Gov. Phil Murphy will nominate two of his top staffers, George Helmy and Joe Kelley, and Elizabeth Mayor Christian Bollwage, to serve as commissioners of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, the New Jersey Globe has learned.
Helmy is Murphy’s chief of staff and Kelly is his deputy chief of staff for economic growth issues. Both will remain in the governor’s office.
Kevin O’Toole, a former Republican state senator who was named to the Port Authority by Gov. Chris Christie in 2017, will remain as chairman. Helmy and Kelly have developed a strong relationship with O’Toole and will support him for the chairmanship, the New Jersey Globe has confirmed.
The picks now create a turbocharged Board of Commissioners that potentially gives New Jersey expanded clout at the byzantine bi-state agency, which operates six airports — the largest aviation network in the U.S. — six bridges and tunnels, the PATH rail system, a bus terminal, and the World Trade Center. Through Helmy and Kelley, Murphy expands his own foothold at the Port Authority, something that strengthens O’Toole’s own clout within the agency. The board also includes Kevin McCabe, the powerful Middlesex County Democratic Chairman.
Two seats are currently vacant – labor leader Raymond Pocino retired after nineteen years as a commissioner in September 2021 and Robert J. Menendez resigned in January to take his seat in the U.S. House of Representative.
A third commissioner, Cliffside Park Councilwoman Dana Martinotti, is expected to transition into a different Murphy administration position on a prominent board.
The three nominees will move together as a single package, according to sources familiar with the governor’s plans.
Bollwage had sought the Port Authority post and Senate President Nicholas Scutari had strongly pushed for his nomination. Union County has been the only county with Port Authority facilities that has not been represented on the Board of Commissioners.
All three nominations will require Senate confirmation. Under the unwritten rules of senatorial courtesy Helmy will need sign off from two Republican senators, Joseph Pennacchio (R-Montville) and Anthony M. Bucco (R-Boonton). Bollwage needs three senators: Joseph Cryan (D-Union), Jon Bramnick (R-Westfield), and Scutari.
The nomination of Kelley, a Hoboken resident, requires sign off from all three Democratic senators from Hudson County. It’s unclear how Scutari will handle the courtesy issue for State Sen. Sandra Cunningham (D-Jersey City), who has been absent from the Senate since June and has been dealing with cognitive health issues. Cunningham has a court-appointed legal guardian, which raises potential red flags regarding her ability to make decisions on approving gubernatorial nominations.
It’s not unusual for administration officials like Helmy and Kelley to serve as Port Authority commissioners; several state transportation commissioners under governors from both parties have served on the bi-state transportation authority. Governor’s office employees also serve on key boards, including New Jersey Transit and the Economic Development Authority.
If confirmed by the Senate, Helmy would become the first Arab American to serve as a Port Authority commissioner. Before becoming Murphy’s chief of staff, Helmy served as state director to U.S. Senator Cory Booker and worked on transportation issues as an aide to U.S. Senator Frank Lautenberg, a former Port Authority commissioner.
Kelley has been Murphy’s point person on the state’s the economic recovery from the pandemic and has been a key player in the development of statewide transit and international trade issues for the governor’s office.
Bollwage has been the mayor of Elizabeth, the state’s fourth-largest city, since he unseated 28-year incumbent Thomas Dunn in 1992. Newark Liberty International Airport and the Port Newark–Elizabeth Marine Terminal are both partlyin his city. Bollwage is a staunch Scutari ally and has been unbeatable in his seven re-election campaigns.