Joe Lhota Says He's More Than an M.T.A. Chairman and a Giuliani Guy

(Photo: Getty)

(Photo: Getty)

Yesterday afternoon, Joe Lhota, who recently emerged as a leading contender for the Republican nomination in the mayor’s race, sat down with Politicker and discussed his campaign’s future and challenges moving forward, as well as a number of hot-button policy issues. Throughout the interview, Mr. Lhota emphasized his experience while stressing he was not planning to be a clone of former Mayor Rudy Giuliani, whose administration he served in, and that he is not defined by his year running the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, a job that raised his profile in the wake of Hurricane Sandy.

Mr. Lhota, who formally announced his candidacy this morning, said he first seriously thought about making a bid for the city’s highest elected office last year.

“In all honesty, when I thought about running for mayor, it could go back years ago. I don’t think you could be a deputy mayor without thinking [about it] some day. I was even acting mayor a couple times. I started giving serious consideration to this in the middle of 2012,” he answered, sipping coffee. “Post-Sandy, it crystallized for me, because I saw an avenue to win; I saw an avenue to get the nomination … I looked at the candidates running for mayor and I said, ‘You know what? I have the leadership skills necessary to get the job done.’ The city doesn’t need management, it needs leadership.”

However, given the city’s Democratic bent, Mr. Lhota’s quest won’t be easy. After all, we pointed out, he doesn’t possess a personal bank account as massive as Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s to invest in the effort. Though he has Mr. Giuliani’s support, the ex-mayor’s base, which was built some 15 years ago, may have substantially eroded due to the five boroughs’ demographic shifts.

“I’m going far beyond the Giuliani coalition,” he answered, adding he expects to be able to scoop up many Democratic and unaffiliated voters. “There’s not a community in the city that I won’t go to. There’s not a community in this city that I won’t try to get their votes. This idea of tying me to Giuliani is quite unique. I know Rudy Giuliani. I like Rudy Giuliani. I worked with him during his administration. But we’re completely different people. “

On the “social issues,” Mr. Lhota said he was “much more progressive than Rudy is, and that’s where really differences lie.” Unlike Mr. Giuliani, Mr. Lhota said he backs same-sex marriage, and in an interview with Capital New York, he expressed support for marijuana legalization. In the same piece, he described himself as a “libertarian.”

Despite his desire to distance himself from Mr. Giuliani, Mr. Lhota doesn’t want to fully embrace the libertarian brand.

“The ‘libertarian’ thing was a mistake on my part for saying it, but I am,” he mused when we brought up the term.

Another possible obstacle for Mr. Lhota’s mayoral aspirations is that the most recent item on his résumé was managing the M.T.A., a financially troubled state agency he left after just one year. Despite praise he received for his post-Sandy recovery efforts, Mr. Lhota was forced to enact an unpopular fare hike right before announcing his resignation, something he described at the time as a “profile in courage.”

“The idea that they’re fiscally worse off today than they were a year ago is just false,” Mr. Lhota said of the agency he once led, placing the blame for the M.T.A.’s woes on forces beyond his control and claiming he did much to improve the situation. “That being said, there is a systemic structural balance problem at the M.T.A. The paradigm that was created in the 1960s, when the M.T.A. was created … has reversed itself. The commitments on the part of the state government and the city government have gone in a different direction.”

Nevertheless, it’s possible many New Yorker voters only notice the M.T.A. when they’re frustrated by it and not when things are going smoothly. We asked Mr. Lhota if he thought late or dirty trains could hurt his political brand, even through no fault of his own. Although admitting in our conversation that the agency has “been used as a piñata for a long time,” Mr. Lhota proceeded to challenge the premise commuters may associate him with their frustrations.

“I actually think when–the trains are late? Tell me how do you know the trains are late?” he asked.

We responded by explaining, whatever the reason, some city residents might find subway service was not as fast as they would like it to be.

“They come much more frequently than we used to,” he countered. “Depending on what line you’re on, you can look up at your countdown clock or in other stations where we don’t have countdown clocks, we make announcements … We do that to provide all kinds of information. You know, it’s interesting, when you go down into the subway, depending on the time of the day. There’s normal [times], trains are separated by 5 or 6 minutes apart. If you just miss the train and the next one comes 5 or 6 minutes later, everybody we talk to says, ‘The trains are late.’ But it’s really not. That’s the schedule it’s on.”

Though he defended the agency’s performance, Mr. Lhota emphasized his candidacy isn’t based solely on the single year he spent governing the M.T.A..

“It also doesn’t define me,” he said. “It’s not the predicate of why I’m running for mayor. It really isn’t. I think my experience in City Hall is much more significant. I think my experience in the private sector is significantly more significant than the M.T.A.. The M.T.A. was just the last stop.”

Mr. Lhota’s background as an administrator and a Harvard Business School alumnus was apparent as he discussed a variety of issues with a focus on the numbers behind the policies. This approach was particularly evident when we asked for his take on the NYPD’s stop-and-frisk tactic, which has been criticized by all of the main Democratic mayoral candidates.

“The reality is, what you need to do is to actually see a correlation trend between the stop-and-frisks–which are all noted down in forms filled out by the patrol people who do it–and combine that, and look at that in comparison to what victims of crime describe their assailant as,” he argued. “As long as you see a strong correlation between the two, stop-and-frisk is [a] tool that should continue. If you see it go awry–if, all of a sudden, you see one group questioned more and the crimes aren’t there connected with it, that’s when you have to look at it and say, ‘What’s happening here?’ It’s a little more of a scientific way of doing it, but it’s the way it should be done.”

Most importantly of all, Politicker asked Mr. Lhota about a more personal statistic–the recent decrease in his famed Twitter output. We wondered whether it was intentional and due to the demands of his campaign for Gracie Mansion.

“You know what?” he said. “I think as I started to ramp up the campaign, I have had significantly less free time. I’m not reading as much as I used to and I’m going to back to that. I’m clearly not watching as much television as I used to, and I’m not tweeting as much as I used to.”

With Mr. Lhota planning to spend the next few months introducing himself to voters in neighborhoods all over the city, it’s not likely he’ll be returning to his social media and entertainment regimen any time soon.