A quick glance through local headlines these days may lead any long-time New Yorker to think the city has landed in an episode of “The Twilight Zone.” With a mayoral election 11 months away, the name of one Joe Lhota has garnered a lot of ink as a potential Republican candidate. What kind of world do we live in where the head of the MTA, New York City’s much hated (in the court of public opinion) transit agency, can float a balloon of running for mayor?
Even as these rumors have swirled, Lhota himself hasn’t said much of anything. He did mention to The Daily News that he’s talked about it with his wife, and he’s said he’ll make a decision on whether or not to run in the coming weeks. Beyond that, though, his silence has seemingly frustrated reporters, as New York Magazine’s Andy Martin intimated last night.
There is, of course, a reason for that silence, and that reason hasn’t been a part of the early articles. Joe Lhota is essentially barred by law from talking about running for mayor. Section 3-C of the Public Officers Law — a new section added by the Public Employee Ethics Reform Act of 2007 — prohibits Lhota, as the head of a state agency, from running for office, and the restrictions are even broader. Take a look at the plain text:
No commissioner, executive director or other head of any state agency…shall seek nomination or election to any compensated federal, state or local public office, or shall become a candidate for such office, unless such individual first resigns from his or her public employment, or requests and is granted by their appointing authority a leave of absence without pay. Such resignation or leave must commence before such individual engages in any campaign activities, including but not limited to, announcing a candidacy, circulating petitions, soliciting contributions, distributing literature, or taking any other action to actively promote oneself as a candidate for elective office.
The key part here is that last phrase. “Taking any other action to actively promote oneself as a candidate for elective office” is incredibly broad, and even acknowledging to the News, as Lhota did yesterday, that he’s thinking about it skirts that line. So of course, Lhota can’t comment on his thought process, especially if he’s leaning in the direction of running.
That still doesn’t answer the question though of whether or not he should run. I’ve come out against his candidacy, not on ideological grounds, but on transit grounds. The MTA has run through six Chairman/CEOs/Executive Directors since 2006, and a Lhota departure would just add to the instability at the top. He has a good mind for transit and can get things done. The MTA needs someone like that to lead for a few years.
Politically, he’d have to overcome being known as the head of the MTA — not quite a selling point in electoral politics — and he’d have to make a name for himself amidst a field of well-known, if not the most inspiring, Democratic candidates. That’s no small task, and it’s a challenge Lhota would have to face after leaving the MTA.
So as we sit here today on December 7, Joe Lhota isn’t running for mayor because he’s still running the MTA, and he can’t do both at once. If he steps down, we’ll know what his short-term political future will be, and the MTA will, once again, be up for grabs.