, rich with advice that should be heeded by anyone interested in pursuing or continuing a career in New York City law and government.

Born and raised in Port Washington, Nassau County, Matt was a product of public education, and came from a family of public school teachers. At an early age, Matt already began to think about public service careers. “My family’s commitment to their students, public service, and their tremendous dedication was inspiring,” stated Matt. In High School, Matt got his first taste of government while working at the North Hempstead Town Board. “I became interested in the mechanics of the legislative process and how in simple terms a bill becomes a law,” recalls Matt.

Matt attended Cornell University and graduated with a degree in Policy Analysis & Management in 2004. This multi-discipline curriculum allowed him think about public policy from different angles. In junior year, Matt worked at the NYC Legal Aid Society as part of the urban semester program. Having many early mentors with law degrees led Matt to attend Emory Law School in Georgia, where he loved courses such as Election Law and Democratic Governance with Professor Michael Kang. “It was my first real substantive exposure to the intersection of political science and the law.”

Following his first year at law school, Matt began working full-time as Chief of Staff for the Georgia Senate Democratic Conference and the Senate Minority Leader, Robert Brown whom he met while on the John Kerry Presidential campaign in college. Matt credits Emory for recognizing this unique opportunity and for being flexible with his schedule. Matt is very proud that he helped establish a relationship with Emory and the Georgia Legislature in creating internships for students. While there, Matt successfully worked to have the legislature maintain funding levels for scholarship programs for in-state postsecondary institutions. Matt also believes the advocacy work he did in opposition to voter ID requirements, and in support of non-partisan independent redistricting helped encourage the type of democratic activism and enthusiasm that will soon turn Georgia into a state that leans democrat.

Shortly after graduating Emory in 2007, Matt returned to Port Washington where he served as Executive Director for the Residents for a More Beautiful Port Washington. Matt previously served this local environmental group as an intern while only just in Middle School. Relationships he previously made helped him get the position and helped him succeed. “This is a relationship driven business. So many positions if they are listed are pro forma, and many are not listed at all. Relationships we make in government and the public sector matter so much.”

After a year, Matt moved on to the New York City Council. “I missed the legislative world and the primary legislative game in town is with the City Council.” Matt believed the experiences in Georgia working with a diverse democratic caucus, both philosophically and geographically were comparable to the NYC Council. Matt became Counsel to the Committee for Government Operations. This committee has oversight on municipal government structure and organization, and that had become Matt’s area of expertise.

His role as Counsel was to draft legislation, serve as subject matter expert on issues before the committee, interface with advocates and elected officials, and organize the committee hearings. Matt attributes his success in this role to his prior experiences working with high level elected officials in pressured environments which taught him how to counsel principals, how to be flexible, and use good judgment, which are hard to learn in a classroom, but are needed in the outside world. Matt offers law students advice, “Get out of the Law School building. The black letter law you learn is very valuable, but especially for students in New York City, there is this tremendously sophisticated government, and so many opportunities for internships, externships, and pro bono work, which is really the best way to start to understand this world.”

Matt served the Government Operations Committee during the passage of the controversial term limits legislation in 2008. It was here that Matt got to implement all the lessons he learned about the mechanics of the legislative process and it furthered his understanding about the City’s governance in NYC. “Process was really important during that time in terms of thinking about how to hold the hearings so that the public could have their views heard.” Matt also drafted and was instrumentally involved in the passage of Local Law 45 of 2009 and Local Law 46 of 2010, both of which reformed the City’s rulemaking process by minimizing regulatory costs, and creating rules that are easily understandable by the general public in order to foster better interaction between them and City government.

In 2010, Matt left the Council and was hired by Columbia Law School to help run the Social Justice Initiates  program that focused on government service. He was responsible for running a semester long externship program with the federal government in Washington. Matt co-taught the course and worked on the program development. “It was a really wonderful chance to work closely with students who had an interest in public service, and many have gone on to do fabulous things in the federal government which is very gratifying.” Matt realized that he was helping students receive similar hands on experiences that were so valuable to him while he was in law school. “The goal of these programs is to bridge theory and practice. And it is most gratifying to see students be able to take principles learned from the classroom and import them to the federal government placement to help solve a public law problem.”

In 2013, Matt worked on Mayor de Blasio’s transition, before returning to the Council. “I see the role of the Legislative Director as helping advance the overall agenda of the Speaker and the individual Council Members,” Matt said. “This is a tremendously sophisticated legislative body; we work on extremely important issues, we serve a large and diverse population, the staff is incredible, the Speaker has great vision, and to me this is the marquee legal/policy job in New York.”

Matt now gets to do on a full scale for the entire Council what he once did for just one Committee. Matt loves taking policy ideas and translating them into legislation or other actions. Since Matt has become Legislative Director, he has overseen the passage of over 40 new laws. His prior experience at the Council provided him with knowledge of the institution, and familiarity with many staff members and Council Members that still remain. Matt oversees a large staff of legislative attorneys and policy analysts and explained, “It’s important to have done the job of the people that you supervise. They understand that I understand what they are going through in terms of the challenges of the job.”

Matt reiterated that it has been the relationships he cultivated throughout his career that has helped him succeed. “I have been really fortunate to have worked with really wonderful people who have become mentors and friends.” Matt named New York Law School Dean Anthony Crowell as an example of a mentor who became a close friend and advisor. Matt realizes that now he has entered the mentoring role for others and is reminded of something that Dean Anthony once told him. “I am so grateful to Anthony for mentoring me from when I was first at the Council, and in thanking him once, he told me not to thank him, but in return when you are in a position to mentor someone, he knows I would do the same.” Matt has taken that to heart and he feels he has done that, and continues to do that.

When hiring law students for internships and jobs, Matt looks for those with a demonstrated commitment to public service as a prime criterion. Matt tells students “remember that often in government we are hiring our future colleagues. We are not just hiring people to work for us, but eventually with us, to become colleagues and friends. So, you want to hire someone committed to the work that you can trust.” Matt says it is ok for students to be generalists when they start out, and they don’t need to focus on a specific interest. “Employers will look for a commitment to public service, hands on experience and the ability to show maturity and good judgment.”

Outside of work, Matt enjoys spending time with his wife Lisa, a staff member for Teach for America, who he met at Cornell, and their one year old daughter Dayna. Matt also has a love for loves sports, photography and music. He has replaced playing drums in rock, jazz, and blues bands with doing music photography. A huge Mets, and Islanders fan, Matt predicts big things in 2015. “The Mets will win 90 games, advance to the NLCS, and the Islanders will win the Stanley Cup in anticipation of their move to Brooklyn.”

By: Brian Kaszuba (Brian is the CityLand Editor and New York Law School Graduate, Class of 2004)

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