Will the Real Joe Lhota Please Stand Up?: Candidate’s Allies Long for Lhota Who Used to Retweet Drunk Hulk

Then-MTA Chair Joe Lhota after Hurricane Sandy.

Then-MTA Chair Joe Lhota after Hurricane Sandy.

Some politicians adore campaigning; buttonholing commuters, making the church rounds to share their visions for the city and having heart-to-hearts at senior centers.

And then there are candidates like Joe Lhota, the leading Republican running for mayor.

Chatting up passersbys recently outside a subway stop on the Upper East Side, Mr. Lhota’s energetic hellos and handshakes were interspersed with awkward pauses and commentary, as he stood with his hands on his hips, arms framing a bulky white shirt and blue striped tie.

“I’m leaving as soon as it starts raining,” he said to his staff, only half-joking, during a lull between handshakes under an increasingly threatening sky.

“It can’t rain fast enough,” he offered later. “Two minutes till I’m outta here.”

Illustration by Drew Friedman

Illustration by Drew Friedman

Months before former Congressman Anthony Weiner and ex-Gov. Eliot Spitzer upended this year’s elections by jumping into the fray, another longtime official was expected to turn a humdrum race around.

When he entered the contest back in January, the former first deputy mayor and head of the MTA was known for his off-the cuff humor, disarming candor and tough-talking bluster, mixed with the occasional tweet about Drunk Hulk. (Mr. Lhota loved the superhero parody account so much that when the account mentioned Mr. Lhota, someone had it printed out and framed for him.)

The New York Times called him “something of a throwback: an unapologetically outsize personality, known throughout his career for big emotions and an uninhibited style.” The Daily News noted his “longstanding rep as a man unafraid to mouth off at—or flip off—anybody who gets him steamed.”

But seven months later, the Republican mayoral candidate is about as unbridled as Mr. Rogers. He takes on a staid, father-knows-best tone at debates, often disappearing into the background as his rivals batter one another. He’s steered clear of criticizing his Republican opponents, his once-lively (sometimes wine-fueled) Twitter feed has waned, and his major policy plans—geared more toward not messing anything up than presenting a new vision—have failed to resonate. All this leaves friends, former colleagues and rank-and-file Republicans wondering where the real Mr. Lhota has gone.

“He is that kind of larger-than-life figure that gets noticed when you walk into a room. There’s something sort of Koch-ian about him,” said one former colleague, who sang Mr. Lhota’s praises but then added a common refrain: “I don’t know where that guy is.”

Again and again, those who have worked with Mr. Lhota describe him as a charismatic social igniter, as well as a highly-capable manager, adept problem solver and the most qualified candidate by far. Even some who disagree with him say that he’s the only contender they’d trust to run the city—if he can beat the odds in a city where Democrats outnumber Republicans seven to one. So what gives?

Mr. Lhota appears to be playing it safe as he fights to secure the Republican nomination, keeping his head down until after the primary. But some of his supporters wonder if he shouldn’t loosen up a little.

“I think Joe is containing himself a bit. My fear is that he doesn’t let himself out,” said another source who worked with Mr. Lhota. “You’ve got to be a little bit of a character.” Otherwise, “All of a sudden, you become very, very boring,” he said.

Witness his shrinking lead over rumpled billionaire John Catsimatidis, a supermarket and oil magnate who has gotten into cursing matches at voter forums, compared taxing the wealthy to the Holocaust, and promoted ideas including a monorail and tricycle-riding cops. At a recent forum focused on animal rights, Mr. Catsimatidis recounted a story about his wife unsuccessfully giving mouth-to-mouth resuscitation to their pet cat.

“You can’t make this stuff up,” quipped Mr. Lhota. “This is like Harry Potter stuff.”

Yet, Mr. Catsimatidis has been pouring millions into TV spots, radio ads and mailers. His campaign throws big parties and plies attendees with free pancakes, booze and goody bags filled with Catsimatidis swag. A recent poll now puts him only a few points behind Mr. Lhota among Republican primary voters, a good 40 percent of whom have no idea who the former budget director, deputy mayor and MTA chair is.

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With an ever-so-subtle lisp and eyebrows dancing behind rimless glasses, Mr. Lhota is a character. He’s gruff, but friendly. Whip smart about the minutiae of city government and history, but without any highbrow pretensions, he’s as likely to recite scenes from The Godfather as to quote Winston Churchill. And he is constantly sharing random facts and quizzing those around him with trivia questions. (A Politicker reporter did not impress.)

He also has a sweet tooth. As he greeted voters recently at the Staten Island Ferry terminal, he lit up when he spotted spools of pink cotton candy at a concession and later stopped in the entryway of a new Dairy Queen to admire the menu choices. “I’ve never seen one like this before!” he said gleefully, pointing to a freezer full of ice cream cakes. “Man,” he said, looking on in wonder.

Mr. Lhota’s lighter side was well known within the Giuliani administration. Former staff described him as a beloved boss with an appealing sense of humor, who would take even interns’ views seriously and wasn’t afraid to let loose at the end of a long day.

At the yearly get-together that Mr. Giuliani still throws for his old administration staffers, former aides clamor to get a seat at Mr. Lhota’s table so they can get in on the antics. “He was just awesome to work with,” recalled the source. “He’s always been the fun guy you want to sit with at dinners,” he said. “If Joe is coming to your party, you know you’re good.”

Mr. Lhota clearly relishes that fun-guy reputation and recalled hosting “Joe and Bob” nights of drinking with fellow former Deputy Mayor Robert Harding to help staffers bond. He showed up at a recent going-away party for a favorite reporter who had covered the MTA, sipping scotch and sharing advice about picking up women for dates. (The day before Thanksgiving is apparently a good choice.)

A screenshot from Joe Lhota's first TV ad.

A screenshot from Joe Lhota’s first TV ad.

In campaign fliers, Mr. Lhota likes to portray himself as an everyday joe—the son of a cop and the grandson of a firefighter, as well as as a tried-and-tested executive. He was the one tapped to run the city when Mayor Rudy Giuliani was being treated for prostate cancer, and on September 11, 2001, he rushed to the World Trade Center, at one point becoming trapped by falling debris. He spent the following days and weeks essentially managing day-to-day city operations as Mr. Giuliani coped with the crisis.

He returned to the spotlight in 2011 as chair of the debt-ridden Metropolitan Transportation Authority. Once again faced with disaster, he became the hero of Hurricane Sandy, getting the subways back on track despite unprecedented damage—providing the kind of unexpected exposure that convinced him to jump into the mayor’s race after many thought the field had been set.

Along the way, he has also committed his share of politically incorrect gaffes. Most recently, he referred to Port Authority police as “mall cops” during a candidates’ forum—a dig that seemed especially ill fitting, given his position as a law-and-order candidate and, more poignantly, the loss of 37 PAPD officers on 9/11. (He later apologized.)

“The whole job for Joe is keep his head down, raise money, put together a team,” said one of the colleagues, who, like others, warned that it’s Mr. Lhota’s mouth that’s likely going to get him into trouble.

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Political observers note that the realities of a New York City Republican primary are simply different than the race that the better-known Democrats are running. While the Dems have been sending petitioners out to nearly every corner, there just aren’t that many Republican voters walking down the street.

To woo the 60,000 or so Mr. Lhota believes he needs to win the primary, he has taken private meetings with influencers in far-flung reaches of Staten Island and sent staffers door-to-door in parts of Queens and Brooklyn. He is also under significant fund-raising pressure, exacerbated by his late jump into the race.

“It’s still early in the campaign,” said early Lhota backer Randy Mastro, Mr. Giuliani’s former chief of staff, who preceded Mr. Lhota as deputy mayor. “I think the public is still getting to know about Joe Lhota,” he said, assuring that when they do, they will quickly become fans.

So far, Mr. Lhota’s bid has relied heavily on accolades from his former boss, Mr. Giuliani, and he has taken a largely status quo approach, warning voters of the dangers of returning to the bad old days before Mr. Giuliani and Mayor Michael Bloomberg restored sanity to City Hall. He tells voters he wants to keep the city safe and improve education, and he promises no retroactive pay raises for the city unions. In the face of Mr. Catsimatidis’s audacious plan to bring back the World’s Fair, Mr. Lhota suggests reforming City Council member items, extending Staten Island Ferry service and building parking lots at the end of subway lines.

The critique that he’s failed to distinguish himself from Mr. Giuliani has been raised by rank-and-file Republicans and seized by his opponents. “The Lhota campaign hasn’t laid a foundation that explains why they’re running, other than the fact ‘because he worked for Rudy,’” charged Mr. Catsimatidis’s mouthpiece, longtime Republican consultant Rob Ryan.

Rank-and-file supporters, who see Mr. Lhota as their party’s future, also repeatedly told Politicker they worried Mr. Lhota wasn’t doing enough to get his name out there. “The newspapers don’t write enough,” complained Joe Neglia, a retired Republican district leader from Brooklyn who recently attended a State Conservative Party dinner with Mr. Lhota. “He’s got to come up with some more controversial issues.”

Even Mr. Lhota, whose campaign schedule is so busy that he keeps a laminated hour-by-hour schedule in his shirt’s front pocket, expressed frustration at his inability to break through. He bemoaned the fact that a recent education speech, which was touted by the campaign as his first major policy address, failed to produce a single headline the following day—“not one,” he said.

“I just think it’s very hard to get to know a candidate in this environment,” said another colleague from the Giuliani administration, who noted how hard it is for any candidate to convey the depth of his or her experience–especially with so much attention dedicated to Mr Weiner. “He’s never been a politician. This is his first foray into elected office, and I imagine there’s a learning curve,” she said. “He’s a smart guy. How good of a politician he’ll be, we’ll see.”

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In very recent days, he has seemed more aggressive. During the first televised Republican debate last week, some said that Mr. Lhota came off as the only adult in the contest, while his opponents pummeled each other with petty insults. And his latest fund-raising numbers, reported Monday, show that Mr. Lhota managed to raise a hefty $516,000 over the past two months—a significant haul.

Joe Lhota campaigning on the Upper East Side.

Joe Lhota campaigning on the Upper East Side.

He also hinted that while he won’t be the first to go negative, the gloves could be coming off—soon.

“I’m not going to be the first one in this room to fire a gun, but God forbid my son … then there are no bets,” he said, referencing a scene from The Godfather.

But that time may not come soon enough. Back on that corner on the Upper East Side, Mr. Lhota was clearly ready to put away the fliers.

“It’s a wrap,” he told his crew of volunteers and staffers, ushering them to hurry up. “8:30’s good enough! Time for breakfast.”