Joe Lhota Claims ‘Progressive’ Mantle in Mayor’s Race

Joe Lhota at the ABNY breakfast this moning.

Joe Lhota at the ABNY breakfast this morning

“My name Is Joe Lhota and I am a fiscal conservative,” declared Republican mayoral candidate Joe Lhota this morning as he kicked off a speech in front of the Association for a Better New York, a pro-business group.

The line was a reference to a claim made by Mr. Lhota’s Democratic opponent, Bill de Blasio, who also labeled himself a “fiscal conservative” when he addressed the same group on Friday–raising eyebrows and eventually forcing a walk-back to “fiscally responsible.”

But Mr. Lhota, who is now trailing Mr. de Blasio by a dominating 50 points in the polls, seemed to take a page from his opponent’s playbook, later describing himself as the race’s true progressive–at least when it comes to education–thanks to his support for charter schools.

“If you oppose charter schools and the programs and the opportunities that are available for minorities and inner city children, children of immigrants, you cannot call yourself a progressive,” Mr. Lhota told the crowd gathered in a Midtown hotel ballroom. “There is nothing more progressive in education reform today than the charter school movement throughout the United States.”

While Mr. de Basio has raised skepticism about privately run charter schools that share space in traditional public school buildings, Mr. Lhota accused the Democrat of turning “a blind eye” to many of the schools’ promising results and proposing “policies that I believe will end charter schools in the city.”

The GOP canddiate went on to argue that, other than his program to fund universal pre-K by taxing the rich, Mr. de Blasio’s education plans are far from ambitious. “My opponent is unfortunately for the same, status quo system that I believe is failing our children,” he said. “Extreme positions like this on education–it’s not progress.”

While Mr. Lhota announced a plan to allow people on public assistance to count time spent taking online courses toward work requirements, he spent most of his speech in trying to contrast himself with Mr. de Blasio using similarly critical lines.

Even as he told the story of growing up in the Bronx to two teenage parents who struggled to get by, Mr. de Blasio was not far from his mind.

“Quite honestly, I didn’t go to an elite primary school in Cambridge. I went to school in the Bronx,” he said in a direct knock at his Massachusetts-raised opponent. “And while I was there, I have always supported the New York Yankees. I’ve always rooted for New York and I always will root for New York. And I will fight for New York, more importantly, and for all New York.”

He ended with a challenge to Mr. de Blasio that continued to paint his rival as out-of-touch with regular New Yorkers.

“I do believe my opponent’s plans are gonna hurt the very people that he wants to help. So if he wants to go toe-to-toe with me on inequality, if he wants to go toe-to-toe with me on affordability or about understanding how to make ends meet, I welcome it,” he said. “I’ve lived it and I’m the only candidate in this race who has the experience to take it on.”

Speaking to reporters after the speech, Mr. Lhota doubled down on his message that he was indeed the education progressive in the race.

“Look, Bill is beholden to what the needs are—solely the needs are–of the teacher’s union. And there’s nothing progressive about what they want,” Mr. Lhota argued.

Reached for a response, Mr. de Blasio’s campaign spokesman pledged the candidate would “work with all our schools,” though he “believes that well-resourced charter networks should pay for the use of school space, as charter schools do across the country, and he’ll put a moratorium on co-locations until we can better assess their impact.”