It was a simple question about improving airport security, the kind that candidates for mayor field up to three times a day at campaign forums across New York City.
But a flippant reply from Joseph J. Lhota, a Republican, has unleashed an unusually angry and biting reaction from the region’s police officers, amounting to the first real blunder of Mr. Lhota’s campaign.
In his answer at the forum on Tuesday night, Mr. Lhota, a former chairman of New York’s mass transit agency, said he had long harbored reservations about the quality of the police officers for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, who are responsible for securing the region’s airports, among other facilities.
“Quite honestly, and I know I will get in trouble for saying this, they are nothing more than mall cops,” Mr. Lhota said, to scattered applause from the audience at Pace University in Lower Manhattan.
He went on to complain that Port Authority police officers earned higher pay than the city’s police officers.
Mr. Lhota’s prediction of fallout was correct: Twitter erupted over his tart assessment and, by Wednesday morning, the unions representing the region’s police officers roundly condemned Mr. Lhota’s words as deeply insensitive and inaccurate.
“Mr. Lhota’s remarks are an insult to every man and woman who put their lives on the line every day as a police officer,” said James Carver, president of the Nassau County Police Benevolent Association.
The Port Authority police force lost 37 officers at the World Trade Center site on Sept. 11, 2001, a figure that many police union officials cited as they denounced Mr. Lhota’s comments.
“I’ve had 9/11 widows call me this morning,” said Paul Nunziato, head of the Port Authority Police Benevolent Association. “They are not pleased at all.”
In a show of solidarity, even the head of the powerful union representing the New York Police Department’s officers weighed in, disapprovingly, recalling the hours after the terrorist attack.
“On 9/11 we searched together for 23 N.Y.P.D. officers and 37 P.A.P.D. officers who sacrificed their own lives while evacuating others to safety,” Pat Lynch, the president of the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, said, referring to the two police forces.
“If that doesn’t speak to professional policing, then I don’t know what does,” Mr. Lynch added.
Mr. Lhota, then the deputy mayor for operations in the administration of Rudolph W. Giuliani, himself raced to the World Trade Center on Sept. 11. As deputy mayor, he was a fierce defender of police officers throughout his term. Later, he said he had developed cancer from exposure to materials at ground zero.
In that sense, he would seem a natural supporter of the Port Authority’s police officers and their allies in the city. But the fierce response to his statements on Tuesday suggested that he has squandered at least some of that good will.
On Wednesday afternoon, Mr. Lhota issued an apology. “I regret my unfortunate characterization of the Port Authority Police Department,” he said. “It was an inappropriate answer that does not accurately reflect the hard work of its officers.”
That was not enough for Mr. Nunziato.
“What is his apology worth to the children of these cops, or the widows?” he asked.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” Mr. Nunziato said, his voice rising as he mocked Mr. Lhota. “I don’t think he has a chance to be mayor of New York City and I would certainly be out there campaigning against him if he ever got close.”