By John Celock
Amid continued delays in filling a new executive structure, New York and New Jersey’s governors have tapped new top leaders for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) announced Tuesday that former New Jersey state Sen. Kevin O’Toole (R-Cedar Grove) will assume the chairmanship of the bi-state transportation agency and former NBC executive Rick Cotton will take over the agency’s executive director. The appointments come as the Port Authority struggles with filling out a new leadership structure; a move that Cuomo and Christie have indicated is a top priority for O’Toole and Cotton.
In O’Toole, Christie tapped one of his closest political allies to assume the chairmanship of the agency, a post traditionally held by a New Jersey resident. O’Toole recently retired from the state Senate, following his appointment by Christie to a six-year term on the Port Authority’s board. O’Toole succeeds former New Jersey Attorney General John Degnan, who has held the chairmanship since 2014.
O’Toole’s appointment comes as Christie enters his last five months in office, calling into question whether he will hold on to the job under either Democratic gubernatorial nominee Phil Murphy or Republican nominee Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno. While O’Toole’s board term is six years, the chairmanship carries a one-year term that expires next summer.
O’Toole follows in the tradition of New Jersey governors tapping long time allies to the chairmanship of the transportation agency. Degnan was named to the post after former Port Authority Chairman David Samson, a close Christie ally, stepped down amid the Bridgegate probe and ethics questions raised about Samson. Samson has since pled guilty to arranging for United Airlines to arrange a flight between New Jersey and his South Carolina vacation home while the airline was negotiating a deal with the Port Authority.
O’Toole recently stepped down following an over two-decade career in the state Legislature, which included serving as Christie’s top lieutenant in the state Senate. O’Toole, a former Cedar Grove mayor, has unsuccessfully tried to topple Senate Minority Leader Tom Kean Jr. (R-Westfield) in 2013 with the backing of Christie.
Cotton, who has served as a top infrastructure policy advisor to Cuomo since 2015, succeeds Pat Foye in the executive director’s job. Cotton previously was general counsel and executive vice president for NBC Universal and ran CNBC Europe. He also held political appointments in the Carter Administration. On Cuomo’s staff, Cotton has overseen several infrastructure projects including those relating to New York City airports, the Tappan Zee Bridge replacement and expanding the Jacob Javits Convention Center.
Cotton’s new post is due to be abolished under a Port Authority reform plan adopted by the agency in recent years, following the Bridgegate scandal. The plan calls for the scrapping of the executive director’s job, traditionally held by a New Yorker, and the deputy executive director post, which was held by a New Jersey appointee, in favor of a chief executive officer job appointed by the board. The plan also calls for the chairmanship to rotate annually between New York and New Jersey commissioners.
The reform plan came after New Jersey appointees closed lanes entering the George Washington Bridge in an attempt to retaliate against a Democratic mayor who did not back Christie. Foye helped reopen the lanes, also exposing that he did not have control over the actions of New Jersey appointees, including the deputy executive director. The deputy post has been vacant since former Deputy Executive Director Deborah Gramiccioni resigned in 2015 to take a position at New York University. Gramiccioni, a former federal prosecutor and Christie aide, has since been nominated by Christie for a state judgeship.
Earlier this year, Port Authority officials said the search for a CEO has stalled. Foye has previously been ruled out as a CEO candidate.