Joseph Lhota was Rudy Giuliani’s deputy on Sept. 11 and head of the agency that brought back the subways after Hurricane Sandy. He says that makes him the most qualified candidate to keep New York City from reverting to the days of crime and dysfunction.
Lhota, 58, who faces two other Republicans in a Sept. 10 mayoral primary, says that no other candidate has a career in government and business so diverse. He spent eight years under Giuliani, and 14 as a banker with First Boston and Paine Webber Group Inc. He also served as chief administrative officer at Cablevision Systems Corp.’s Madison Square Garden Co.
At stake for the most populous U.S. city, Lhota says, is avoiding a backward slide after 20 years of reduced crime and job growth under Giuliani, a Republican, and Mayor Michael Bloomberg, an independent who ran with Republican support. That’s the path to a Nov. 5 Republican victory in a city where Democrats outnumber the party by 6-to-1, he says.
“Don’t ever be lulled into thinking that the transformation is permanent and forever,” he told a hotel ballroom filled with business executives at a March 6 breakfast sponsored by Crain’s New York magazine. “It can easily slide back to where it was.”
Lhota leads the Republican field, according to a Quinnipiac University poll released yesterday. He was favored by 23 percent of Republican voters polled, followed by George McDonald, 68, whose nonprofit Doe Fund creates jobs and housing for the homeless, with 11 percent. John Catsimatidis, 64, the billionaire supermarket magnate, trailed with 8 percent, and 52 percent said they were undecided.
Lhota spends less time targeting his Republican opponents than focusing on City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, the Democratic frontrunner. In the same poll, Quinn led Lhota by 59 percent to 19 percent.
The son of a retired New York police officer, Lhota held a news conference on the steps of City Hall last week to describe Quinn as “reckless and dangerous” for proposing an inspector general to oversee department policies. He also says he’ll “streamline” government and promote “choice and charter schools.”
A graduate of Georgetown University and the Harvard Business School, Lhota said Bloomberg, whose term ends this year, may leave the city in worse fiscal shape than it appears. All city union contracts have expired, and Bloomberg didn’t set aside enough money for raises, Lhota said. The mayor is founder and majority owner of Bloomberg News parent Bloomberg LP.
“It would have been more prudent to have more of a labor reserve,” he said in an interview. “The mayor obviously disagrees with me.”
Bloomberg has said he would never leave his successor with the fiscal challenges he inherited from the Giuliani administration, including a $4.8 billion deficit in a $42.3 billion 2003 budget. Giuliani spent almost all of a $2.8 billion surplus on an expanded payroll and other discretionary expenses. The Citizens Budget Commission, a nonpartisan business-sponsored monitor of city and state finances, called the Giuliani administration’s spending plan an “egregious fiscal policy error.”
The report “went in the garbage,” Lhota said.
Giuliani has been promoting Lhota’s candidacy. He warned in an e-mail to potential donors that any of the Democratic mayoral candidates would allow the city to “slip back to its unmanageable, ungovernable ways.”
“Joe has more knowledge of city finances than anyone who has run for mayor in the past 30 years,” Giluiani said in a telephone interview. Lhota was “my No. 2 guy” before, during and after the 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, Giuliani said.
Lhota’s identification with the former mayor may turn out to be a liability, said Douglas Muzzio, professor of urban politics at Baruch College of City University of New York. Giuliani’s tenure was marked by racial tension and allegations of police brutality after the fatal shootings of two unarmed suspects and the torture of Abner Louima.
“Lhota was the trigger man for Giuliani, who may be the most divisive mayor in city history,” Muzzio said in an interview. “Lhota’s opponents will try to hang Giuliani around Lhota’s neck like an albatross.”
A Quinnipiac 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, the polling institute’s director.
Lhota said the descriptions of polarization under Giuliani were an “unfair perception that needs to include the fact that crime reduction in the inner city was greater than anywhere else and more people of color are alive today because of Mayor Giuliani’s policies.”
As deputy mayor, Lhota was known for accepting assignments with an “obsession for detail,” said Anthony Carbonetti, who was Giuliani’s chief of staff. He recalled how Lhota became known as the “rat czar” after taking on the housing authority’s battle with the vermin.
He spent so much time near Ground Zero’s burning pile of rubble that four years later doctors suspected toxic air caused him to develop Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a cancer of the blood. A six-month course of chemotherapy left him cancer-free, with the attitude to “live each day as if it’s my last,” he said.
If that attitude has included impatience, Lhota has shown it in flashes of temper throughout his public life. At a Sept. 27 meeting, he criticized Metropolitan Transportation Authority board member Charles Moerdler, 77, during a dispute over the number of meetings the authority should hold.
“Be a man,” Lhota said twice.
“Oh, I’d be happy to,” Moerdler said. “In your words, I will bring it on.”
“Let’s go,” Lhota said.
As head of the MTA, Lhota ran the largest U.S. transit agency, an enterprise with 66,000 workers and a $13 billion budget that carries 8.5 million riders a day on subways, buses and commuter railroads.
John Samuelsen, president of the Transport Workers Union Local 100, says Lhota listened to his safety concerns, agreed to pay for protective partitions for bus drivers and helped commuters, spending $29 million to restore reduced services.
In an interview, Samuelsen also faulted Lhota for not signing a contract with the union before he left the agency, and for withholding pay from workers who couldn’t get to their jobs in the aftermath of Sandy. When told of the remarks, Lhota said he didn’t care what Samuelsen said, using an expletive.
Born in the Bronx and raised in Lyndenhurst, Long Island, Lhota now lives in Brooklyn with his wife, Tamra, and daughter, Kathryn, a senior at Georgetown University.
He said he had been on the job as MTA chairman for less than a year when he began to think about running for mayor. He didn’t feel he could resign from the state agency until he and Governor Andrew Cuomo bonded the night of Oct. 29, as the hurricane sent water coursing through Lower Manhattan, he said.
“The storm gave me an opportunity to know the governor, work with him closely, and have that discussion with him,” he said, as he described his second turn since Sept. 11 at the center of a New York City catastrophe.
He said that during emergencies such as 9/11 or the storm recovery, he makes to-do lists and that everything on them has to get done.
“Every day, you have to inch forward, inch by inch, row by row -- in my case track by track,” Lhota said. “You’ve got to incrementally move forward as best you can.”