When State Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan entered a recent holiday party and saw his host, veteran Albany lobbyist Desmond Ryan, dressed in a double-breasted suit and a black shirt and matching tie, he did a double take.
“I didn’t realize we were trying out for the play ‘Guys and Dolls,’ ” Flanagan kidded, shaking Ryan’s hand.
For Ryan, 65, it was the last of two decades of annual parties — must-attend events for Long Island developers and business leaders.
He is scaling back after four decades of buttonholing lawmakers in the corridors of power to bolster the region’s economy. Most recently, Ryan was with the Association for a Better Long Island, a developers group whose members have $15 billion in investments.
“There’s not a door to which Desmond does not have access,” said Michael Russell, former special assistant to the late GOP Senate Majority Leader Ralph Marino of Muttontown.
Ryan, for instance, has known Flanagan since he was a law school student thrust into a 1986 Assembly race after his popular father, John Flanagan Sr., died of a heart attack.
Ryan’s network in Albany and Washington is vast. Colleagues say he is blunt, but not a bomb thrower — a practical Republican who looks for practical solutions that can be sold across the aisle.
“Desmond likes to stay slightly below the radar,” said Flanagan. “But he not only offers his advice but I’ve solicited that advice routinely and benefitted because he’s an honest broker. . . . Even people in the executive branch will ask him, ‘What do you think? What should we do?’ ”
The son of Irish immigrants, Ryan worked as a teenager at the former Kings Park Psychiatric Center. He entered politics at age 23, working for Suffolk County Executive John V.N. Klein in the 1970s.
Ryan then joined the staff of GOP Assembly Speaker Perry Duryea of Montauk, and worked in Duryea’s losing campaign for governor in 1978. Afterward, Ryan went to work for aerospace giant Grumman as a Washington and Albany lobbyist when the company was Long Island’s premiere business, with 30,000 workers.
Ryan orchestrated the annual receptions for Grumman chairman Jack Bierwirth on the first day of the Albany legislative session in January.
“Jack Bierwirth was Grumman’s man,” said former Suffolk County Executive Patrick Halpin, a Democrat. “And Des was Bierwirth’s man.” Their relationship gave Ryan White House connections because President George H.W. Bush had been Bierwirth’s roommate at Yale.
“Working in the back ward in an insane asylum was great training for my later life in Albany and Washington,” Ryan said with a smile last week.
Later, as ABLI’s counsel, Klein recruited Ryan to run the organization. “He was perfect for the job,” Klein said. “He’s one of the shrewdest political analysts around. He knows what politicians are thinking before they do.”
Not everyone is a fan.
Richard Amper, executive director of the Long Island Pine Barrens Society, said he has never worked with Ryan because he is “intransigent” on development issues. “He represented his clients consistently, but in land and water protection not compellingly or effectively,” Amper said.
But Jim Morgo, a former Suffolk deputy county executive, said Ryan was not the highly partisan GOP operative he had expected. “He’s totally pragmatic and about getting things done,” Morgo said.
Ryan had no apologies for his style. “If people ask me a direct question, I’ll give them a blunt answer,” he said. “Part of my success is that I don’t pull my punches.”