When the city of Detroit filed for bankruptcy protection in July, the cannon shot was heard from coast to coast. States and municipalities across America are suffering major budget shortfalls; not since the 1970s have U.S. civic finances felt so tenuous. Rising pension costs are a big contributor to the problem. Combined with the 2008 economic collapse and its aftermath, those expenses have put the entire $7 trillion defined benefit retirement system and millions of workers and retirees in jeopardy.

Against that backdrop Institutional Investor has compiled its inaugural ranking of the 40 most important players in the fight for — and against — defined benefit pensions. The Pension 40 covers not only public pensions but corporate and Taft-Hartley, or multiemployer, plans. After more than six months of research and reporting, we identified the people who are doing the most to tackle the pension problem, including reformers with new ideas.

The 2013
Pension 40
Click name to view ranking profile.
Rank Name / Company
1 Randi Weingarten
American Federation
of Teachers
2 Rahm Emanuel
3 John andLaura Arnold
Laura and John Arnold Foundation
4 Joshua Gotbaum
Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp.
5 David Boies
Boies, Schiller & Flexner
6 Damon Silvers
7 Kevyn Orr
8 Laurence Fink
9 Tom Harkin
10 Randy DeFrehn
National Coordinating Committee for Multiemployer Plans
11 Gina Raimondo
Rhode Island
12 Caitlin Long
Morgan Stanley
13 Phyllis Borzi
U.S. Departmentof Labor
14 Carl DeMaio
U.S. House of Representatives
15 Jordan Marks
National Public Pension Coalition
16 Kevin de León
17 Orrin Hatch
18 Daniel Loeb
Third Point
19 Joshua Rauh
Stanford Graduate School of Business
20 Ted Wheeler
21 Keith Ambachtsheer
University of Toronto
22 Susan Urahn
Pew Charitable Trusts
23 Damon Thayer
Kentucky Legislature
24 Christopher Klein
U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Eastern District of California
25 David Blitzstein
United Food and Commercial Workers International Union
26 Chuck Reed
San Jose
27 Mark Iwry
U.S. Treasury Department
28 Alejandro García Padilla
Puerto Rico
29 Pat Quinn
30 Gary Knapp
Prudential Fixed Income
31 Gregory Floyd
Teamsters Local 237, New York
32 Tom Corbett
33 Alicia Munnell
Boston College
34 David Oaten
Pacific Global Advisors
35 Chris McIsaac
Vanguard Group
36 David (Phil) Roe
37 Jack Marco
Marco Consulting Group
38 David Villa
State of Wisconsin
Investment Board
39 Ari Jacobs
Aon Hewitt
40 Richard Shea
Covington & Burling

The list spans the political right and left, academics, activists, investment managers and advisers, and elected and appointed officials. Some names, such as Alicia Munnell (No. 33), director of the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College, merit inclusion for their years of work on retirement security. Others, like Detroit emergency manager Kevyn Orr (No. 7), make the list because recent events have thrust them into the pension fray.

(Click here to watch II Editor Michael Peltz discuss the ranking on CNBC's Squawk Box.)

With more than $1.5 trillion in pension assets, public schoolteachers are on the front lines of the defined benefit battle. The formidable Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, takes the No. 1 spot in our ranking. Joining Weingarten in the trenches is labor movement stalwart Damon Silvers (No. 6), AFL-CIO special counsel.

In Illinois, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel (No. 2) is seeking pension reform for his city and his state. In Rhode Island, State Treasurer Gina Raimondo (No. 11) pushed through comprehensive changes that have helped open up a second front in the pension wars: the U.S. court system. “Pension reform is one of the two or three most serious economic problems this country is facing,” says David Boies (No. 5), chairman of law firm Boies, Schiller & Flexner; he is representing Rhode Island.

Hedge fund managers and activists who support groups that would reduce or replace defined benefit pension funds have drawn sharp criticism; most prominent among them are John Arnold and his wife, Laura (No. 3). In the $2.8 trillion private pension sector, there’s less drama but no less conviction. Would-be peacemakers include California State Senator Kevin de León (No. 16), who spearheaded landmark pension legislation. Even on Capitol Hill, not known for its fiscal collegiality, bipartisan efforts to save pensions are under way.

The Pension 40 was created under the direction of the Institutional Investor editorial team. Individual profiles were written by Associate Editor Ben Baris; Senior Writers Frances Denmark, Imogen Rose-Smith and Julie Segal; and Editorial Research Assistant Georgina Hurst.