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Port Authority Commissioners David Steiner, left, and Richard Bagger. (Photos; Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.)

The O’Toole Chronicles: Time To Say Goodbye

By Kevin O'Toole, May 27 2021 12:01 am

As I write this column, I am listening to Sarah Brightman singing the stunningly beautiful song, “Time to Say Goodbye.” Because we in the political world are creatures of suggestion, I suspect a number of readers will open their music apps, and this song will be streaming throughout the Garden State — and perhaps in a few offices at the Port Authority.

Today, I am writing about the retirement of two Port Authority Commissioners who have served with extraordinary distinction.

I am referring, of course, to Commissioners Richard Bagger and David Steiner. Richard served for nine years, and David served for eighteen years. The last meeting for them will be today, with their replacements expected to take office in June if confirmed by the New Jersey Senate.

With their retirements looming, we should take the time to look at who these men are and what they have contributed to the Port.

Let me start with Commissioner Richard Bagger:

I have known Rich since 1995, when we were both running for seats in the General Assembly. Rich was the incumbent and first took his seat in the Assembly in 1991. He served until 2001, when he was elevated to the State Senate, serving in that chamber for two years before resigning to serve as Senior Vice President at Pfizer. Rich has one of the most—if not the most—credentialed resumes I have ever seen, capped with his role as Executive Vice President for Corporate Affairs with Celgene.

In the State House, like at the Port Authority, Rich was the go-to on all things financial. At the Port, he chaired the all-important Finance Committee and oversaw the books for nearly a decade. To understand the enormity of that responsibility, think $8 billion in operating budget and north of $37 billion in the capital plan. Rich relied on his training from his legislative days, where he was the trusted Appropriation Chair in the Assembly, overseeing the State budget and State bonding.

I have long admired Rich and watched him lead the way. Whatever the mission, he always got it done, while meeting global policy needs minus the outside intrusion of politics. Throughout the years, Rich’s integrity was without doubt, and the processes he oversaw were never in question.

If you wanted a budget balanced, you called Rich. If you wanted a transition managed, you called Rich. If you had a problem and needed a solution, you called Rich. If you wanted a thoughtful exchange of ideas, you called Rich.

I have witnessed the quiet and unassuming work of Richard Bagger, and I greatly admire him.

Besides his professional achievements, Rich has also been:

Member of the NJN Foundation Board
Assistant General Counsel for Horizon Blue Cross and Blue Shield
Faculty at the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers
Board Chair of the National Pharmaceutical Council
Member of Rutgers Business School’s Lerner Center
Chief of Staff to Governor Chris Christie
Executive Director for a presidential transition
Board Member and Executive Committee Member for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce
Board Member for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society

Rich will be missed dearly, and, on behalf of the Commissioners and staff at the Port Authority, I can safely predict that many of us will have Rich on speed dial for months to come.

On to Commissioner David Steiner:

I have known David for a number of years, and during my time as a member of the Senate, I came to interact with him during his reconfirmation process—a process that was fraught with some difficulty. At the request of the incoming administration in late 2009, while trying to get a handle on nominations by the outgoing Governor, I exercised “senatorial courtesy.” It was during this process that I received an earful from a, shall we say impassioned, voicemail.

It was David Steiner.

I ignored the voicemail and decided that the nomination could stay in a holding pattern. Not long after, I received a call from the then-Appointments Counsel, who was not happy that I was exercising courtesy over David’s nomination and holding up the nominations package that had been negotiated. I responded that I would not give up my legislative prerogative and that I had concerns about David’s nomination after receiving his voicemail.

I met with David to address his voicemail. He apologized, and we worked to reset our dynamic as the Senate considered his reappointment to the most powerful agency in our region.

Eventually, David and I went to lunch, and my opinion of him changed. During that amazing lunch at Luigi’s in East Hanover, I received an education of a lifetime. I listened to David, along with his friend and fellow Port Commissioner Tony Sartor, speak at length about all things Port. The history, the challenges, the politics, and, most importantly, the unbreakable will and indomitable spirit of the Port Authority employees. David educated me about what it means to be part of something special. He spoke reverently about the Port’s mission, and I walked away wiser. That was, perhaps, the first meeting where I began to realize the awesome power the Port Authority has over our region’s economy and infrastructure.

David also was an extraordinary businessperson. Among other interests, he owned and operated a massive film studio in Brooklyn, donated astonishing amounts of money to many worthy causes, including United Jewish Communities of MetroWest NJ, the Rachel Coalition, and the National Yiddish Center.

David’s degree in civil engineering from Carnegie Mellon was a benefit to the Port as the rebuild of the World Trade Center took place under his watchful protection. And, David served as Chair of the Audit Committee during the most tumultuous times.

A quick story about David.

President Obama was arriving at the World Trade Center to sign the final beam, and access to the elevator was closed off to a select few. Making the ride with the President were the two governors, Executive Director, Chair, Vice Chair, two senior staffers, and the secret service. David told someone that he knew the President well, and he wished to be part of the party. Like many things in politics, the decision makers did not necessarily believe the alleged ‘presidential closeness’ that David mentioned, and he was not granted access for the elevator trip. When President Obama made the return trip down the elevator, he peered out at the ground floor and saw a group of individuals literally penned in a holding area and kept a safe distance.

As the story goes, the President immediately spotted Commissioner Steiner and walked across Fulton Street to warmly greet and hug David. The President stopped and told the following story: he said he would not be president but for David. He recalled that he was running for the U.S. Senate in 2004 and was running in third. He needed fundraising. David stepped in, held a massive fundraiser at his home, and won a lifetime of gratitude from a future president. After recalling that history, President Obama put his arm around David and proceeded to walk him down the street. David stopped and asked the President if the other commissioners could join the procession. The answer was yes, and David showed in that moment who he is, always thinking of others above himself.|

During his time on the Board, David was a tour de force, and his contributions will remain with us for another 100 years. We will miss his irreplaceable history, experience, and humor.

As we have a Port Authority Commissioners meeting today, and we recognize these two fine gentlemen for their service to our agency, I want to say thank you, Rich Bagger, and thank you, David Steiner.

Time to Say goodbye
Horizons are never far
Would I have to find them alone
Without true light of my own with you
I will go on ships overseas
That I now know
No, they don’t exist anymore
It’s time to say goodbye
When you were so far away
I sit alone and dreamt of the horizon
Then I know that you are here with me
Building bridges over land and sea
Shine a blinding light for you and me
To see, for us to be
Time to say goodbye

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