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Lunch at the Tribeca Grill with: Charles A. Gargano

Published by The New York Sun on 2005-04-18

"I'm basically a happy guy, someone who's been very fortunate in life," said Charles A. Gargano, who's marking a decade as chairman and CEO of the Empire State Development Corporation, and vice chairman of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. "And if there's one single thing that I can attribute that to, I would say it was the great love of my father and mother, and the closeness of my relationship with them and with other members of my family."

"I always remember what my father used to say: 'It's wonderful to have friends - but stay close to your family,'" Mr. Gargano, who grew up in Park Slope, Brooklyn, said over lunch. "I'm proud of my heritage, I'm proud of the values and motivation my parents instilled in me - and the humility they taught. That helps me keep my feet solidly on the ground. It helps me not to get carried away by all the titles and positions."

Mr. Gargano, widely perceived as one of the most influential Republicans in America, has certainly earned an impressive share of titles and positions in an extraordinary career spanning six decades. As a teenager, he found work as a laborer at construction sites. After acquiring a degree in civil engineering, he worked in Brooklyn in the city's highways and sewers department. He obtained an MBA, and, at age 29, went on to join the storied Long Island construction company, J. D. Posillico, and became a partner three years later.

He was tapped by President Reagan to be the deputy administrator of what was then known as the Federal Transportation Administration. In 1988, Mr. Gargano became the American ambassador to Trinidad and Tobago. In 1993, he happened to meet then state Senator George Pataki of Peekskill, who was contemplating a run against Governor Mario Cuomo. As the campaign's finance chairman, Mr. Gargano built a formidable war chest.

"Perhaps I brought stature to the campaign - particularly because I was known in the private sector. I felt that through our fund-raising, we were able to accomplish whatever we needed to do to get George Pataki's message across. We ran a tight campaign; it was efficient and meticulously planned. I knew how to count pennies."

He learned how to count pennies at the age of 10, when he opened an account at what was then the Brooklyn Savings Bank. "I did not grow up learning to spend wildly," Mr. Gargano said, reminiscing about how his father, John, and his mother, Grace, emphasized the importance of thrift. (Mr. Gargano's father, John, was a construction worker, whose own father, Carmine, came to America from his native province of Avellino in Italy. In one of those sweet ironies of life, it was during a visit to Avellino that Grace Gargano gave birth to Charles in the Avellino town of Santangelo vi Lombardi.)

And his relentless focus on efficiency and meticulousness - where did that come from, the reporter asked?

"I learned those from my years as an engineer and as a businessman," Mr. Gargano said. "I witnessed so much waste during the preparations for the World's Fair in Queens in 1964 - how sloppily roads were built, how there were cost overruns. And so, in my business career, I became a strong believer in the elimination of waste, in cutting unnecessary costs, and in increasing efficiency through the use of more technology. I also learned as a businessman how important it was to have a highly motivated work force."

Mr. Gargano got an opportunity to implement his convictions when Governor Pataki made him the state's chief economic officer in 1995.
There were four separate state agencies engaged in promoting economic development. "There was duplication, there was waste," Mr. Gargano said, noting that one of his earliest cost-cutting measures included the elimination of some 300 redundant jobs. "I believe in structural fitness."

Was that how he acquired the moniker of "tough," a man not to be crossed?
"I've always believed that when you are a leader, you can be firm as well as fair," Mr. Gargano said. "You need to get people to trust you, and believe in you. If you are both firm and fair, you will get more loyalty, more productivity - you will get things done."

Under his stewardship, Empire State Development's record has been formidable. There's been the revitalization of Times Square. There's the redevelopment of a new Pennsylvania Station, to be named after the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan. There's ongoing renewal of Niagara Falls. There's the Queens West project. There's the development of the Hudson River Park. There's the renaissance of Harlem's 125th Street. There's the planned expansion of the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center. There's the upcoming Brooklyn Bridge Park.

And following September 11, 2001, at Governor Pataki's direction, Mr. Gargano took the lead in energizing the economic recovery and overseeing nearly $1 billion in federally subsidized programs for the state. He has directed the state's efforts in the redevelopment of Lower Manhattan, including restoring and building key transportation projects and rebuilding the business community. In pursuing these projects, Mr. Gargano said, he always sought to fashion partnerships with the private sector.

"The private sector shouldn't be seen as the enemy," he said. "They are the ones with the resources. They have great ideas."

Indeed, Mr. Gargano's approach to public-private cooperation, and his vision and record, have been likened to that of another giant New York figure, Robert Moses.

"I'm a hands-on person, I visit sites, and I go out and meet everyday people constantly," Mr. Gargano said. "My father always said, 'Be strong - but be humble.' I've never forgotten that. In a job like mine, you have to be able to connect with people."

Mr. Gargano speaks with tangible pride about the fact that, since Governor Pataki took office 10 years ago, New York has added more than 560,000 private-sector jobs net - after taking into account jobs lost because of Sept. 11, and the national recession.

He also speaks with measured disappointment over certain criticisms that have been leveled at Governor Pataki and himself.

"I try to bring facts into a debate, not political rhetoric," Mr. Gargano said. "I believe that the New York media have been unfair to us at times. There's a tendency to magnify the negativity. The lack of media support for some of our projects has been extremely discouraging. There's no question that the media and the public have a right to ask questions. But I believe that the media can do a better job of informing the public with real facts, not just skewed opinion. "

He said he was also concerned by the opposition to the proposed West Side multi-use redevelopment plan - which would include a new Jets stadium -- particularly from the ownership of Madison Square Garden whose position stemmed from what Mr. Gargano characterized as "very selfish reasons."

That bit of sharpness came in a rare moment of irritability during the long interview. When he was asked whether he would stay on in his job should Mr. Pataki win another term as governor, Mr. Gargano smiled.

"There's a time in your life when you've got to move on," he said. "Regardless of whether the governor runs again, I won't be in this job. But I'll be watching the completion of the projects that he initiated, and I'll be applauding from the sidelines."

So what would a man of such enormous energy and accomplishment do next?

"I'm not going to be a lobbyist, for sure, nor am I going into consulting," Mr. Gargano said. "Maybe I'll pursue other opportunities in public life, or retire gracefully. Over the last year I've had the opportunity of heading an engineering educational institution. I've always felt it's important to keep growing in one's life - and to help others. Getting into education is one possibility, a field where I can share the experiences of a lifetime that's been so rewarding."

And in such a life, was there something he regretted as not having done?
Mr. Gargano smiled.

"Yes, I sometimes wonder what it would have been like running for public office," he said. "But I can't complain. I've had a very fortunate life."

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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