David F. Shaffer, an influential public policy thinker and communicator whose passionate commitment to bettering New York State was outshone only by an infectiously joyful devotion to wife and family, died Jan. 24 after a brief illness. He was 69 and had lived in Delmar since 1978.
Born and raised in Richmond, Va., Shaffer graduated from Duke University, and first came to Albany to attend graduate school at the University at Albany, where he earned his master’s degree in political science in 1972. While attending graduate school, he joined the staff of the Associated Press, initially as a desk editor at the Albany and Capitol bureaus.
In 1980, after five years as AP’s chief Capitol correspondent, Shaffer was recruited to become the first communications director of The Business Council of New York State by its founding president, Raymond T. Schuler. At The Business Council, Shaffer’s responsibilities quickly expanded to include financial and operational responsibilities. In 1981, he was elected The Council’s corporate secretary, a position he held until his retirement in 2008.
In nearly 30 years of working closely with Schuler and his successor, Daniel B. Walsh, and with The Business Council’s long-time vice president Edward Reinfurt, Shaffer played a vital role in the group’s successful push for landmark tax cuts and programmatic reforms designed to boost New York’s business climate. He also nurtured a generation of Business Council staffers who have gone on to prominent positions in the public and private sectors.
Shaffer earned a reputation for the breadth of his skills in leadership, management and policy analysis. In 1993, he took on an added role as president of the Public Policy Institute, the Business Council’s in-house think tank, where he developed and executed a range of creative strategies for advancing policy ideas while highlighting data reflecting the state’s continuing economic challenges. Among these was a 1994 book, The Comeback State, in which Shaffer argued that to fulfill its potential New York State must focus on two priorities—jobs and kids.
Known for his robust intellectual honesty—often expressed bluntly, but invariably grounded in evidence, experience and common sense—Shaffer was tapped to serve on advisory panels to governors in both parties. These included stints on Mario Cuomo’s Commission on Public Pension Funds in 1988-89 and on Governor George Pataki’s Commission on Education Reform in 2003-04. Shaffer played a key role in a mid-1990s management review of the State Education Department, providing then-Commissioner Richard Mills with the blueprint for an overhaul of the department and of its most important accountability policies.
Recognized for his fluid writing style and editing prowess, Shaffer was also a skillful photographer with a keen eye for graphic design. An early adapter of the emerging personal computer technology of the 1980s and ‘90s, he mastered desktop publishing, website design, and database management, maximizing the value of The Business Council’s work on behalf of its members.
Shaffer raised a family of four children with his wife of 39 years, Mary Fiess, the University at Albany’s recently retired director of executive communications, whom he first met when both were working for the Associated Press in Albany. He applied his leadership and communications skills in volunteer service to community and civic groups, including the First United Methodist Church of Delmar, where he served as president of the board of trustees, among other roles; Parks & Trails New York, of which he was a director and former board chair; and the Delmar Dolfins swim club, among other youth groups in which his children participated.
While he never completely lost the accent of his native Virginia, Shaffer was wholeheartedly devoted to New York—especially the upstate region, whose interests he consistently defended and promoted in public policy affairs. An avid hiker and birdwatcher, Shaffer was equally familiar with the trails of the Adirondack region and of his local nature preserve, Five Rivers Environmental Education Center in Delmar, where he particularly enjoyed walking with Mary and observing the glories of nature.
Upon his Business Council retirement, decades after receiving his master’s degree from the University at Albany, Shaffer returned to the SUNY system as a Senior Fellow at the Nelson A. Rockefeller Institute of Government from 2008 to 2013. His research and writing at the Institute focused on policy areas including higher education, economic development and federal stimulus funding. He also served as an adviser to the SUNY Chancellor.
In addition to his wife, Shaffer is survived by his daughter Kathleen Shaffer Corban (Rev. Brad Corban) of Hattiesburg, Mississippi; and sons Patrick (Hoppy Maffione) and Matthew (Galen) of Boston. Also surviving are his granddaughter Edith Corban; his father, Melvin, and brother, Bob, of Green Valley, Arizona; his sisters-in-law Barbara (Kevin Powell) Suler, Kathy (J.B. Opdycke) Fiess as well as nieces Dara and Kate, and cousins. Shaffer’s beloved eldest son, Christopher, died in 2010.
A memorial service and celebration of David’s life will be held at the First United Methodist Church of Delmar on Saturday, Feb. 3 at 10 a.m. Contributions in his memory may be made to First United Methodist Church of Delmar and Friends of Five Rivers.