I like Joe Lhota. How could you not? This is a man who walked into a roomful of reporters after a helicopter trip to the Rockaways to survey Hurricane Sandy damage and blurted, “They sat me right next to an open window. Froze my balls off!” Less charmingly, Lhota, as MTA chairman, once taunted a 77-year-old board member, shouting, “Be a man!” More significantly, though, Lhota’s candor has enabled him to stand up to three tough bosses. He’s a forceful personality, an independent thinker, very much his own man. Yet Lhota’s bid to become the city’s third straight winning Republican mayoral candidate isn’t going to be about only him. It’s going to be a test of the power of the city’s business elite, and of something far more volatile—the legacy of Rudy Giuliani.
Lhota—the family name is Czech—was born in the Bronx and raised on Long Island, the son of an NYPD lieutenant and the grandson of a cabdriver and a firefighter. He followed the great American arc by becoming the first in his family to graduate from college (Georgetown), not to mention business school (Harvard), then setting off to make some money, which in the eighties meant investment banking (CS First Boston, Paine Webber). His wife, Tamra, is a political fund-raiser. She worked for Giuliani’s first, losing race in 1989 and again in 1993; Joe chipped in economic-policy advice to the candidate both times. After Giuliani beat incumbent David Dinkins, he hired Lhota as an economic-development staffer, eventually promoting him to finance commissioner, budget director, and deputy mayor for operations.
Lhota proved smart and indispensable. “When the city was hitting up against its debt ceiling in the late nineties, Joe was the one who came up with the Transitional Finance Authority, and he sold it to people in Albany,” says Randy Mastro, another Giuliani-administration alumnus. “It was a lifesaving thing for the city at the time.” Lhota was also tough and fiercely loyal—necessary traits to thrive in Rudyworld. In 2000, when four cops were acquitted in the shooting death of Amadou Diallo, the Reverend Calvin Butts angrily called on black New Yorkers to protest. Lhota fired back, saying Butts “stokes the flames of hatred.” Mostly, though, Lhota distinguished himself in the Giuliani administration by being a voice of reason; he was the very rare Giuliani official praised in The Village Voice. On the morning of September 11, 2001, it was Lhota who called the mayor with news of the terrorist attack at the World Trade Center. Five years later, Lhota was stricken with lymphoma.
By then he was back in the private sector, working as a senior executive for Jim Dolan, first at Cablevision and then at Madison Square Garden. When Andrew Cuomo was elected governor in 2010, Lhota made it known he’d be interested in running the MTA. Lhota had been untangling the agency’s finances; when Hurricane Sandy hit, drowning the subway system, it turned him into an unlikely celebrity. Getting the trains back up and running generated business-community interest in Lhota as a candidate for mayor—though he’d been mulling a run since last summer.
For Giuliani, there are clear upsides to a Lhota bid: It makes him a force in city politics again, gives him a way to embellish his mayoral legacy, and lets him try to one-up Mike Bloomberg by creating the next mayor. Giuliani has been overeagerly promoting a Lhota run, talking it up in a front-page Times story and in a New York 1 interview. Lhota insists that he, not Giuliani, is in charge this time. “Look,” he tells me, “when I went to Rudy and said I was going to run—not ‘Should I run?’—his first response was, ‘You sure you want to do this?’ I had to convince him.”
Lhota’s most recent former boss, Cuomo, could play a more subtle role. The governor was thrilled with Lhota’s eleven-month tenure at the MTA and would have been happy to see it continue—but he didn’t try to stop Lhota from leaving. “Andrew would like the next mayor to be more cooperative than Bloomberg,” an Albany insider says. Lhota’s camp is already spinning his connection with Cuomo as a possible benefit, smoothing the historically contentious city-state relationship.
More intriguing is the way the business class has nudged Lhota into the fray. Restless members of the city’s finance and real-estate Establishment have been searching for a more conservative challenger to the field of left-of-center, career-politician Democrats. The most appealing option, Police Commissioner Ray Kelly, resisted the pleading. But the search kept going, fueled as much by the desire to play kingmaker as by dismay at the prospect of a Mayor Quinn, De Blasio, Thompson, or Liu. Among the recruiters have been Ken Langone, the Home Depot co-founder; Dick Grasso, the former New York Stock Exchange president; Mort Zuckerman, the Daily News publisher; and real-estate titans Stephen Ross and Steve Roth.