John Catsimatidis, a self-made billionaire who wants to be New York’s next mayor, sat in his cramped wood-paneled office wearing a $190 Jos. A. Bank suit. His light blue shirt bore stains where his belly bulged, and his frizzy, salt-and-pepper hair darted in all directions.
“People have underestimated me all my life,” Catsimatidis, 64, said in an interview. “Maybe ’cause the way I comb my hair, the way I -- but I always succeeded. I always climbed the next mountain and to me this is another mountain.”
A Greek immigrant who brands himself a “Clinton Democrat” turned “independent Republican,” Catsimatidis (pronounced cat-si-ma-TEE-dees) is one of 11 major party candidates vying to succeed Michael Bloomberg.
What he lacks in wardrobe, office decor and polish, Catsimatidis makes up for in money and political connections. He built his $3.4 billion fortune by using profit from Gristedes, the largest grocery chain in Manhattan, to create a real estate and oil conglomerate. Now he’s betting he can bring that same Midas touch to the leadership of the most populous U.S. city.
Catsimatidis isn’t running to take New York in a new direction. He has few complaints about Bloomberg, an independent billionaire, who is barred by law from seeking a fourth term after 12 years in office. The mayor is the founder and majority owner of Bloomberg News parent Bloomberg LP.
Catsimatidis routinely tells voters that his Democratic opponents would allow crime to increase to levels not seen for decades.
“I want to make sure we don’t fall and go in the wrong direction,” he said at a debate in April. “I don’t believe in giving up the streets back to the hoodlums.”
Unlike most of his opponents, Catsimatidis has never held public office and has little political experience. Many of his policy proposals are rooted in personal knowledge. His idea to cut the city’s drop-out rate by increasing vocational training is based on his experience taking carpentry class at Brooklyn Technical High School, he said. Street vendors -- “cart people,” as he calls them -- should be prohibited from operating near stores selling similar products, such as a produce stand in front of one of his groceries.
An only child, Catsimatidis was six months old when he arrived in New York with his parents, a lighthouse keeper-turned-busboy and a homemaker, from the Greek island of Nisyros in 1949. He grew up poor in a dark, back-building apartment with windows only to the light shaft, on 136th Street in Harlem. He learned to speak English by watching the family’s five-inch Emerson television.
In his 20s, he dropped out of New York University’s engineering school and bought a stake in a neighborhood grocery. He expanded what became the Red Apple chain and acquired a competitor, Gristedes, to dominate the grocery business in Manhattan.
Catsimatidis argues that his experience creating jobs while maintaining good labor relations qualifies him to lead a municipal workforce of about 300,000.
‘John’s a tough negotiator,’’ said Pat Purcell, assistant to the president of the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1500, the largest grocery union in New York. “But at the end of the day he treats his workers very well.”
While the groceries are what Catsimatidis is known for, they’re not what made him rich. His most valuable asset is United Refining Co., which operates gas stations and convenience stores and a Warren, Pennsylvania, refinery, valued at about $2 billion.
Catsimatidis said he’ll spend as much as $20 million to self-fund his bid for mayor, almost as much as all of the rest of the candidates have raised so far. Bloomberg spent $102 million of his own money in 2009. Such spending will be crucial to getting Catsimatidis’s name and message out in the November general election, said Brooklyn Republican Chairman Craig Eaton, a Catsimatidis supporter.
Catsimatidis must first capture the Republican nomination. He’ll face off in the September primary against frontrunner Joseph Lhota, the former head of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and No. 2 to former Mayor Rudy Giuliani, and George McDonald, whose nonprofit Doe Fund creates jobs and housing for the homeless. The most recent polls show Catsimatidis behind both of them. His spokesman, Rob Ryan, disputes the surveys’ accuracy.
Most days, Catsimatidis eats breakfast at Cipriani restaurant in Midtown before riding in a shiny black Mercedes-Benz to the headquarters of Red Apple Group Inc., the conglomerate under which his assets are held and for which he serves as chairman. It’s located in a section of Manhattan’s Midtown West neighborhood so off the beaten path that Bob Dylan and Beyonce rent the upstairs rehearsal studio to avoid paparazzi. Red Apple’s office doubles as his campaign headquarters.
In an interview there, Catsimatidis talked about his 2010 kidney transplant, which he said he needed after taking a bad drug for diabetes, and his losing battle with weight loss --he’s pushing 300 pounds -- which he likened to that of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie.
In front of two reporters, he chastised his aides for failing to tell him about a candidate forum in Harlem, near where he grew up.
“I want to know about it next time, OK? I would have made the decision,” he said. “Whoever formed the forum, I want to send a letter to them, to let them know I care. I want them to know I’m one of them, I’m not a stranger.”
That type of humility isn’t a political act because he’s running for office, said Dean Skelos, a friend and supporter who co-leads the New York State Senate for the Republicans. He recalled attending a Christmas party, funded in part by Catsimatidis, where poor children received gifts.
“He really just took great pleasure in watching their smiles,” Skelos said. “That is John Catsimatidis He wants to see kids have the same opportunities that he had.”
In 1988, Catsimatidis married his longtime secretary, Margo Vondersaar. The couple lives in the same Fifth Avenue apartment once occupied by the owner of the restaurant where his father worked as a busboy.
Their son, John Jr., 20, is an NYU student, and daughter, Andrea, 23, a graduate of NYU’s Stern School of Business. In 2011, she married Christopher Nixon Cox, the grandson of former President Richard Nixon, and son of Edward Cox, chairman of the New York State Republican Party.
The walls at Red Apple are covered with photos of Catsimatidis posing with some of the world’s most powerful people, many of whom he calls friends. They include former Cuban President Fidel Castro, Pope John Paul II and Archbishop Demetrios, primate of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, Democrat Barack Obama and his 2012 Republican opponent, Mitt Romney, and labor activist Cesar Chavez.
One shows former President Bill Clinton dancing with Catsimatidis’s wife as he and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton look on.
“It’s not about liberal or conservative,” he said. “It’s about doing the right thing for people.”
Since declaring his candidacy in January, Catsimatidis has gone on a listening tour of the boroughs, met with local chambers of commerce and railed against the MTA’s toll and fare increases, and Lhota for approving them.
At times, he displays the hallmarks of a political amateur. Spelling mistakes litter his campaign e-mails. At a debate on education, a string of rambling non-answers prompted one audience member to say to her friend, “He forgot the question.”
Catsimatidis initially proposed ripping out the city’s bike lanes and has since softened his stance. His position that vocational students don’t need traditional academic classes has prompted criticism from Lhota that even plumbers and carpenters need math.
He said he isn’t the average businessman, and wouldn’t be the average politician, either.
“I could dress up nicer, I could move to a nicer building, people want to give me media training,” he said. “But I am who I am. I’m happy with who I am and if I win, I want to win because who I am. I have no agenda. I just want to help the people of this city.”