Rockefeller’s Rising Stars 2021
ALBANY, N.Y. — Announced by City & State, five alumni of the University at Albany’s Rockefeller College of Public Affairs & Policy were named to the 2021 Albany 40 Under 40 Rising Stars list. Rockefeller’s Katie Birchenough, Michael Blaustein, Thomas Briggs, Kyle Ketcham, and Iris White earned recognition.
Every year, City & State recognizes 40 individuals under the age of 40 who have distinguished themselves in their respective fields, and are on their way to amassing accomplishments well beyond their age.
Rockefeller College's 2021 City & State Rising Stars
Katie Birchenough, BA ’08
Associate Attorney, Greenberg Traurig
For Katie Birchenough, an associate attorney at Greenberg Traurig, no two days are the same. For Birchenough, who specializes in complex commercial litigation, governmental law and policy affairs, handling a wide range of issues allows her to “think outside the box” and devise “a variety of creative solutions” when advising clients.
Birchenough hadn’t always intended on becoming a lawyer. After graduating from SUNY Albany, she landed a position as a legislative analyst with the Assembly, working with the Social Service Committee, the Children and Families Committee, and the Mental Health Committee. Birchenough was the lead negotiator and drafter for the Protection of People with Special Needs Act, among multiple important pieces of legislation she helped write.
“It was neat to be there at that time because we were able to push for reform of an entire system,” she says. “But eventually, individual people would come up to tell me that they needed legislation or a new bill passed. And I would tell them, ‘There’s already laws on the books, you need an advocate.’ I realized that I didn't have the ability to do that because I wasn't an attorney. So I made the decision to go to law school.”
Birchenough obtained her degree at Albany Law School, and then joined Greenberg Traurig in 2019. Over the past 18 months, she has continued to advocate for clients despite the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It has really highlighted and reassured that foundational advocacy role that I’ve always had,” she says.
Michael Blaustein, BA ’12
Vice President of Government Affairs, Partnership for New York City
When he was a junior in high school, Michael Blaustein bumped into then-New York City Council Member Alan Gerson at a community event and asked for a summer internship. A few months later, Blaustein was working at the lawmaker’s office.
“That’s where I really learned, from the ground up, what it meant to be an elected official at the intersection of community work and policy,” Blaustein says.
Since that first stint in politics, Blaustein’s negotiating skills have grown sharper and more sophisticated. The Manhattan native gained substantial experience working at the state Senate and for the public affairs firm Kivvit. In 2016, Blaustein joined the Partnership for New York City – a nonprofit organization dedicated to mobilizing the city’s business community and its resources – where he spearheads policy strategy as vice president of governmental affairs. Blaustein coordinates with city and state agencies as well as businesses and advocacy groups, creating coalitions like the one that pushed successfully for a congestion pricing plan.
Since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, Blaustein’s team has worked with the state Legislature and the governor’s office to support struggling businesses – and launched the Small Business Resource Network, connecting business owners to curated public and private resources they need to survive losses and prosper in a post-pandemic economy.
“It’s a real pleasure to serve as a liaison between governmental entities and the memberships to ensure that the economy moves forward,” he says. “You can't have a recovery unless you have businesses succeeding from top to bottom.”
Thomas Briggs, BA ’08, MPA ’12
Tom Briggs has always gravitated toward public service, but he was flexible about working in the public or private sector. After more than five years as a state Senate staffer, he joined KPMG – a multinational firm offering audit, tax and financial advisory services.
“While working directly in government for the state Senate, I was on the ground floor helping develop and implement legislation,” he says. “But now in the private sector with KPMG, I get to see policy enacted, come to fruition. Having both of those experiences has been extremely rewarding.”
Born in Johnson City, New York, Briggs went on to study political science at SUNY Albany. During his senior year, he landed an internship at the state Senate. The internship catapulted him into the world of local politics as he worked on policy development, provided counsel on legislative proposals and built partnerships to pass bills.
Building on his legislative experience, Briggs joined KPMG in 2013. Since then, he has predominantly served clients in the health and human services sector. He has helped modernize business processes and technology systems that support programs like Medicaid, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, and the Integrated Eligibility System. While the work is challenging, Briggs finds it gratifying.
“In those times of frustration, I always like to remind myself and my team that these systems are going to benefit millions of New Yorkers and make sure that they’re lives are going to be improved,” he says. “That’s really what keeps me going.”
Kyle Ketcham, BA ’07, MPA ’09
Director of Policy, State Senate Republican Conference
As the state Senate Republican Conference’s policy director, Kyle Ketcham advises GOP incumbents on a range of policy issues, from the environment to employment and small business to public safety and policing.
“I’m a big believer in criminal justice reform – to fix what’s broken and to strengthen what works,” he says. “I believe that we over-incarcerate and we have systems that aren’t beneficial to marginalized communities – but when we start talking about defunding and disempowering police, I think that we put those same communities at risk. People don't want the status quo, but they also don’t want radical change.”
Ketcham’s passionate about immigration too. “Illegal immigration is a problem,” he says, but maintains that the country needs a system to reward people wanting to start a better life.
Earlier in his career, Ketcham served as a press coordinator for the Assembly after college. He then spent nearly six years at the Assembly’s office of research and program development, primarily focused on education issues. He also was policy director for Dutchess County Executive Marc Molinaro, a bright spot in New York’s waning Republican Party. Despite ongoing GOP losses in the state Legislature, Ketcham says an overarching goal remains for individual lawmakers – serving a district and its constituents.
“There is a certain freedom with being the minority,” he says. “You’re not always placating people, which is what people in the majority are often doing, when it’s really about presenting a rationalwell-thought-out policy agenda that’s focused on improving the day-to-day lives of all New Yorkers.”
Iris White, MPA ’17
Chief of Staff, Bolton-St. Johns
To hear Iris White describe it, she was one of former President Barack Obama’s youngest and most ardent supporters during his 2008 presidential run. White cites her excitement around Obama’s candidacy as an early impactful experience that sparked her interest in politics.
She eventually followed through on her political passions by pursuing a master’s in public administration, during which she was hired as an intern at Bolton-St. Johns. This experience led to a yearslong career at the firm, where she is now chief of staff, managing the firm’s portfolio of political clients.
One of White’s most important projects right now is her effort supporting SAS Analytics in optimizing data analytics in state agencies to make them work more productively. She believes much analysis and knowledge can be derived from state agencies’ collection of data related to their work, but few agencies actually utilize that data efficiently, especially in terms of learning how to run their business more effectively. The goal of the project is to improve state government performance across the board.
White credits some of her senior colleagues at Bolton-St. Johns with mentoring her, and giving her the skills required to navigate New York politics.
“My boss, Giorgio DeRosa, has really taught me a lot about the industry,” White says. “(Sara Anne Ritz) really took me as an intern under her wing and just taught me a lot about how Albany works, how lobbying works.”