Joe Lhota spent more than 30 years quietly stalking New York City’s halls of power, remaining largely unknown as he sat at Mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s right hand during eight crisis-filled years at City Hall and in boardrooms at investment banks and Madison Square Garden.
But Lhota’s time behind the scenes came to an end last year when Superstorm Sandy slammed into the East Coast. His steady leadership as the new chairman of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority propelled him into an even more prominent role: the Republican candidate for mayor.
For the first time, one of the city’s top supporting actors has the stage to himself.
“This is my first time as a candidate, and it’s a very different experience,” Lhota said in an interview. “Now I lead the decision-making process.”
Lhota has made his managerial experience the centerpiece of his campaign, saying he is more qualified than Democrat Bill de Blasio to maintain the public safety gains made under outgoing Mayor Michael Bloomberg and to navigate a looming fiscal crisis, which includes multibillion-dollar contract negotiations with every city union.
But despite his expansive resume, Lhota faces long odds in continuing a GOP winning streak that has prevented a Democrat from capturing City Hall since David Dinkins was elected in 1989, even though Democrats outnumber the GOP 6-to-1 in the city.
“The stars have to be aligned just right for a Republican to win,” said Kenneth Sherrill, former political science professor at Hunter College. He noted that Giuliani benefited from a crime epidemic while Bloomberg surged in the polls after the September 11 terror attacks and drew on his own immense fortune to finance his campaign.
“Unless there’s some kind of disaster, Lhota has a much tougher hand to play,” Sherrill said.
Lhota’s win in the Republican primary was dramatically overshadowed by the headline-grabbing soap opera that was the Democratic contest. His fundraising has been sluggish; the $4 million he raised for the primary was dwarfed by the $7.4 million raked in by de Blasio.
And 30 percent of New Yorkers do not know enough about him to even form an opinion. But perhaps of greater concern for Lhota is the 41 percent who have a negative impression of him. Overall, he trailed de Blasio 65 to 22 percent. But Lhota is convinced that voters will be wary of de Blasio’s liberalism and opt for “the executive-level leadership” that he believes defines his professional life.
Lhota, 58, likes to say the city is in his blood. His grandfather was a firefighter, his grandmother a teacher and his father a cop. He was born in the Bronx and went on to Georgetown University and Harvard Business. He returned to New York and managed municipal finance investments for First Boston and Paine Webber before joining Giuliani’s administration in 1994.
He was budget director and then deputy mayor of operations, a post from which he oversaw 75 percent of the city’s workforce. He was at the forefront of several of Giuliani’s priorities, such as
slashing City Council funds, trimming welfare rolls and closing Staten Island’s Fresh Kills, the city’s last landfill.
He also was by the mayor’s side during the terror attacks and has said he “was nearly killed two or three times” that day by falling debris.
Lhota, who was diagnosed with lymphoma in 2006, refers to himself as a “9/11 cancer survivor” and says his doctors believe his cancer was caused by his time at Ground Zero. He is in remission and is enrolled in the city’s World Trade Center health program.
Lhota also was embroiled in some of the confrontations that helped define the Giuliani years. He led City Hall’s threats to strip the Brooklyn Museum of its funding and its home over its decision to display an exhibit mocking a Christian symbol.
After the decision ignited a debate over free speech and censorship, the administration backed down. Lhota has said he does not regret the episode.
Giuliani, who is a polarizing figure in the city, made only a handful of appearances for Lhota during the primary and has yet to campaign for him in the general election.
After leaving City Hall, Lhota returned to the private sector, becoming executive vice president at Cablevision and its sister company, Madison Square Garden. After helping lead a $1 billion renovation at the famed arena, he again felt the call of public service and was appointed by Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo — who, even while endorsing de Blasio last week, praised Lhota as “a great professional” — to run the MTA in 2011.
Bearded and bespectacled, Lhota received acclaim for steering the agency through the superstorm, though his 14-month tenure had some rocky moments. At one heated board meeting, he flashed his famed temper by yelling at a 77-year-old Holocaust survivor to a man” and he oversaw an unpopular fare increase.
He resigned last December to run for mayor and led the Republican campaign from start to finish. He said he loves “being in the underdog position” and “will be on offense the whole time” until the Nov. 5 election.
“I’ll hold my own,” he said with a smile.