Lhota and the Old Days

Illustration by Thomas Fuchs

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.

“There’s this mood that’s been popularized by the chattering class, the percentage of the city that’s well connected, saying, ‘We’re not ready for the experiment, after 24 years, of going back to a clubhouse Democrat. What’s the alternative here?’ ” says one of the city’s top political operatives. “To some extent, Joe has fallen victim to that. Everyone comes to him and says, ‘You’re gonna win, we’re gonna support you.’ You find yourself in this echo chamber where you’re basically talked into it. That doesn’t mean you don’t want to do it. But because of the storm, Joe got an enormous number of phone calls saying, ‘It’s your responsibility to do this.’ ” None of those calls were from Bloomberg, however.

How Lhota wins is hard to figure; even he admits “it’s going to be like threading a needle.” Giuliani’s imprimatur will help greatly in the Republican primary; in a general election, he’d be a far more polarizing presence. Lhota’s opponents would try to paint him as advocating a Rudy restoration—and his advocates would try to raise fears of a Democratic mayor returning the city to the bad old days, pre-Rudy. “I’m not going to campaign saying, ‘If you elect these other people, the city is going to go back to what it was before,’ ” Lhota tells me. “I’m going to campaign about taking us to the next level. But also with an understanding that the things that have become great about the city—the reduction in crime, the technology jobs—they’re all fragile.” He’s in favor of more charter schools, and of improving, not discarding, stop-and-frisk. “Cops aren’t explaining why they’re stopping people,” he says. “We need to take advantage of the data and correlate who’s been stopped with descriptions by victims of crimes of their assailants. But anybody who says we must get rid of it is really going to do harm to public safety in the long run.” Not that he fits into any neat ideological box: Lhota supports legalizing same-sex marriage and marijuana.

Some of Lhota’s allies believe he can attract a centrist coalition, piecing together the largely outer-borough, older Jewish and Catholic voters who backed Ed Koch and Giuliani and nearly pushed Anthony Weiner past Freddy Ferrer in the 2005 Democratic primary. But the city that elected Giuliani mayor twice is ancient history, in part because of his success in fighting crime, in part because of demographic shifts. Whites made up about 60 percent of the vote in Giuliani’s era; today that’s down to about 45 percent. In 1993, the first time Rudy won, he overcame a nearly five-to-one Democratic registration advantage; today Republicans are outnumbered by better than six to one, though Bloomberg showed that party allegiance is increasingly situational.

The problem isn’t simply numbers but attitudes: The city, as a whole, is more liberal than it used to be. The most recent indication is the 2012 presidential race, where Barack Obama got close to 100 percent in some city Assembly districts. “The 1977 New York world, where Ed Koch was a liberal with sanity, doesn’t exist anymore,” one political strategist says. “There was enough of it left in ’93 and ’97 to elect Rudy, but not anymore.” Lhota says he’ll appeal to New Yorkers across racial and class lines with a message of competent executive experience.

Maybe the Democrats stumble in the primary, pandering to the labor unions; maybe Lhota appears on a third-party line that allows moderates to not vote Republican. A Quinn-vs.-Lhota matchup might be a choice between Bloomberg’s fourth term and Giuliani’s third. To the business crowd the horse-race specifics are secondary. “What the business guys tell you is that they were desperate to get someone like Lhota into the race,” one influential intermediary says. “Why? Because they’re looking to pull all the other candidates to the center. That’s the honest conversation. Whether Joe wins or loses is irrelevant to them.”

Lhota is no naïf; he understands that multiple agendas get played out through campaigns. But he’s no patsy, either, and the suggestion that he’s being used by Giuliani and the city’s ruling class irritates him. “I am not a tool of Rudy Giuliani,” Lhota says, the only time he shows a flash of his legendary temper. “The notion that I’m being pushed by the business community? I went to them—some were enthusiastic, some weren’t. I’m doing this because I love this city.”

Another wonky, earnest, behind-the-scenes government mechanic tried to use his dramatic success at the MTA as a springboard to City Hall. Richard Ravitch was a complete snooze as a campaigner, though. And his timing was terrible: In 1989, at the end of three exhausting terms of Ed Koch, capped by the ugly murder of Yusuf Hawkins in Bensonhurst, the moment was right for an anodyne black Democrat to win. The city’s 2013 mood has yet to cohere. Joe Lhota will be far more fun than Dick Ravitch; his real challenge will be making voters believe he can lead New York toward the future and not back into the contentious past.

E-mail: chris_smith@nymag.com.

Lhota and the Old Days