By the end of the month, Chris Ward, the executive director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, will be out of a job. Some of his aides and allies—and even possibly the big man himself—think they have a good position lined up for The Man Who Saved Ground Zero: mayor of New York City.
“Mayor Bloomberg has changed the public perception of what it means to be mayor, and that is a good and a bad thing” one Ward aide involved in the recruitment efforts told The Politicker. “People think this is a job for someone outside of politics. Chris kind of fits that bill. He is a chief executive, and chief executive of a huge municipality. Do we want to revert to form after we’ve broken the mold?”
While most of the pressure has come from those in Mr. Ward’s orbit and a few outsiders (call them the Wardens!), the lumbering, loquacious life-long civil servant would not pass up Gracie Mansion if the opportunity presented itself. Over the past few months, since things started to go south at the Port Authority under deteriorating relations with Governor Andrew Cuomo, Mr. Ward has been saying in private that he would not mind running for political office, in particular mayor, according to a person present for some of those conversations.
So long as the political—and financial—support is there, there may well be a Chris Ward candidacy.
The Port Authority boss has frequently professed his love of public service, and he has said on numerous occasions that he would run the agency forever if he could, just like his hero Austin Tobin, the mini-Robert Moses who led the Port of New York Authority from 1942 to 1972, its golden age of public works construction. But Governor Cuomo has shown little interest in this arrangement.
Though he reappointed Mr. Ward in January, they have had limited contact. Mr. Ward tried to arrange a peaceful transition out of the job, as he had grown frustrated as a powerless lame duck, but the Cuomo administration was anxious about letting him go until it replaced Jay Walder, the head of the M.T.A., who is departing for Hong Kong over similar frustrations. Two weeks ago, The New York Times got wind of Mr. Ward’s plans to leave by the end of October.
He could handily get a job atop a consultancy or construction firm, making many times his already considerable $350,000 salary. He would be satisfied by such work, but would he be fulfilled? “Chris is a big believer in public service and the transformative nature of government,” the aide said. “He wants to help, he wants to make things better. If you’re that guy, what better job? He doesn’t want to be President Ward, he doesn’t want to be Senator Ward. But Mayor Ward? You’ve got a real budget and a real profile without all the bullshit.”
Mr. Ward, for his part, declined to comment for this article.
The Wardens believe that his track record at the Port Authority, particularly his experience righting a listless World Trade Center redevelopment, gives him the management experience and exposure to claim the mantel of Mayor Michael Bloomberg. He may not be a household name, but if he can successfully link himself with the project, which almost gave a certain mayor White House aspirations, his supporters believe he can portray himself as a technocrat with enough political know-how to navigate both the public and private sectors.
“Chris took over probably the best known construction project in the world when it was going nowhere, when it was stuck in litigation and political turmoil and was in fact a black eye to the city and the state,” said a former high-ranking mayoral official who supports the idea of a Ward administration. “Within a year, he turned it around. He’s the reason the tallest office building in the Western hemisphere is halfway complete, he’s the reason the relationship with Larry Silverstein, and by extension the business community, has been restored. He’s the reason why on 9/11, the city, the nation and the world were able to pay there respects at a functioning memorial.”
“The World Trade Center is like a miniature New York,” the Ward aide said. “What more experience do you need?”
How about all he has done to update and improve the airports, ports, buses and bridges controlled by the Port Authority? He has promoted a public-private partnership to replace the Goethals Bridge, and sought plans to revamp not only the reviled Port Authority Bus Terminal on 42nd Street but also the one at the foot of the George Washington Bridge. In addition, he led a dredging campaign in the harbor, to deepen it for the new super ships that will soon traverse a rebuilt Panama Canal. He has brought new business and new terminals to the busy airports, and even suggested LaGuardia should be torn down—a hallmark of his bullish yet convivial manner. The comment was at once a joke and dead serious.