For a little while, the only thing standing between Elliot (Lee) Sander and the chairmanship of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority was Peter Kalikow.
Then Governor Eliot Spitzer stepped in between.
When Mr. Sander was appointed executive director of the M.T.A. back in December, Mr. Spitzer threw in the title of chief executive for good measure. Mr. Sander, a former city transportation commissioner who worked tirelessly as a policy advisor for the Democratic Governor’s campaign, was named next in line for the top, if recently weakened, transit position.
The only problem was Mr. Kalikow, the white-haired real-estate scion who never seemed comfortable in the limelight and yet refused to relinquish it. He was one of those George Pataki contributor-appointees that Mr. Spitzer loved to excoriate—no, on second thought, he was the Pataki contributor-appointee that Mr. Spitzer most loved to excoriate.
It was the M.T.A., after all, that Mr. Spitzer called “the most mismanaged, least competent one out there”—even though the transit system was poised to undergo a historic expansion and was, given its age, looking better than it had in a long time.
Mr. Kalikow vowed to hang on, at first for a year or more, then until funding came through for major capital projects (which will likely take place in October), and, finally, until this spring.
It finally happened, at a place—if not exactly a time—of Mr. Kalikow’s choosing. The May 7 press conference where he announced his resignation took place at Club 101, a private club for executives on the ground floor of a building that Mr. Kalikow’s real-estate firm built, 101 Park Avenue.
Wearing his trademark pinstripes, Mr. Kalikow called it an “emotional day” and looked choked up.
“This was a tough job,” he told the dozen or so reporters. “I could actually take my jacket off and show you my bruises to prove it, some of them more painful than others.”
It’s hard to figure out why Mr. Kalikow was reluctant to leave all of that behind, except that this man, who got around in limousines and Ferraris, had worked up quite a passion for public transportation—even if he didn’t use it. His six-year tenure, the second-longest of any M.T.A. chairman, will perhaps be most remembered for an odd little strike that seemed to accomplish nothing for anybody, two sets of books, and a story that Mr. Kalikow told about his grandfather—who, as a boy in Russia in the middle of a snowstorm, went to the bathroom in his pants, only to regret it once the cold set in.
“We could pee in our pants now, roll the fare back, and everyone will feel great,” he said in front of the West Side Chamber of Commerce in 2003. “But we’re going to face it again next year.”
But also under his watch, the M.T.A. secured enough funds to get started on the Second Avenue Subway and a Long Island Rail Road tunnel to Grand Central Station; broke ground on a new transit center at Fulton Street; and put 4,400 new buses, subway cars and commuter rail cars into service.
Mr. Sander will not be taking over Mr. Kalikow’s title, even though he has taken on many of the chairman’s duties. When Mr. Sander was appointed chief executive back in December, Mr. Spitzer’s spokeswoman, Christine Anderson, told The Observer in an e-mail, “It is believed that he will take over when [Mr.] Kalikow steps down.”
At the time, the Governor-elect seemed willing, even eager, to try to amend a fairly new law—in place for less than a year—that, in deference to the federal Sarbanes-Oxley legislation and the clamor for accountable leadership, wrested executive powers from the M.T.A. chairman and gave them to the executive director instead.
But the idea of changing that law and reviving the model of leadership exemplified by Richard Ravitch, a near-legendary up-to-the-elbows type of “executive chairman” from the early 1980’s, proved daunting and, perhaps, completely unnecessary.
“As we’ve gotten operational experience, and the new team has taken over at the M.T.A.,” Ms. Anderson told The Observer on the afternoon of May 7, “there was a strong sense that the set-up was actually for the better, that it was better to have someone as chairman to provide the oversight necessary. We got in and realized this was a positive step, and chose to move forward and not try for changes.”
For one, trying for the changes would have required tussling with the author of the law, Assemblyman Richard Brodsky, who, while a Democrat, has proved time and again his willingness to criticize the Governor. (In an interview, however, Mr. Brodsky said he was still undecided on the chairman/chief executive distinction.)
For another, changing the law would have meant that the Sheriff of Wall Street would be violating one of the sacred principles of post-Enron governance: that a chief executive should report to a board of directors of which he is not a voting member, and the chairman of which should provide independent oversight.
And why exactly pick another fight in Albany? Because the 1980’s were such a heyday for the M.T.A.? When the lights in the subway cars would go out because some crackhead had stripped out the copper wire?
Mr. Ravitch, who is now in private practice as a lawyer, said he still believes that it is best to have one single chief executive and chairman, because the M.T.A. is “sui generis” as an institution.
“The danger is that there couldn’t be a total meeting of the minds if there are two different people, although the current executive director is smart enough to deal with that situation,” Mr. Ravitch told The Observer. “You want the political heft of a chairman who has everybody else reporting to him, and who has the confidence of his board in order to get things done.”
In the time leading up to his appointment, Mr. Sander did pretty much everything that any outsider could do to get the 2005 $2.9 billion transportation-bond act passed. He caught hold of Mr. Spitzer’s ear often and held onto it throughout his campaign, becoming his chief transportation advisor and speechwriter.
And yet, Mr. Sander said that he wasn’t disappointed by the Spitzer administration’s decision to pass him over for chairman.
“We discovered that both models are viable—the Ravitch and the post-2005 model—but that the previous model of a part-time C.E.O. had some issues with it,” he said. “It’s possible that we could have gone to the Legislature to amend it, but we didn’t.”
The distinctions among a chairman and chief executive and executive director, after all, are nebulous ones, and depend as much on the personalities involved as on the job descriptions. Once he came into office in January, Mr. Sander began to present himself as the public face of the agency, even if the public thought that Mr. Kalikow was still in charge.
After board meetings, Mr. Sander, who clearly enjoys the chance to discuss policy options and r
attle off names and numbers, would stand alongside Mr. Kalikow and answer questions from the reporters—something that the previous executive director, Katherine Lapp, rarely did.
At the May 7 announcement, Mr. Sander took to the podium and declared, “This is Peter’s day,” refusing to go into much detail about off-topic questions like the possibility of fare hikes. But, once off the podium, he took another five minutes of questions, diving into the pros and cons of congestion pricing. (“Some areas need to be clarified,” he said, including how to pay for operating all those extra buses that the Mayor is suggesting that the M.T.A. run.)
“Lee is the principal having negotiations with [Deputy Mayor] Dan Doctoroff, [Port Authority executive director] Tony Shorris,” said Kathryn S. Wylde, the president and chief executive of the Partnership for New York City, an organization of business executives. “He’s dealing directly with members of Congress, the federal Department of Transportation, and the primary interface of those conversations used to be [Mr.] Kalikow.”
As for Mr. Kalikow’s nominal replacement, the Spitzer administration says the process will take several weeks, and that the Governor has just begun to consider candidates. A tolerance for getting bruised is apprently a must.
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