Walking down Boro Park’s 13th Avenue in the middle of the day, Joe Lhota hardly raised eyebrows, despite the dozen or so reporters following his mayoral campaign, along with a retinue of aides, police and supporters spread out across the width of the sidewalk, handing out flyers to passersby.
During his walk, which took place two weeks ago, a middle-aged woman approached the entourage, asking an aide if she could have a word with the mayoral wannabe. Sure, the aide replied, waving her through.
“We need an exciting mayor,” she told Lhota loudly (Boro Park, after all, is chock full of political operatives). “What exciting things do you have on your agenda?”
Excitement. It’s the thing that voters want to feel when they elect someone. And it is the one ingredient missing in Lhota’s campaign, which emphasizes the traditional pocketbook issues such as private schools, tax cuts and jobs, and a continuation of successful crime fighting programs. But none of his ideas earn him primetime coverage.
In other words, Lhota, 59, a former deputy mayor in Rudolph Giuliani’s administration and Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s transit chief until this January, wants more of the same. But at a time when New Yorkers are telling pollsters they want a break from the Michael Bloomberg era — even as they want his policies to continue — it is an uphill battle for a Republican candidate calling for a continuation.
In recent months, Boro Park has gotten used to having New York City mayoral candidates coming to campaign, although that has become infrequent following the Sept. 10 primary, which now pits Lhota against Bill de Blasio, a Democrat. A gaggle of some 15 minor candidates will also dot the ballot list, ranging from Hispanic pastor Erick Salgado’s rerun on a new party line, to funnyman Jimmy McMillan’s Rent Is Too High, Independence Party candidate Alfonso Carrion and Jack Hidary, a Sephardic Jewish tech entrepreneur.
While polls show that none of the third-party candidates rise above two or three percentage points, what’s burning Republicans now is that their 20-year hold on the mayoralty of the nation’s largest city appears likely to end. Survey after survey shows de Blasio, the city’s public advocate, with a lead of some 40 percent of the voting public, with few saying they are likely to change their minds by Election Day next Tuesday.
* * *
Lhota, who was born in the Bronx but who currently lives in Brooklyn Heights, has soldiered on, his daily schedule featuring events from early in the morning until late at night.
Curiously, the majority of campaign or fundraising stops on his schedule are in New York’s forgotten borough, Staten Island, the only thing in the Big Apple that still resembles its 1950s era of conservative politics — and in Orthodox neighborhoods.
A quick scan of Lhota’s daily emailed schedule for last week alone shows stops in two Jewish centers on Staten Island, a Bukharian Jewish group in Queens, the Young Israel of Far Rockaway, a powerful appearance on Nachum Segal’s radio show, a breakfast for the Bronx Jewish Community Relations Council, a Boro Park JCC breakfast, and a meeting with the Flatbush JCC.
It is clear that Lhota has staked his path to victory through Staten Island, along with Boro Park, Crown Heights and Forest Hills.
During one of his trips through Boro Park, Hamodia was invited to join the campaign van for a day on the trail, along with a wraparound interview and report of the campaign. Lhota talked about the 15 pounds he lost during the campaign, attempted to understand why he is not gaining traction, and why he prefers tomato soup for dinner (he gets home too late for a regular supper).
Surprisingly, Lhota has not made an issue of his own status as a Jew, which would possibly attract him to the city’s Jews even as he faces an opponent who represented parts of Boro Park in the City Council for eight years and who still has deep friendships in the community.
“Partly,” he says of his original decision not to spread the fact of his Jewish origin until the media found out, “I consider that pandering.” But he was also hesitant politically, wondering how the Jewish community would accept him.
“I’m not going to come into the community and start talking about how my grandmother is Jewish,” he says. “It begs the question: well, why aren’t you? And I wasn’t raised Jewish.”
* * *
Lhota’s family is indeed an enigmatic one, which the candidate calls a “very New York story” and one which he says he still has “lots of questions” about.
His maternal grandmother, Edith Steinberg, a Jewish Russian émigré, married Joseph Tinnaro, an Italian-American cabdriver, and raised their daughter Jacqueline, Joe’s mother, as a Catholic. Although Steinberg converted, Lhota remembers as an 11-year-old his grandmother’s funeral, during which liturgy was recited in a foreign language which he assumes was Hebrew.
More interesting is the story of Lhota’s paternal grandmother. Cecelia Whitely’s mother was on a New York-bound ship from London in the early 1900s when she gave birth to Cecelia. She died shortly afterward, with no father claiming the child and no relative appearing at the dock. Cecelia was adopted as a ward of the state, and later married Joseph Lhota Sr., a New York firefighter from Czechoslovakia. Their son Joseph was the candidate’s father.
However, raised as a Roman Catholic, and with a non-Jewish wife and daughter, Lhota said that he feels no affinity to Jews more than he does towards Italians, Russians, Bohemians or Czechs, the other nationalities whose blood courses through his veins.
“I am essentially Jewish under whatever the law they cited for me,” he says. “Here is what I feel an affinity to: how the community takes care of its own. It is something I wish I could transplant to other communities in the city of New York. It is amazing to me [to see] the social programs, the education programs, the overall approach of how they work with everyone, rich or poor, and how everyone comes together.”
Parts of those programs were on display during his campaign stop that afternoon, which featured meetings with two chassidic groups, a trip down 13th Avenue, a quick ducking into Shomer Shabbos’s “minyan factory” and serving Masbia soup kitchen’s guests.
On his way to the Shomer Shabbos shul, a storeowner came out and handed Lhota a Daily News article headlined “City Slug$ Small Biz.” What are you going to do about this? he queries.
Lhota promised to do what he could. The man, a short, stout chassidic person, insisted that he keep the newspaper.
“I have it on my desk,” Lhota replied, adding smugly, “If you ever see the other guy (no doubt who that is), give it to him.”
Further down, Lhota waved to a police officer across the street.
“I am a huge supporter of the NYPD,” he said, launching into a litany of criticisms that appeared in a dramatic ad earlier that day, saying that the city would return to the crime of the 1980s if de Blasio wins.
Following a short appearance in Shomer Shabbos (which precipitated a mini media crisis when three women of his group were asked to leave since it was in the middle of Minchah), Lhota’s group drove through Boro Park, with aides pointing out the Stoliner shul, Bobov, Bais Yaakov, Munkacs and Skver. Lhota asked Michael Fragin, an Orthodox aide, where that kosher supermarket he visited last time was. “Gourmet Glatt?”
That place briefly became a national sensation as Lhota ate Israeli-manufactured Skittles, which were recently certified as kosher, only to discover that the candies weren’t the M&M’s he thought they were.
“When you’re expecting chocolate in your mouth and you end up with a Skittle, it’s a big surprise,” he says. “I don’t think I ever had a Skittle before. So when you’re expecting chocolate and you end up with — I don’t know, it tasted like a petroleum byproduct with sugar.”
* * *
So why are New Yorkers, who elected Rudy Giuliani twice and Mike Bloomberg three times, souring on the Grand Old Party? After spending so much time on the trail, Lhota has some thoughts, but nothing “scientific,” he says.
“I look at it as the people in New York, the populace in New York, are unbelievably apathetic when it comes to government,” he says. “We need to reinvigorate some level of civic responsibility in this city. We really do.”
Lhota guesses that the apathy stems from people being so unfamiliar with the role of government, “what it could do or not do.” He also believes that, notwithstanding the past 20 years of Republican control of Gracie Mansion, the essentially one-party system in the city makes voters think they cannot change the way things work.
“Look at the various races over time,” he says. “Whoever wins the Democratic primary is assumed the victor, no matter what.”
“Anyways,” he says finally, “I’m not particularly sure why they’re apathetic. Everyone I know votes.”
Lhota’s strategy has been unclear until recent weeks. A student of Barry Goldwater, the 1960s-era father of the modern conservative movement, he began the first two weeks of the general election slamming his opponent for Sandinista ties during his trips to Nicaragua in the 1980s. In recent days, his focus has narrowed to issues that have earned him some attention: charter schools, police tactics and taxes.
At the same time, de Blasio and his independent super PAC supporters have painted his GOP rival as a “tea party ally,” at one point blaming Lhota for the closure of the Statue of Liberty during the federal government shutdown earlier this month.
In ads and during the debates, Lhota has gone to strenuous lengths to distance himself from his national party, calling de Blasio’s broad brush “duplicitous at its very best.”
“He’s essentially lying to the people of New York, and the people of New York have to understand that this man who wants to be their mayor has absolutely no feeling that he doesn’t have to lie about who I am and what I am,” he says. “And it’s really unfortunate. That’s not what leaders do. And the mayor is a leader. And you’ve got to elect someone who is a leader.”
But he agrees that he has to get on top of the information war, defining himself on his own in the last few days of the campaign.
“I need to get the biographical stuff out,” he says, as he climbs out of the car to go into Masbia. “I don’t represent the elite. I don’t talk about corporate welfare the way Bill says I do.”
* * *
But Lhota has not only targeted the Jewish community. He has gone where few Republicans have gone in recent years. Attempting to peel away some votes on the fringes of the opposing party, Lhota in an ad declared himself as supportive of immoral values as de Blasio, and has attended events of that community. He has also cozied up to divisive Al Sharpton, who is considered responsible for inciting the 1991 Crown Heights riot in which Yankel Rosenbaum, Hy”d, was murdered in cold blood by a rampaging mob shouting “Death to the Jews.”
Back in the van, Lhota says that he was considering running for mayor even before he accepted the job to lead the MTA.
“I love being able to solve problems, I love being able to go in and get things done,” he says.
Actually, Lhota claims the mantle as the “true progressive” in the race for his support of charter schools and private education.
In his meetings with Jewish groups, Lhota comes across as a person who is eager to learn and to understand new concepts. He easily admitted that he couldn’t pronounce the term metzitzah b’peh, an issue of concern that was brought up several times throughout the day.
“The bris ritual which I cannot pronounce,” he begins during one of the gatherings. “Every time I try, I mess it up.”
“We don’t want you to pronounce it, we want you to denounce it!” one participant yells out.
During a pre-primary interview with Hamodia, this writer gave Lhota an easy way to get around the tongue twister: MBP. It appeared to have been adopted by Lhota, who said that the city regulating “MBP” is a “violation of their constitutional rights.”
Lhota defines his MBP stance as just one more paper in the packet that parents bring home from the hospital. He would sidestep the safety issue brought up by the Department of Health by giving the government the right to give parents a piece of paper at hospital discharge time. Parents do not have to sign it or even acknowledge it, he says.
Lhota started both of his meetings with his brief bio: “You know my name is Joe Lhota, born in the Bronx and I live in Brooklyn. My dad was a firefighter and my grandfather was a cop.”
On education, Lhota makes clear that “In my heart of hearts I’m a huge believer in vouchers.” However, he says that the state constitution currently prohibits that, so he will fight instead for tax credits, particularly a state bill introduced by Sen. Marty Golden (R-Flatbush) that would allow all “others” outside the public school system to get a tax credit. But the Assembly refused to bring it to the floor for a vote.
“I take [the hardship in getting government aid for yeshivos] from a different perspective and we end up in the same place: I hate bureaucracy,” he says.
He would also allow any yeshivah aid aimed at public health, like school nurses or public safety, like police protection.
Saying that the education department is currently antagonistic toward Orthodox Jews on issues from special education to late homecoming transportation, he wants a new chancellor who will be a “change agent,” who is not afraid that people will be upset at what he does. He promised to appoint a chancellor with “good management skills” and who “knows children’s development.”
That has been the dream of mayors for decades, but Lhota is convinced he could be the one to change the Department of Education by “turn[ing] the [public school system] around by going around the unions and going directly to the teachers.”
Similar to the way President Ronald Reagan went around Congress by appealing directly to the people on union-busting, Lhota says that teachers want the freedom to work without unions dictating to them.
As for de Blasio’s signature proposal for free preschool and afterschool programs, Lhota laughs. He, too, would institute that, but without his rival’s nearly 1 percent tax rate hike on those earning $500,000 a year to pay for it.
But at the heart of Lhota’s campaign is his annoyance with the excesses of city government, saying at one point that he wants government officials to recognize that they’re spending other people’s money and be “stingy at times.”
“It’s very interesting, it doesn’t matter what communities I go into — here in Boro Park or Crown Heights or Williamsburg, the issues are unifying: The government is not paying attention anymore, the government doesn’t seem to be treating us equitably, [the dramatic rise in] property taxes and water bills are uniform, that’s not specific to any community,” he says.
Lhota says that the city uses property assessments to indirectly raise taxes on residents by reducing the number of assessors and relying on computers. “I never met a computer that can accurately assess property values,” he says.
Arriving at one of his stops, a group of about seven people representing a Boro Park kehillah, Lhota goes through his spiel of what he could do or cannot do.
“Take care, guys,” he ends off. “I will be back!”