By: Mortimer Downey
After more than 65 years in or associated with public service, I think I can say that has been my career, even though it was not my original choice. Taking a public service job out of college in 1958 was a second choice. I interviewed with every bank and financial institution that was recruiting at Yale that year, but with a recession underway and a risk of being drafted, none were willing to make an offer. Instead, I took an interview with the Port of New York Authority and joined their management training program. The Port Authority, now known as the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, has had its good times and less good times, but the late ‘50s were an excellent introduction to what a well-managed and well-funded agency could accomplish, In a series of training assignments and briefings, we could see the progress underway---new port facilities, expanding airports, major bridges, and terminals and a governance structure that valued accountability and results. At the end of the training program, I moved into a staff department providing various central services but was also facing up to a l-A draft status. As a result, I took a military leave and spent the next year attending Coast Guard OCS and serving a six-month training assignment in District HQ in Boston.
Returning to New York after my service time, I was ready to commit to a Port Authority career, which was the pattern for most of its managers at that time. With advice from a mentor, Lou Gambaccini, for whom I had worked in a training assignment in the Port’s Management Department, I enrolled in NYU’s Graduate School of Public Administration to get a picture of what the profession entailed—theory, processes, and how to apply them. Four years of night sessions at what is now known as the Wagner School brought me an MPA degree and a store of knowledge on how public service could best be applied to meeting public goals. I still recall the introductory course, which focused on a major public figure of our own choice and dissected his or her career for lessons on how they accomplished things. I chose Robert Moses since the material on his career was readily available in the Port’s library and other New York sources. My paper (written before Robert Caro’s Power Broker) emphasized Moses’s many accomplishments and how knitting them together across multiple agencies and projects served to meet broader public goals. After the Power Broker was published, I did see how the process could be refined to be more responsive to public issues of equity and accountability, but the major lesson was that big projects could bring big results. That course, and the one on Federal Budgeting and Financial Management, were a great introduction to future developments in my career.
Around that time, I managed a transfer to the Port’s Planning Department and spent several years participating in studies of the region’s transportation needs and how best to meet them. The debate at the time was whether the obvious needs for public transportation were Port’s responsibility or whether the agency's self-supporting status precluded involvement in deficit operations. The policy case we made was based on a system approach that showed how transit investment was, even at a deficit, more cost-effective than very expensive new bridges, tunnels, and highways. And the political compromise that led the Port to build the World Trade Center and take responsibility over the NJ-NY PATH transit system served as the catalyst for a new mission. Making sense of the system also involved analysis of the entire highway and transit system that fed into Port Authority facilities.
Soon after, I was invited (again by Lou Gambaccini) to join his Rail Transportation Department, which was the home base for the new subsidiary operating the PATH railway. The job was sold on the opportunity to get involved in federal transportation policy, which Lou saw as key to public investment. At the same time, I had responsibility for community and customer relations, bringing me closer to day-to-day operations.
After some time in this role, I had a transformational opportunity when one of my Washington contacts suggested that I consider a job as the transportation analyst on the staff of the newly created House of Representatives Budget Committee. Coming from a multi-modal agency with also some Coast Guard experience I could make the case that I could cover all aspects of the transportation budget. This was a major move away from my vision of a long Port Authority career and an unusual step at that time, but I saw it as a real opportunity in public service. That was certainly the case—it led next to a post as Assistant Secretary of Transportation in the Carter Administration, a long stint at New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority, and then a return to Washington for eight years as Deputy Secretary of Transportation. I use this example with folks beginning their public service career--don’t pass up real opportunities as they arise, be ready to take risks and use each new job as the chance to develop new skills. The switch between policy work in Washington and locally-based operation and development agencies was a good mix and one I recommend to those thinking about the long arc of their public service careers.
After my time in the Clinton Department of Transportation, I moved into consulting and helped agencies with the planning and financing of major transportation projects—Panama Canal expansion, London’s transportation, New York-New Jersey rail tunnels, and the like. I also had the opportunity to serve as a transportation leader in the Obama Administration’s transition team and was appointed as a federal member of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transportation Authority’s Board. In retrospect, I can see how one thing led to another in all of my career, but it wouldn’t have been as much fun if it hadn’t unrolled over time.