The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The other other primary in New York, and the prospects for a(nother) GOP mayor

GOP New York mayoral candidates Joe Lhota, left, and John Catsimatidis participate in a debate Sept. 8 in New York. (Andrew Hinderaker/The Wall Street Journal/Pool via AP)

Earlier this summer, Republican mayoral candidate John Catsimatidis interrupted an interview in his West Side office to take care of some business.

As Catsimatidis, a supermarket magnate and oil baron, told his campaign manager to give a reporter a tour of the vanity pictures papering his cluttered office, (“He’ll like Castro”) a business associate approached his desk with a reminder. Catsimatidis, a prolific political donor to both parties, had to call Dean Skelos, the state Senate majority leader, about proposed legislation in Albany that would require heating oil to contain at least 2 percent biodiesel fuel.

“That’s coming up,” the business partner said. “That’s got to be passed next week and that really affects us because it’s 2 percent of your whole state of endorsements.”

“Positive?” Catsimatidis asked.

“Yeah,” his partner said, adding: “They don’t even want a letter. Maybe if you could just call him and say, ‘I’m behind it.’

“Write down the paragraph that I should say,” Catsimatidis said.

“Alright,” the business partner said.

“The exact words I should I say.”

That exchange is telling of Catsimatidis’ approach to politics, but it is also says something about the level of New York’s Other Contest, the Republican mayoral primary, in which he appeared as a major candidate.

That Catsimatidis has a chance of becoming a major-party nominee in the race to replace fellow billionaire Michael Bloomberg is a testament to his money and how he spends it. He has collected the endorsements of GOP leaders including Skelos, county leaders, former governor George Pataki and politicians who have benefited from his generous political donations in the past. He also enriched his political consultants with a Brewster’s Millions spending spree on negative ads attacking his opponent, Joe Lhota. A much more disciplined, articulate and plausible candidate who is heavily favored, Lhota has channeled the ghost of Rudy Giuliani back into New York politics.

The Republican race has mostly served as a side show to the Democratic circus ('In one ring Anthony Weiner on the Internet, in another contortionist Christine Quinn tries to slip out of a Bloombergian knot, in the third Bill Thompson clears his throat for months, and in the fourth Michael Bloomberg bashes Bill de Blasio and his interracial family) — not to mention Eliot Spitzer's attempted comeback bid in the comptroller's race. But peripheral as the Republican contest has been, it is also worth pointing out that New Yorkers haven’t elected a Democrat as mayor in more than 20 years.

“We’ve had five terms of anything but Democratic control of the mayor’s office,” Lhota said in a phone interview, adding: “There's no doubt that candidates on the Democratic side have shifted consistently to the left and I believe to their long term detriment.”

Lhota’s nomination would be a Rudy redux, and his general election strategy will seek to convince New Yorkers that he stands between them and the return of what he calls the “civil decay” of former mayor David Dinkins's administration, in which current Democratic front-runner Bill de Blasio got his professional start.

But if Bloomberg has proven unpopular in the Democratic primary, Lhota is aware that Giuliani is even less popular, and his toxicity seeps into the general electorate. As a result, he has sought some separation — though sometimes it only takes up the space of a period.

“Look, I think people who don’t know me are tying me to Rudy Giuliani. Rudy Giuliani and I were together yesterday,” he said. “He said it as succinctly as anybody could, ‘Joe Lhota is not Rudy Giuliani.’ ”

The Republican race has only rarely pierced the public’s consciousness. The local press perked up when Lhota, the former chairman of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, said he would not suspend subway traffic to save some kittens on a train track. Catsimatidis turned some heads when he addressed the city police’s stop-and-frisk practice by saying in a debate that if authorities stopped his son, he’d ask him if he had been “dressed funny" or “walking funny” or “if he had his pants half down with his underwear showing, if he had his hat turned backwards … walking down the street as if you were drunk.”

Highlights of the Catsimatidis ad campaign have included mailers featuring a suspicious-looking pipe that accused Lhota of trying to make drugs available to everybody, and another accusing Lhota of challenging a 77-year-old Holocaust survivor to a fight, which featured a stock photo of what Catsimatidis called a “typical Holocaust survivor.” Television ads have attacked Lhota, a former Giuliani deputy mayor, for technical failures on Sept 11, and for once comparing the Port Authority police to Mall Cops.

Lhota’s aides compared the campaign to a “scorched earth” approach, and the candidate himself seemed more than ready to move on.

“My opponent,” he began, before immediately adding, “well, forget my opponent, just forget him. It’s not worth it.”

After being overshadowed by the Democratic spectacle for so long, Lhota was eager to take center stage with whomever the Democrats ultimately nominate. Lhota’s campaign argues that none of the Democrats have the level of government and private-sector experience that he has, especially when it comes to management positions.

The campaign believes that the Democrats, who have all sought to get to the left of one another for a primary electorate unhappy with Bloomberg, are vulnerable in a general election on issues related to taxes and policing. The New York Post recently quoted people close to Bloomberg, who was an albatross in the Democratic primary to his preferred candidate, Quinn, as saying the outgoing mayor would oppose de Blasio, whom he loathes, if the Democrat emerged as the nominee.

Lhota, who said he has not spoken with Bloomberg, is already trying to pave the way for Bloomberg’s support.

“I am coming in at a time where the policies of Giuliani and the policies Bloomberg have propelled this city to levels that they have never been before,” he said. “The number of jobs, the cleanliness in the city, the crime in the city. ... I want to take those policies of the last 20 years and build upon them.”