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Lhota and the Old Days

“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.