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I’ll admit, when I heard the news last night that MTA Chairman Joseph Lhota would resign and run for mayor, my first thought was “really?”  Not that Mr. Lhota isn’t qualified.  As deputy mayor for operations under Rudy Giuliani, Lhota probably carried out some less-than-ideal policies while gaining some good experience in city government.  Since his stint in the Giuliani administration, Lhota has served on the board of the Madison Square Garden Company and, most recently, as chairman of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.  This is an impressive resume, to be sure, and one that should serve him well in a mostly-weak Republican field.  (For those who are less-initiated in the seedy world of NYC politics, the current Republicans publicly considering runs for mayor include publisher Tom Allon [ex-Democrat], former Borough President and Obama’s inaugural Director of the Office of Urban Affairs Adolfo Carrion [ex-Democrat], State Senator Malcolm Smith [still a Democrat], and Godwin’s Law enthusiast-cum-supermarket magnate John Catsimatidis [hey, a real Republican!].)

Politically, this move makes a lot of sense for Lhota.  With some help from his friends in the business world, as well as any politician disenchanted with the Democratic field for mayor, Lhota should have a good shot at the Republican nomination.  True, Carrion might be able to win over the five-or-so Hispanic Republicans, and Allon will give Lhota a run for his money (literally) among rich white Manhattanites, but Lhota comes in with institutional support, experience, and money.  It is clear that Lhota’s decision was a politically canny one; why, then, was my first reaction one of disbelief and disappointment?  Follow me below the B/D/F/M—I mean, the squiggly orange lines…

Let's take a step back from electoral politics for a minute.  Before announcing his run for mayor, Lhota was in the news for a completely different, and unwelcome, reason: the latest MTA fare hike.  Just this week the MTA board (again, led by Lhota) voted to raise the base fare from $2.25 to $2.50 and the price of a monthly unlimited MetroCard from $104 to $112.  This may seem like chump change, but remember that the base fare was just $2 a few years ago and the cost of an unlimited was $89 as recently as 2010.  In a city as mass transit-reliant as New York, these price hikes hurt struggling citizens who depend on cheap transportation to commute to and from work every day.  I'm not saying that the fare hike was unreasonable--transit is expensive, and in an age when the MTA gets screwed over by Albany at seemingly every turn, hiking the prices is to be expected.

Running the MTA is not a low-level or easy job.  Among the LIRR, MetroNorth, and the bus and subway within the city, the MTA carries over 11 million passengers per day.  Additionally, over 800,000 vehicles per day use its toll bridges.  The MTA is an incredibly important organization and it depends on calm, steady leadership on an everyday basis.  For the past year that job has been ably served by Mr. Lhota.  That's just it though--he's only been in office for a year (he was first appointed in November 2011).  The past chairman, Jay Walder, left after just two years for the cushy job of running Hong Kong's transit authority.  Before that, Elliot Sander left the MTA to serve as CEO of an architectural firm and, oh yeah, as a board member for the National Express Group, a UK-based transportation company.  Lhota's departure after just 13 months on the job is even more shocking than the sudden departures of the last two chairmen, and it is no less disappointing.

Presumably Lhota decided to increase the prices for more reasons than "this will hurt the poor."  Whatever his plans are--more funding for the Second Avenue Subway, East Side Access, or 7 Train extension? more frequency on key subways? recovery from Hurricane Sandy?--it would be nice, as a New Yorker, to know that this plan was going somewhere.  Lhota's departure is a stunning failure of leadership coming from a man whom we all thought was better than that.  Lhota was supposed to be the MTA Chairman who finally turned things around for the struggling organization.  Instead he has decided to dine and dash, leaving New Yorkers to pick up the check.  His run for mayor is no sure thing.  He might lose the primary, and even if he secures the GOP nomination he will still face an uphill general election battle against a Democrat, be it Speaker Christine Quinn, Public Advocate Bill de Blasio, or former Comptroller Bill Thompson.

Lhota's decision to run for mayor is a shockingly bad decision, both policy-wise and electorally.  The Live Digest mentioned a recent poll that had Lhota down 60-9 to a generic Democrat.  I have no fear that, as the election progresses, Lhota's name recognition will increase and he will be locked in a tough battle for Gracie Mansion.  Right now, I would wager that he has less than a 20% chance of being New York's next mayor.  There is just too much uncertainty in New York City politics to take anything for granted.  I hope, and expect, that Lhota will get pilloried by the press (after they end their honeymoon with NYC's latest moderate Republican savior) for leaving the MTA when they needed him the most.  Lhota's departure will leave the MTA leaderless (at least, until Cuomo appoints another one of his business buddies, but I digress...) in the midst of the recovery from Hurricane Sandy and the latest fare hike, and what will Lhota himself have to show for it?  Probably nothing.  This is a sad day for New York, and one that will probably come back to bite Mr. Lhota.  While his decision may look like a good one politically right now, that may soon blow up in his face.  After all, who has been his most public cheerleader?  That's right: none other than Rudy Giuliani.


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Comment Preferences

  •  New York politics (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    MichaelNY, wintergreen8694

    has always been murky and byzantine. I haven't lived in NYC since 1980 but I spent almost all of my first 29 years there. I still do my best to keep tabs on my hometown.

    Had Lhota stuck to the job for eight years, or even four, and then gone on to run for mayor, he'd have some credibility (not that I ever voted for a Republican when I was a New York voter but at least the ones with any chance in the City are not completely batshit insane). Instead he's stuck around just long enough for people to associate his name with the organization. So he can reasonably be targeted as an opportunist and I wouldn't doubt that his opponents will make full use of such a charge.

    Recovery from Hurricane Sandy has got to be incredibly tough; from what I can tell as someone who's now an outsider, the job the MTA's done up to this point has been pretty decent. But for Lhota to leave at this point means that there'll be little of that recovery for him to run on, which means he'll mainly be associated with the latest fare hike, even if it might be justified (when I left NYC the base fare had just gone up to 60 cents and there were no passes except for school kids) rather than the recovery. He's certainly not been in charge long enough to be able to claim any credit at all for the success of any of the capital programs. On the whole, his departure seems like a pretty stupid move.

  •  I think I'm with de Blasio NT (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    MichaelNY, Taget

    If you didn't like the news today, go out and make some of your own.

    by jgnyc on Wed Dec 19, 2012 at 02:56:45 PM PST

    •  Anyone but Quinn or another Republicon (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      MichaelNY, Taget

      Lhota is a loser because of the fare increases.  When it costs $15 to cross a bridge it's beyone comprehension.  The MTA answers to no one but Lhota will have to answer to the voters and the voters are going to stomp on him.

      Quinn is another story, Bloomberg's stooge.  

      Never be afraid to voice your opinion and fight for it . Corporations aren't people, they're Republicans (Rev Al Sharpton 10/7/2011)

      by Rosalie907 on Wed Dec 19, 2012 at 07:20:17 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  So basically you feel like he's done a good job (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    R30A, bumiputera

    at MTA, but that he should stay and get it on a firmer footing. But what I don't get is what you think is motivating his run for Mayor. Please elaborate on that. And thanks for writing about New York City politics.

    Formerly Pan on Swing State Project

    by MichaelNY on Wed Dec 19, 2012 at 03:40:52 PM PST

    •  Opportunism, really (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      MichaelNY, bumiputera

      I think he thinks he's done a good enough job with the MTA that voters will think he's the spiritual successor to Bloomberg: a moderate conservative, but competent bureaucrat.  Plus, the Democratic field is not the strongest (Quinn's all right, and I like de Blasio, but neither of them are the greatest candidate), so I think he thinks he has an opening.  At the end of the day, I think he was just too tickled by the fact that Rudy Giuliani was talking about him on tv and in the newspapers, and felt that this was his moment.  I agree with sfbob, though; if Lhota had stuck with this job for another five years and done really well, he would be well-positioned for a run in the future.  Now, though, it's just naked ambition.  Hopefully the media will see through this plan, though I wouldn't bet on it.

      NY-12 (home), IL-01 (school)

      by yorkvillian on Wed Dec 19, 2012 at 09:07:17 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  I may be naive (2+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        R30A, bumiputera

        But I doubt he has much of a chance to actually win the election. First of all, his name recognition has to be really low. Secondly, he is not a mega-rich person who can buy an election like Bloomberg essentially did the first time around, nor is he running against a hated, divisive Democratic incumbent like Giuliani was in his second and winning election (and the first time, when he ran a close second, I'd be remiss in not being frank and saying that Dinkins' color undoubtedly bothered some racist white people in this city). I'm not sure there's any super-inspiring candidate on the Democratic side, but I think that, all things being equal, this is a heavily Democratic city, and the eventual Democratic primary winner - unless s/he suddenly is enveloped in a scandal, puts their foot in their mouth mega big-time, or otherwise becomes super-controversial, will win. Lhota's path to victory is probably if he wins the Republican primary and then the Democratic winner gets indicted, but I don't think Liu is going to win the primary, and I don't expect the others to be at risk legally.

        Formerly Pan on Swing State Project

        by MichaelNY on Wed Dec 19, 2012 at 10:52:19 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

        •  I don't disagree with you (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:

          I think his hope is that the mega-rich types will pony up for him while Dems will stay home.  That may be a naive strategy, but it could work out in the end.  That is, there's a nonzero chance that it pans out.  Apparently that's more valuable for him than the chance to really be a transformative figure in the MTA.  Bad decision, but what else is new.  It begs the question of why we must always trust these corporate Republicans to run our agencies...?  Governor Cuomo, I'm looking at you.

          NY-12 (home), IL-01 (school)

          by yorkvillian on Wed Dec 19, 2012 at 10:55:03 PM PST

          [ Parent ]

        •  Maybe it's just where I am...... (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:

          ...but I know a lot of folks supporting John Liu.  And I have to admit he would actually make the best Mayor.  Problem of course is the slimy way he has run his campaign and that the feds are clearly gunning for him.

          I think the nominee will be diBlasio.

          The Republican path to victory is finding a well financed celebrity and getting an assist from Al Sharpton.  Guiliani was a media hound prosecutor who received very much deserved credit for his work against the mob.  And Bloomberg owns his own media empire and is literally the richest man in New York City.  That is the caibre of candidate they need.  That is not Lhota.

          Plus Staten Island has always been THE margin that has gotten Republicans elected in close races.  And you're gonna run the guy who just raised the toll on the Verrazano bridge to $15.  Who still views Staten Island as a huge piggy bank subsidizing the entire MTA?  Nevermind that our mass transit is inadequate and what little we have as far as bus service has been cut to shreds in recent years.  If he's the nominee I would not be shocked to see folks like Jimmy Oddo and James Molinaro endorsing the Democrat.

          The lady was enchanted and said they ought to see. So they charged her with subversion and made her watch TV -Spirogyra

          by Taget on Thu Dec 20, 2012 at 09:42:53 AM PST

          [ Parent ]

  •  Republicans have a tendency to (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    care more about themselves than anyone else. This doesn't surprise me in the least.

  •  I'm not to firmiliar with NYC Politics... (0+ / 0-)

    But what about Ruben Diaz Jr. or Scott Stringer? I thought I heard somewhere that Scott Stringer was particularly interested...

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