October 24, 2007

The Cornell Connection: Ken Sunshine '70

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Ken Sunshine has been called one of the most powerful people in New York by New York magazine, who would probably know. His PR firm, appropriately named Sunshine, Sachs & Associates, represents some of the mot famous names in the world (Leo DiCaprio, Ben Affleck, John Mayer, Justin Timberlake — Ever heard of ‘em?) as well as huge unions in New York. All you ILRies who doubt you can put your edumucation to practical use, The Sun just found the one guy who did. The Sun talked with Ken about among other things, his political involvement at Cornell and beyond, incuding hangin’ out with his son and Leo DiCaprio unsupervised in the Oval Office. Don’t worry about it; it was still shaped like an oval when they left. Here is an excerpt of that conversation:

The Sun: What was it like at Cornell for you? What was your favorite aspect of Cornell and what was your least favorite?
Ken Sunshine: Favorite aspects: number one, girls. Two, the politics and trying to effect social change. And three, the hockey team, watching them win the national championships when I was there.
Sun: How did you end up at Cornell after you graduated high school?
K.S.: Ah, for some weird reason they wanted me. I was never really sure. I wasn’t driven career-wise. It was a very different era. I knew that I wanted to get away from home, and I wanted to explore the world a little bit. I wasn’t as driven academically as maybe I should have been, but I definitely didn’t know what I wanted to pursue and I got very caught up in the era of trying to effect social change and make the world better. It was a long time ago, and I think those of us who were trying to crate movements for social change back then were right but weren’t doing real well. The horrible war in Vietnam did end, but not quickly enough, and to see the state of the world now, it couldn’t be more dismal. Frankly, I wish there were more activism on campus now, which was the center of it in that era — my era — to change policy on many fronts, including and especially this rotten war in Iraq that’s not exactly doing too well.
Sun: What kinds of stuff did you do on campus when you were here to achieve the social change that you were hoping for?
K.S.: I was part of several groups that did all kinds of activities. Cornell was a real center of student activism at that era. I was very much part of it. I wasn’t part of the most radical groups, but I certainly allied with them on basic goals. It was a tough time — I’d like to be funny about it, but it was a very serious time, and some serious things happened on campus. I was there when the Straight was taken over by students with guns. It was a pretty hairy time. There was potential for real violence, and I was part of several groups that were very serious about trying to effect social change. I went to many of the peace demonstrations; there were many on campus, but there were many in Washington, New York and other places. In some ways it was a more innocent time, more isolated. There was no such thing as the internet then. There was no interactivity. There were no cell phones. Imagine the dark era we were living in! It was also a very vibrant time culturally. Great music was being produced. It was the end of the 60s, beginning of the 70s, and the end of, I think, one of the greatest eras of American culture. It was also the beginning of the women’s movement. I don’t think the gay movement was active yet, but there were rumblings of it, I guess. But I was involved in many, many activities to promote social change and political change.
Sun: What was your major when you were here?
K.S.: ILR — Industrial Labor Relations.
Sun: Does that have anything to do with what you’re doing now?
K.S.: Yeah. We’re best known—my company is and I am—for working with celebrities and the entertainment business, but we represent some major unions and have since the time when I started my firm. We work for the 1199SEIU, which is the health care workers’ union in New York. We represent the Transit Workers Union in New York, Local 100. Talk about a tough client! They’re the union that went on strike and closed the subways and buses a couple years ago, and we proudly defended them. The MTA [Metropolitan Transportation Authority] was wrong; they deserve a decent wage and have very difficult jobs. That’s a tough client. I still do a lot of work in the labor movement. I’m still very active politically, but there’s a business that I run and it’s multi-faceted.
Sun: Were there any Cornell professors that guided you in any way to where you are now?
K.S.: There was Professor Neufeld. Maurice is his first name. He was a special guy. He actually died recently, in the last couple of years. He lived a very long and wonderful life, and I kept up with him over the years. He was a special kind of guy and a tough professor too if I remember. It’s so long ago. I kept in dialogue with him, and he had some influence on me I remember.
Sun: What did you do immediately after you graduated from Cornell?
K.S.: I went to work at a community center in Long Island and worked with kids who were in trouble or about to get into trouble. Gangs and all kinds of other issues in a low-income community in Freeport in Long Island. I proceeded to work for the school system there in a semi-social work capacity. I was very quickly also getting caught up with Democratic politics. I’ve been complaining about the Democratic party from then and I complain about it today — I don’t know why I’m knocking my head against the wall with the Democratic Party. But it was the era where George McGovern was looking to be the Democratic nominee, and I ended up running as a delegate in the election for delegates to the Democratic National Convention. We ran supporting McGovern who was the anti-war candidate, and I won! I got elected, and I attended the 1972 Democratic National Convention in Miami for McGovern. He became the nominee, and we felt we were really going to change the world. But Watergate happened and Richard Nixon — one of the worst presidents other than the current one, maybe the second-worst president to the current president — was doing all kinds of dirty tricks and won the election. I’m not sure the country’s ever recovered from it. But that got me formally involved in Democratic politics, and I was, again, just beating my head against a wall there.
Sun: What was your next step career-wise?
K.S.: I went to work in political campaigns and I worked for the Bronx borough president, Ben Abrams. I was commuting and had various political campaign jobs throughout much of the 70s. I worked for Bella Abzug, who was one of the most wonderful public officials ever. She was a congresswoman who ran for mayor of New York, almost won but lost. I worked for her. I worked for Mario Cuomo. I worked for Ted Kennedy on his presidential campaign, which he lost to Jimmy Carter in the primary. Jimmy Carter was the incumbent president. I worked on a host of campaigns, and then I kind of slowly changed careers and went to the music business and became involved in the public relations world of ASCAP [American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers]. I did that off and on in the 80s. I took some leaves of absence. My friend David Dinkins ran for mayor [of New York] in 1989, short-circuiting my life very quickly. He asked me to help run his campaign, and I left ASCAP and helped run the Dinkins mayoral campaign. He won; I became his first chief-of-staff. A year after that, I left the government. I stayed close to the administration, and I formed my firm. I’ve been doing that ever since.
Sun: Are the types of tasks that your job entails similar whether you work in politics or in the entertainment field?
K.S.: I think it’s all showbiz. [Laughs] Everything is showbusiness now. It’s the media. It’s protecting an image. It’s trying to sell something through the media. I got my training through the political world and I think that if you can do anything in New York politics, then you can do anything. It’s the hardest training grounds, it’s the toughest, lots at stake. Try helping join a mayoral campaign: it’s rough and tumble. I think those skills that I learned best prepared me for whatever success I’ve had and utilize all the time. I’d like to think my Cornell education helped some, and I think it did, although I think the work I do involves a lot of street sense. I think writing skills are significant; I learned some of those at Cornell. The kind of work we do entails an ability to communicate and an ability to sell stories to the news media.
Sun: Was the scene, how it’s all showbusiness in politics and actual showbusiness, was that the exact same thing when you started as now, or do you think that’s changed over the years?
K.S.: Oh, I think it’s changed a lot. I think there’s a similarity that somebody like myself or who basically started with nothing and didn’t really know too many people, came on with a Cornell degree and a lot of moxie — people always told me that I was pretty aggressive and that I had an interesting way of communicating — but I didn’t come in handed a job or with an advanced degree that would give me an entrée in a more traditional job path. I think those skills remain the same. I think obviously the use of modern technology, the way news is disseminated and the news media is very different now than phsycially handing in press released. Everything is done on the web and everything is done electronically. But the basic skills remain very much the same. There’s just many more news outlets and there’s a much more complicated dynamic now than back then.
Sun: When you started your own firm, what was your original aim?
K.S.: Well, I needed a little bit more money than I was earning as the chief-of-staff to the major of New York, so I think it was a little bit of a lifestyle issue. We were having kids and couple more mouths to feed gave a little need to become a little more practical. That was one consideration. Part of it I wanted to take control of my own destiny a little more and become entrepreneurial for me, as opposed to working for government or for something like ASCAP or a campaign. So I became my own boss and my first few clients were the Democratic National Convention, which was coming to New York in ’92 — We started working a year before — which nominated Bill Clinton. So I worked closely with Ron Brown, who was a terrific guy. He was chairman of the Democratic Party, and Secretary of Commerce when Clinton won. He got killed in a plane crash tragically with a bunch of business executives in Europe soon after that, but I was doing PR for the Democratic Convention and for the Clinton campaign. My other first client was Barbra Streisand who’d been a longtime friend, not a bad entertainer, and a great political activist, and the health care workers’ union 1199. Those were actually my first three clients.
Sun: From there did the firm start to take off on its own, or did it take a while to become what it is now?
K.S.: It happened slowly. I wasn’t that ambitious at the beginning. I don’t have that great ambition and I still don’t, I guess despite the fact that we’re, I guess, pretty successful. I’ve got a lot of very aggressively ambitious people that work for me now, and everybody’s very young. I’m a lot older than everybody that works for me. It built slowly, actually, in the beginning. I didn’t want that many clients. It was myself and a part-time firm that I had—that’s the way my firm started. It expanded a lot in the last seven or eight years. And now I have, as I say too often, despite me, we have a great and thriving business. Recently, in the last couple of months, I made Shawn Sachs, who’s been my right hand for the last seven years, a partner. So the company name has changed: it’s Sunshine, Sachs & Associates now. I’m getting a little gray these days, but this business will live on for many years, I guess, in many different forms.
Sun: What’s your daily schedule like, or if that’s too hard a question to answer, what are your main responsibilities day-to-day?
K.S.: My schedule’s insane and I travel a lot. I’m in L.A. a lot. I’m right now going to miss a flight to Washington because I have to go overnight and I’m trying to hitch a ride in somebody’s plane back tonight so I can be here for an early morning meeting tomorrow. My schedule’s insanely frenetic. I’m always being told I’m insane for the way I travel around, and I don’t know how to do it any differently. With all the people who work for me now, a lot of personal service is what we do. But I don’t know another way to do it. I don’t have too many hobbies. The Yankees lost, so I can’t even watch the games anymore for the World Series and the playoffs. I’m kinda working all the time. The most dangerous invention for me is the BlackBerry. I basically live on it and I’m technologically idiotic, but I’ve mastered the BlackBerry. It’s not very hard. It allows me to stay in touch constantly. For a neurotic like me, it’s just great. I’m always on. I hate when people say, “I turn off the BlackBerry for the weekend.” I’d be institutionalized if I did that.
Sun: You seem to be very New York through and through and I’m wondering if you get a much different perspective of the entertainment business working in New York and not Los Angeles?
K.S.: It’s a good question. A lot of people ask me that. Ot’s been written about me and said about me that I’m so New York, how can I spend so much time in L.A.? I have a great time in L.A.; I have a million friends. I have more family in L.A. than I do here, other than my wife and my kids who are obviously here. I have my other life in New York; my political life is all here. I grew up in New York. I’ve always lived here other than four years in little old Ithaca. So this city is home, but I’m in L.A. so much that most people in the entertainment business always think I live in L.A. They see me at these awards events and with all my clients. Much of the entertainment business, of course, is in L.A, and probably more celebrities live in L.A. I represent many more celebrities that happen to live in L.A., ironically, but not all. We represent Bon Jovi, who’s a proud Jerseyite. John Mayer lives both in New York and L.A. now, but he’s from Connecticut. But Leonardo DiCaprio, Ben Affleck, Barbra Streisand all very much live in L.A. Bette Midler lives here, so it’s kind of the people we’re known for on the celebrity end. But we have many that are based in other places, not only L.A. When I started this, I would make fun of L.A. all the time, just like the Woody Allen movies caricaturing L.A. And it’s funny that people think I have a New York style or a New York swagger. I think a lot of that is just silly. It doesn’t really apply that much anymore. But I personally prefer New York because I’m used to it and it’s normal and that’s why I live here, because I could easily move to L.A. I’d give up much of my political life, but I don’t want to do it, so I don’t.
Sun: Do you meet a lot of Cornellians in your business ventures?
K.S.: It’s funny. I’m so out of it. I had a great experience at Cornell, by the way. I mean, it was a time of turbulence. I remember the politics more than I do the academics, I must admit, but I don’t wear my Cornell experience openly. I’ve had so many lives. I’m so frenetic; that was a couple of lives ago. I’ve done a lot of TV appearances and I’m in the media and people hear about me and my political career, and I’ll find people I went to college with. I frankly don’t remember most of them. My brain can only absorb so many people. But I do! The answer is yes. Just recently I was at a press junket in L.A., and there’s a Cornell Association of Los Angeles, and they all thought I lived in L.A. They wanted me to speak at it. I said, “Well, I love Cornell, but I like in New York.” They thought I was kidding. Sure, at times it pops up, and there are all these weird characters that went to Cornell. So the answer is yes, I guess, to your question.
Sun: What are some of the crazier or funnier experiences you’ve had in your line of work?
K.S.: Oh god. I don’t want to give … people are always saying I should write a book, which I’ll never do by the way, just for the record. On the record, I will never write a book, because the book they want me to write is kiss-and-tell stories of what the real stories are of these political experiences or celebrity involvement. I hate when people do that who have inside knowledge. They’re clients and they put their trust in me. I have been in lots and lots of crazy and sometimes ridiculous experiences that I could talk about that don’t involve breaching confidence. I’m trying to lobby for time to think about something that might be amusing. There are a couple I just don’t want to tell because they are a little bit inside. Let me think about it a little bit and I’ll come back to you with something.
Sun: Alright. What’s the most fun thing you’ve been able to do in your line of work, something that maybe you never thought you’d ever do?
K.S.: Get invited to the White House several times, obviously not under the Bush administration, but under the Clinton administration. I remember the time that there was a Kennedy Center Honors and Bob Dylan was getting an honor and Clinton had a reception for the people getting inducted. Bruce Springsteen was inducting Bob Dylan and I got a private tour of the White House. The three of us got a private tour from Bill Clinton; that was kinda cool. Earth Day 2000, Leonardo DiCaprio was the chair, and it was a big environmental event that he did. He’s done many, including the documentary he just did. We went to Washington, and the Clintons were away. They weren’t there, but I think I talked directly to Hillary then, and she said, “Please come with Leo and your guests. Come over to the White House and we’ll have some staff people show you the Oval Office.” I remember saying, “I’m a little embarrassed. I’ve been there.” And she knew I was bringing my son, who was very young then, and she said, “He’ll be there, it’ll be kinda cool.” So I’m outside the Oval Office and talking to the Secret Service agents or staff people that I knew, and a Secret Service agent’s kinda pulling at me. I look in the Oval Office and my very precocious eight-year-old was in Bill Clinton’s chair with his feet up on the desk, acting like he’s president of the United States. I have a picture of it, which is kind of a classic. [Laughs] That was kind of cool. Me and Leonardo DiCaprio were taking pictures with each other, acting like the president of the United States. What can I say?
Sun: As a publicist with such a wide range of high-profile clients, do you personally prefer those who are quieter and stay out of the limelight, or those who wind up on the covers of magazines regularly?
K.S.: We’re very picky who we work with. I only have a 22, 23 person operation, and we’re a tiny boutique agency in New York, so we turn down clients all the time. You can’t be a boutique agency if you just represent anybody. We’re very careful who we work with. I think I’ve got the greatest client base I could have, and I won’t tell you, but you can only imagine who we’ve turned down over the years. Part of it is we just want to be able to do our thing and there are some wonderfully talented people out there who aren’t going to want to do it the way we do it, and there’s a trust factor and a credibility factor that is paramount. That’s the short answer to a much more complicated position, but we pick and choose who we work with. We have that advantage.