Gristedes Boss is at Check-Out on Mayoral Run

With Democrats gleefully making noise about taking on Michael Bloomberg in the 2005 Mayoral election, one potential challenger who is rich enough to finance his own campaign is about to unleash a series of television ads attacking the Mayor and promoting his own ideas for the city’s future.

John Catsimatidis, a 53-year-old grocery-store mogul who is considering a run for Mayor, is planning to spend $250,000 on the new ad campaign, which will introduce him to New Yorkers and assail Mr. Bloomberg’s performance on a range of issues.

Although the unpolished Mr. Catsimatidis wouldn’t seem to be the most threatening of candidates, the fact is that the money he’s planning to spend on the TV ads represents the first major outlay of money by any of the Democrats who may challenge Mr. Bloomberg.

Mr. Catsimatidis, a former grocery clerk who went on to own the Gristedes and Red Apple supermarket chains and is worth more than $400 million, said he would spend $100,000 on an initial round of ads, with another $150,000 worth to follow if “the response to the first ad is good.” The first buy will consist of around 75 spots that will air on Channel 5 and New York 1 beginning on or around June 24.

Mr. Catsimatidis will not declare a candidacy in the ads. Instead, he will introduce himself, declare his love for his native city, share several ideas for the future and assail the Mayor for failing to aggressively lobby Washington Republicans for more homeland-security money.

“Nobody really knows why the Mayor is not being a squeaky wheel in Washington,” Mr. Catsimatidis told The Observer during an interview in his Fifth Avenue apartment overlooking Central Park. “Why is he not saying, ‘Just give us what you promised us’? I feel it’s a failure of leadership …. One of the purposes of this campaign is to urge him to voice his frustration …. We’ll be saying, ‘Mayor, let’s go out and get the money. Bring the money home.'”

Mr. Catsimatidis said that in the first round of ads, which will be produced by veteran political consultant Hank Sheinkopf, he’ll ask New Yorkers to join a group of business leaders and local politicians called the New York First Committee. Mr. Catsimatidis said he hopes the group, which he is organizing, will pressure Washington for more security money and lobby City Hall on a range of issues. The committee, he added, could be turned into a launching pad for a Mayoral race.

Mr. Catsimatidis said that he’s bankrolling the ads for several reasons. One, he says, is general frustration with Mr. Bloomberg. But he also conceded that he will be testing the public’s responses and trying out several themes that he might use in a campaign.

Ed Skyler, a spokesman for the Mayor, brushed off Mr. Catsimatidis’ plans. “Two hundred and fifty thousand dollars is a lot of groceries to throw away making a fool of yourself,” Mr. Skyler said. He added that Mr. Catsimatidis “has spent too much time being fooled by political consultants and not enough time reading the papers, or he would know that the Mayor just won almost $500 million in federal funds for budget relief, homeland-security funds and Medicaid relief.”

Mr. Catsimatidis-who is a major Democratic fund-raiser, having raised huge amounts of cash for the Clintons-is known in political circles as a man who is not averse to seeing his name in boldface type. And some political insiders dismissed the planned ads as nothing more than an expensive exercise in vanity.

“This is a great, old-fashioned New York hustle,” said a senior New York Democrat who knows Mr. Catsimatidis well and likes him. “It’s an ego-driven exercise. The money he’s investing will be more than made up for in the media buzz he’s creating about himself and the attention he will draw in social and business circles.”

Still, whatever Mr. Catsimatidis’ motives, he will be the first potential challenger to expend a significant amount of money in an effort to raise his profile and to focus public attention on what he views as the Mayor’s failings. Asked to estimate the chances he’ll run for Mayor, he said: “Fifty-fifty, maybe better.”

But he was clearly less comfortable discussing the amount of his own wealth he’d be willing to spend on a Mayoral candidacy, in part, he said, because he didn’t want to get “Golisano’d”-by which he meant getting ripped off by media consultants who, in an effort to beef up their fees, tell their wealthy clients that they have a good shot at winning. Tom Golisano, a wealthy Rochester businessman, ended up spending more than $70 million on his gubernatorial candidacy last year.

When pressed, however, Mr. Catsimatidis said that should he run, and should he be encouraged by the feedback he was receiving from voters, he’d be willing to spend at least $15 million of his own money on a candidacy. But he said that unlike Mr. Bloomberg, he’d count on contributions from other donors as well.

The big idea behind a Catsimatidis candidacy would be to position him as a self-made rich man who, unlike Mr. Bloomberg, hasn’t lost touch with working people-a kind of “Johnny-from-the-block” candidate. He grew up poor on 135th Street and worked his way up to make a fortune in the grocery and oil business. He owns an oil refinery in Pennsylvania, 400 gas stations throughout western Pennsylvania and western New York, and 50 supermarkets throughout the five boroughs. In addition to the Fifth Avenue spread, Mr. Catsimatidis has a house in the Hamptons and owns a 727 jet.

But Mr. Catsimatidis likes to say that unlike Mr. Bloomberg, he hasn’t lost touch with his roots. “I’m the wealthy guy that grew up on 135th Street and clawed my way to the top,” he said. “Bloomberg always dealt with the Merrill Lynches of the world because he was selling computers to the business world. He never dealt with the people. I love people. You know the old expression, ‘Some people love animals and hate people?’ I love animals, and I love people.”

It’s clear that Mr. Catsimatidis has plenty of work to do if he wants to be a candidate. During his interview with The Observer , Mr. Catsimatidis repeated himself and occasionally lost his train of thought. He was sketchy about what he would have done differently over the past two years, beyond saying that he wouldn’t have banned smoking in bars, wouldn’t have made cuts to the police, fire and sanitation departments, and would have pressured Washington publicly for help.

Mr. Catsimatidis has also attracted the occasional controversy. He came under intense scrutiny for helping to lobby President Bill Clinton to secure a pardon for William Fugazy, a former limousine executive who pled guilty to perjury. At the time, he was quoted as saying: “In the last 50 years, I don’t know of anyone who’s gotten a pardon who hadn’t paid a lot of money to a lawyer or who hasn’t known somebody.”

He’s Well-Connected

Still, for all his lack of polish as a candidate, he has the resources and the connections to have an impact. The New York First Committee, if it gets off the ground, may allow Mr. Catsimatidis to cash in the many chits he has among other business leaders. Mr. Catsimatidis hopes to bring together New Yorkers who are unhappy with Mr. Bloomberg’s leadership, and to use the group to pressure City Hall on a number of policy fronts, including issues like taxation and business regulation.

To get the committee started, Mr. Catsimatidis said he planned to send out a letter on June 4 to hundreds of business executives, public officials, labor leaders and community activists asking them to join. In a draft of the letter he showed to The Observer , Mr. Catsimatidis wrote that there’s been a “clear leadership vacuum” at City Hall in the face of Washington’s refusal to deliver promised funds, and he accused the Mayor of demonstrating “misguided focus” with his passage of a smoking ban.

Mr. Catsimatidis said that future ads were likely to take issue with such failings. He hopes to assail the Mayor for squandering political capital on the smoking ban at a time when far more pressing problems plague the city, for hiking property taxes and for failing to inspire a sense of optimism about New York’s fiscal future.

“Bloomberg is not instilling confidence in people,” Mr. Catsimatidis said. “He’s lost the pulse. He doesn’t know how to talk to business people …. No matter how bad things are, a leader has to convince people that there’s a better day coming.”