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De Blasio Appoints Political Loyalist, Non-Transportation Professional, to Head DOT

Mayor de Blasio.

New DOT Commissioner Hank Gutman
New DOT Commissioner Hank Gutman
New DOT Commissioner Hank Gutman

Mayor de Blasio has appointed lawyer and Brooklyn Navy Yard Chairman Hank Gutman to run the $1.3-billion Department of Transportation.

The mayor's press release — obtained by Streetsblog — does not tout any major transportation bona-fides for Gutman except that he was an "insightful member" of a mayoral panel appointed in 2019 to figure out what to do with the crumbling Brooklyn-Queens Expressway.

The press release also mentions Gutman's leadership of the city's "largest industrial park" and his position on the board of Brooklyn Bridge Park, plus a "deep commitment to New York City."

De Blasio claimed that Gutman, whom he installed as Navy Yard chairman, has a commitment "to the Department’s mission and a clear vision for the vital role DOT and its programs play in our city during recovery and in the long-term."

Gutman is a lawyer. At Simpson Thacher & Bartlett, he headed the Intellectual Property Practice Group. He is also a loyal political donor, having given more than $71,000 to Democratic candidates since 2012. Those contributions have funded such candidates as Council Member Brad Lander, Letitia James, Mark Green and a young upstart named Bill de Blasio, whose campaigns have received $18,375 over the years.

At his press conference on Wednesday, de Blasio was asked why he appointed a non-transportation official to head the agency.

"Because I know Hank will get done what I need to get done," he said. "When you work with someone for most of 20 years, and you see the way they make things happen, that to me has always been the most compelling reality, not theory, but practice. I have seen Hank get results [in] thorny situations and community dynamics and find common ground and move an agenda forward with a sharp equity lens. ... Twenty-twenty-one is going to be about urgency at DOT."

He added that the recovery from COVID is "about doing things differently ... in a transformational time."

"Everything is undergirded by how we get around," de Blasio added, touting many of the "moving away from cars" initiatives in his State of the City address. "But we have to do this urgently and rapidly."

The mayor praised the Harvard-educated lawyer for his work creating Brooklyn Bridge Park.

"And there was another effort within that effort — whether it would be a park for everyone or an elitist enclave," de Blasio said, praising Gutman for ensuring the former. "That's one of the central reasons that led me to want him to take on this role in such an urgent year."

For his part, Gutman opened his first remarks to the public by saying he wants to "leave behind" the legacy of Robert Moses and "expand equitable open space opportunities."

Both previous commissioners — acting commissioner Margaret Forgione and prior Commissioner Polly Trottenberg — were transportation professionals. Forgione will stay on as Gutman's first deputy commissioner and Jee Mee Kim will become Chief Strategy Officer. She previously worked at Sam Schwartz Consulting and has deep experience in planning.

Streetsblog asked de Blasio pointedly if the deeply qualified Forgione was offered the top job and turned it down.

"She's sitting right here and I'll say it was not her desire to take on this particular job of commissioner, but I very much wanted to see her be the first deputy commissioner and she'll be great in that role," he said.

In a follow-up question, Streetsblog asked the mayor if he's worried that women professionals in his administration will feel offended that an outsider, Gutman, got the job over Forgione, an experienced leader.

"The history of this administration when you look across the entire administration, the clear strong majority, when you put together all the senior elements of this administration ... consistently from Day 1, the clear majority has been women," he said. "Very proud of that. ... I think that message has been received over the last seven years loud and clear."

Some advocates initially were pleased by Gutman's appointment:

“Hank Gutman is a strong choice to lead DOT during this critical moment," said Danny Harris, executive director of Transportation Alternatives.

Amy Cohen of Families for Safe Streets added, "Traffic deaths have risen over the past two years. Unsafe streets continue to kill too many New Yorkers. Commissioner Gutman is an experienced leader who can get Vision Zero back on track. This must include restoring funding for the program, along with funding for the Dangerous Vehicle Abatement Program, the Green Wave plan, and the Streets Master Plan. We will look to him to be an ally for our agenda in Albany too, which includes passing the Crash Victims Bill of Rights, Pedestrian Safety Rating, and Sammy’s Law to lower the speed limit in New York City."

Gutman's first initiative will be the installation of 10,000 bike parking racks, he said on Wednesday. He asked the public for input at nyc.gov/cityracks.

Riders Alliance put aside platitudes to focus on the mission at hand: safety and transit.

"Mayor de Blasio must put his new team to work on bus lanes and busways to honor essential workers and fix longtime inequities," said Organizing Manager Stephanie Burgos-Veras. "He should build on Polly Trottenberg's legacy and finish strong with another 30 bus lane miles before leaving City Hall. The Streets Master Plan law requires 30 new bus lane miles each year starting next year. Mayor de Blasio and his transportation officials should put riders first at every turn and design the equitable streets New Yorkers need right now."

This is a breaking story. We will update later.

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