Joseph Lhota celebrated his victory in New York’s Republican mayoral primary with a 17-minute speech in a packed Manhattan ballroom. He said his dad was a city cop and his mother worked so her kids could attend parochial school.
He talked about responding to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks as a deputy mayor and restoring mass transit after Hurricane Sandy last year, when he was chairman of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.
Not once did he mention former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, his ex-boss and the man who endorsed him in television commercials before the Sept. 10 primary.
“Lhota was the trigger man for Rudy, and while his Republican base may consider that a plus, it’s a minus to most minority voters and Democrats,” said Doug Muzzio, professor of urban politics at Manhattan’s Baruch College. “Receiving Giuliani’s blessing can turn out to be a curse.”
In a city where Democrats outnumber Republicans by more than 6 to 1, Lhota’s dilemma is how to present his eight years at Giuliani’s side. While homicides dropped 66 percent, welfare rolls were cut in half and Times Square gleamed with new development, Giuliani’s tenure was also marked by deteriorating race relations and allegations of police brutality after fatal shootings of two unarmed suspects and the torture of Haitian immigrant Abner Louima.
“Rudy was very polarizing,” said Lee Miringoff, director of the Marist Institute for Public Opinion in Poughkeepsie, New York. “Giuliani’s endorsement could do more harm than good. “You want to make sure the folks you’re associated with are not turning off the people you need to attract.”
Giuliani’s support for Lhota makes 51 percent of voters less inclined to vote for him, compared with only 29 percent who say it makes them more likely, according to a Sept. 17 Marist survey. Lhota’s Democratic opponent, Public Advocate Bill De Blasio, led Lhota among likely voters 65 percent to 22 percent.
“If this becomes referendum on Giuliani, then he loses, and if it doesn’t become a referendum on Giuliani, then why is he running?” said former U.S. Representative Anthony Weiner, an unsuccessful Democratic mayoral aspirant, speaking as a political analyst on the all-news cable TV channel NY1. “He’s in a difficult spot.”
In another move to separate his candidacy from his years at Giuliani’s side, Lhota, 58, spent the morning of Sept. 17 with leaders of District Council 37 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the city’s largest union. It endorsed de Blasio, 52, later that day.
To make the point even more emphatic, that evening he stopped by the Harlem headquarters of civil-rights activist Al Sharpton, a place Giuliani never visited.
He emerged to say: “Throughout my entire primary process, members of the public, members of the press, wanted to know really all the time two questions: Would I be the third term of Rudy Giuliani or would I be the fourth term of Mike Bloomberg? It’ll be neither. It’ll be the first term of Joe Lhota.”
Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a billionaire and the majority owner of Bloomberg News parent Bloomberg LP, is barred from seeking a fourth term.
By visiting Sharpton, Lhota risks losing support among his base, said Michael Long, chairman of the state Conservative Party, which will carry Lhota’s name on its ballot.
“Joe gains nothing from it and he can get hurt by it,” Long said. “People will misunderstand and wonder whether he’s pandering. Al Sharpton is the last person in the world I would want him to meet with.”
A Quinnipiac University poll from August 2000, Giuliani’s seventh year in office, showed 63 percent of white voters approved of his performance while 63 percent of blacks didn’t. The findings were among several surveys that appeared to show Giuliani dividing the city along racial lines, said Maurice Carroll, director of the Hamden, Connecticut-based university’s polling institute.
“While Giuliani performed spectacularly well after the Sept. 11 attacks, which won him international acclaim and he became known as ‘America’s Mayor,’ many New Yorkers didn’t change the view they held of him on Sept. 10, 2011, by which time he wasn’t very popular,” Carroll said.
Giuliani’s popularity at home weakened further during his unsuccessful 2008 bid for the Republican presidential nomination and its aftermath, when he became a surrogate for Mitt Romney, the Republican candidate, Carroll said.
While it’s understandable that Lhota might want to play down his association with Giuliani in a city that gave Democratic President Barack Obama 80 percent of the vote last year, it may not be easy.
“Rudy validates Lhota’s resume,” said William Cunningham, a top aide to former U.S. Senator Daniel Moynihan, former Governor Hugh Carey and Bloomberg. “Rudy helped Lhota win the Republican nomination.”
Giuliani appeared in the television commercials when voters were forming their first impressions of the Republican standard-bearer. The commercial featured Giuliani describing Lhota as the man who was “by my side in our most difficult time,” and extolling him as “by far our best choice for mayor.”
In a March interview, Giuliani described Lhota as “a pillar of great strength,” a crucial adviser in the days after the catastrophic attack on the World Trade Center in 2001.
“Every decision I made, Joe was to my right, he sat to my right every meeting,” Giuliani said. “Joe would be at the scene telling me what people were doing, what they needed, and sometimes I would be at the scene communicating with him. If I wasn’t there, Joe was there.”
Yesterday, Lhota called on de Blasio to participate in a series of weekly debates, to take place in all five boroughs.
Lhota’s campaign biography describes him as having been an integral part of Giuliani’s “core management team” from 1993 to 2001, including a stint as budget director the first term and deputy mayor for operations during the second. The resume includes Lhota’s year as MTA chairman, which ended in December.
Lhota worked as a municipal finance banker and joined Giuliani’s administration in 1994 after volunteering in his campaign. He held executive positions for Cablevision Systems Corp. and the Madison Square Garden Co. He’s a graduate of Georgetown University and Harvard Business School.
The campaign biography concludes that he’s a Bronx native now living in Brooklyn, son of a New York City police lieutenant and grandson of a firefighter and a taxi driver.
“He’s got to make the bootstraps argument: He came from humble beginnings, worked hard, performed well in crisis and wants continued growth and reduced crime -- all without crediting Giuliani or Bloomberg,” said Gerald Benjamin, a political scientist at the State University at New Paltz and former Republican legislator in Ulster County.
“He doesn’t want to be typed as the billionaire without the billions,” Benjamin said. “He has to clearly become his own guy, not the clone of this guy or that guy.”
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