Home MTA Politics How to Lose a Chairman: Joe Lhota for mayor movement grows

How to Lose a Chairman: Joe Lhota for mayor movement grows

by Benjamin Kabak

I started Second Ave. Sagas nearly six years ago, and for the MTA, six years is actually a key number. That’s the length of time a CEO/Chairman term should last. Somehow, it doesn’t always work out that way, and since starting the site, I’ve seen five men and women take over the authority’s reins. High turnover does not lend itself to much stability.

Since Jay Walder’s departure in late 2011, Joe Lhota has been the man at the top. Although I was initially skeptical of a non-transit wonk taking over the agency’s CEO and Chairman role, Lhota has shown a willingness to both learn on the job and zealously advocate for New York’s transit network. His current term expires on June 30 of 2015, and I have hopes that he’ll last that long. Someone should stick around.

In the aftermath of Sandy, though, New York’s political forces seem to be conspiring against the MTA and its long-term outlook. With a relatively weak field of Democratic mayoral candidates, the city’s independent and Republican politicos have been casting around for a suitably strong candidate to maintain their hold on City Hall. After the MTA’s generally stellar response to the storm, Lhota’s name has come up more than once.

This week, an important voice in the business community lent its pages to the cause as Greg David of Crain’s New York trumpeted Joe Lhota 2013. Here’s his take:

One person New Yorkers would have confidence in is Metropolitan Transportation Authority Chairman Joseph Lhota, who has shown what a good manager does in a crisis. He is clearly fiscally conservative, knows city government inside and out from his days as Rudy’s first deputy mayor, and appears eerily calm in a crisis (although he has been known to lose his temper in public at other times).

Mr. Lhota’s path for a mayoral candidacy begins and ends with Gov. Andrew Cuomo. He’s the governor’s man now. If Mr. Cuomo cares about the competence of the next mayor and if he’d like a devoted ally at City Hall, Mr. Lhota fits the bill. The governor’s support for an independent candidacy would be very powerful.

Maybe the impact of and obsession with Sandy will fade in the next few weeks and the mayoral race will return to a debate about how much to raise taxes on the wealthy, how to impose the living-wage mandate, how many sick days businesses should be required to provide, and how to set aside more contracts for minority- and women-owned companies. If not, expect print and TV media to begin more critical coverage of the Democrats and build up the Lhota legend.

One way or another, Sandy — and any other megastorm — will dominate the New York City news coverage through the next election cycle. The current mayor and the next one will have to address the city’s vulnerability and infrastructure upgrades necessary to protect our assets, our homes and our economy. Lhota, a former deputy mayor under Rudy Giuliani, certainly could do the job.

But I’m selfish. I’d like someone who can fight for transit to stick around for longer than a year or 18 months. One could also argue that heading up the MTA is nearly as important as being mayor. Is the political promotion worth it? It depends upon that person’s ambitions, but I’d like to hope Lhota will stick around to see his current job through. With budget issues and a capital campaign coming due, the next few years are key for the MTA, and stability at the top and advocacy from the top will remain vital.

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John-2 November 13, 2012 - 2:27 pm

The longer it takes for other area transit systems and surrounding infrastructure to get up to speed, the better the MTA and Lhotta will look. And right now the system probably has its best PR image, competency-wise, since the Kiley-Gunn remove-the-graffiti-and-keep-it-off efforts of the late 1980s.

However, once Joesph is considered not just an MTA chairman, but an MTA chairman and a candidate for mayor, rest assured that the others eying City Hall in 2013 will make sure every broken elevator, faulty countdown clock or washed out Jamaica Bay roadbed and trestle that’s not back in service ASAP will be laid at Lhotta’s doorstep. He might still be the best mayoral option, but once he’s seen as one, any MTA failings, even if they’re not his fault as with the post-Sandy repairs to the A line, will be grounds for the political mills.

Gamma November 13, 2012 - 2:37 pm

Has Lhota run for an elected office before? If he has not I would not expect him to jump into the election business now. I am keeping fingers crossed he does not have mayoral aspirations …

Bolwerk November 13, 2012 - 2:55 pm

I’d be careful about wanting Lhota to be mayor. He’s adept at the MTA, as you say, but he’s untested at wider politicking. First, he’d need to survive months of mudslinging from the Dems, and would probably have to make himself dirty rubbing his epidermis up against the scaly skin of a Republikan lizardboss and their donor base. He’s not a billionaire like Bloomberg, so he can’t insulate himself from special interest politics. Second, if elected, he’d actually have to learn to do the job. MTA is more like a CEO position (his obvious strength), and much as the business community likes to imagine such a thing prepares you for politics, it doesn’t. There is no reason to think he’d be especially good at dealing with bureaucratic minutia or horse trading with all the Council and Albany pols who have their own power base.

Also, he’s had his share of good breaks, like unexpectedly good revenue and Walder getting the rap for most of the bad stuff that happened out of necessity. Crises like the storm in a way make it easier to do the right thing because the right thing becomes obvious. His weakness is still the mundane: let’s see a sustainable labor regime at the MTA, and the lawmakers he has to deal with still keep alive a rigid system that makes capital investment high-cost and low-impact.

Larry Littlefield November 13, 2012 - 3:13 pm

The city chose the usual suspects over guys like Kiley and Ravitch, so Lhota ought to think twice.

jtown November 13, 2012 - 6:35 pm

Has Lhota initiated any the structural changes needed to bring the MTA up to basic developed world standards for transit operators (revenue recovery, work rules, technology, etc)? From my view, he’s been a competent status-quo-er, nothing more.

JJ November 13, 2012 - 8:35 pm

Bloomberg’s lap dog , Christine Quinn , has the inside track .
Her obsequious ways have gotten her inroads with many pols and moneyed folk

Bolwerk November 13, 2012 - 8:53 pm

Her victory will make leaving NYC very tempting. 😐

Kevin Walsh November 14, 2012 - 12:07 am

If the MTA chief becomes mayor, maybe everything will get finished in 30 years, not just rail projects.

Today’s Headlines | Streetsblog New York City November 14, 2012 - 8:58 am

[…] Will Joe Lhota Ride His Post-Sandy Popularity to Gracie Mansion? (Post, 2nd Ave Sagas) […]

SEAN November 14, 2012 - 10:52 am

Wasn’t there a movie a few years ago called How to Lose a Chairman in 10 Days?

Douglas John Bowen November 14, 2012 - 11:46 am

I’ll sign on to John-2’s take more than jtown’s more pessimistic assessment, though both points of view have merit. It’s somewhat relative (as John-2 notes), and if New York isn’t Europe it sure runs rings around, oh, I dunno, New Jersey? … in terms of rail transport restoration.

Add to that the constant observations from my New Orleans-based friend, a Katrina survivor: “You folks in New York have the drive, and the assets, that make (us) look silly and downright incompetent.” It’s perspective.

Right now, speaking as a Jerseyan who can get to and from work (I have options! Zounds!) but is out of his usual rhythm and travel pattern, I think New York metro, with obvious exceptions (LIPA, NJ Transit) has done pretty darn well, all things considered.

Bolwerk November 14, 2012 - 8:29 pm

Yeah, it is at least one upside to NYC and the perhaps the region. Most of the country for whatever reason really does lack the infrastructure and institutional competency to deal with disasters.

John-2 November 14, 2012 - 11:55 pm

The other thing worth mentioning — and if Lhota runs, it will be mentioned — is that timing is everything when it comes to being the official face of a city, state or state agency in a moment of crisis.

In this case, Lhota benefited from what in hindsight turned out to be two test runs for Sandy — last year’s hurricane and the snowstorm two years ago, which occurred during and at the end of Walder’s watch. Both cases reminded MTA people what to do and what not to do (obviously nobody in December 2010 remembered the Blizzard of ’69), especially as to not running the system too far into the storm cycle, so the railcars couldn’t be evacuated to drier parts of the system, both on the subway and on commuter rail.

Lhotta gets the credit for being the guy who made sure the lessons learned were put into play, but had the order been reverse and Sandy had been the first of the three weather plagues to hit the system, the preemptive actions may not have been done as quickly or have been as wide-ranging as what did happen.

Boris November 14, 2012 - 2:24 pm

If he becomes mayor, he should work to keep (most of) his old job by breaking up the MTA and moving NYCT to mayoral control.

Henry November 14, 2012 - 8:41 pm

I dunno about mayor, but unless JSK stays on he’d make a very good pick as head of DOT. (Can he do both DOT and the MTA at the same time? Because if he could, that would be the best of both worlds.)

For all practical purposes though, he should stay on as MTA head because someone needs to finish the job.

Bolwerk November 15, 2012 - 12:30 pm

I think that having two civil service titles like that is illegal now, but I’d have to check. Robert Moses famously had over a dozen titles between the city and state, which of course cemented his power.

Rudy: Lhota to decide on mayoral run by Christmas :: Second Ave. Sagas December 3, 2012 - 1:28 pm

[…] as Joe Lhota himself refuses to comment on the rumors that he may run for mayor, his former City Hall boss is far more willing to discuss the possibility. In an interview with […]


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