Often when a person leaves a position after a short tenure, someone will say, “We hardly got to know you.” Congressman-elect Robert Menendez is leaving the Board of Commissioners of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey after an 18-month tenure to take his newly won seat in Congress, and I cannot say, “I hardly got to know you, Robert Menendez.” No, just the opposite.
I am honored to have known him well. I have seen his commitment to public service, benefited from his intellect, and shared in his enthusiasm for the work of the Port Authority.
These are not just my feelings, but those of the young Congressman-elect’s colleagues on the Board, as well.
Robert Menendez jumped into the work of this great agency with both feet, taking on great responsibility as the chairman of the Governance and Ethics Committee, and serving on the Finance Committee. A public agency is only as good as its word, and its word is made good by its commitment to integrity. Commissioner Menendez understood that at the Port Authority, and I know Congressman Menendez will understand that when he is serving in the House of Representatives.
I have spent much of my life in public service, and it is a rewarding experience, not because of honors or prestige that may occasionally come with the job, but because public service is about making peoples’ lives better. The Port Authority is charged with moving this great region forward and these past 18 months have been challenging as our region slowly moved past the effects of the global pandemic. These past 18 months have required all Commissioners to see beyond their respective state’s boundaries and see the Port District as a whole. Robert Menendez has been an example for all of us.
His colleagues on the Board – commissioners from New York and New Jersey – are united in their praise of his work. In a short time, he has forged lasting relationships with Board members and with so many of the dedicated staff of the Port Authority.
The Port Authority is more than a place to work and to serve; it is a family. Friendships forged through meetings, or through casual conversations at Agency facilities, or before or after public events do not end when someone leaves. They endure. They grow. And I know that so many of us who call Robert Menendez a friend, will continue to do so in the years ahead.
Eighteen months is not a long time, but Commissioner Menendez has made a lasting contribution. He is the first Latino Commissioner from New Jersey, and he is the first sitting Commissioner of the Port Authority to serve in Congress since Frank Lautenberg won a U.S. Senate seat in 1982.
I am a better person for having worked with Robert Menendez, and I am heartened to know that there will be a person in Congress who truly understands the work and mission of the Port Authority. In his final remarks to the Board at its December public meeting, he said he would continue to wave at Port Authority workers as he crossed bridges or passed them as he moved through an Agency facility. He said this was his way of acknowledging how much he will always appreciate their service.
The feeling is mutual. We will wave back at him, a good friend, a valued colleague, and a dedicated public servant so much wiser than his years.
I will miss his wit and his humility – I had to show him the go-to place for a burger in the Ironbound was Krug’s Tavern!
No, we did not have enough time working together side-by-side on the Board, but I know that he and I will continue to work together in the years ahead. This is a bittersweet goodbye, not because “I hardly knew you, Robert Menendez,” but because I do know you.
Speaking both as the Chairman of the Port Authority, and as a friend, Congressman-elect Robert Menendez will be greatly missed. But our loss is a gain for the people he will serve in Congress.
Godspeed to him on this new journey.
Kevin J. O’Toole is the chairman of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.