When he arrived at the Young Israel of Staten Island on Sunday, Joe Lhota was likely prepared to defend his positions on city issues. But when fielding questions, the Republican mayoral contender seemed surprised to find himself defending his campaign.
“You have a PR problem,” said one of the attendees at the Council of Jewish Organizations of Staten Island Breakfast. “We don’t see you enough.”
Wearing a large, black felt yarmulke on a day laden with appearances at Jewish venues, Lhota responded, “I’m doing everything I can to get my name out there. I’m spending over a million dollars on television right now, my opponent is spending three or four times that amount.”
With several Orthodox men working on Jewish outreach in his campaign, it seems Lhota has yet to pass up an invitation to a Jewish event, while Democrat Bill de Blasio makes far fewer public appearances. (He accepted the COJO of Staten Island’s invitation, but didn’t show, the organization said.)
On Sunday, Lhota did his best to project confidence.
“Every day I’m more and more encouraged, especially with the number of Democrats who come up to me and talk to me about why they’re going to vote for me and what are their issues,” he told The Jewish Week.
Consistent polls since he and de Blasio won their respective primaries, however, suggest there was never a race. A survey of registered voters by Siena College for The New York Times released Monday gave de Blasio a 45-point lead, 68 to 23 percent, showing 87 percent believe the contest is over and fewer than 10 percent are uncertain about their vote.
So, while polls and recent history show Jews more receptive to voting Republican than other religious groups, it has been difficult for him to score endorsements from Jewish publications – even those skeptical of de Blasio – or from Jewish elected officials or community leaders.
(The Orthodox, Brooklyn-based Jewish Press endorsed de Blasio last week, while saying it was "wary" of his plan to increase taxes on the wealthy. Lhota "never really connected with the voters and made his case," the paper's editorial said. The Jewish Voice, also Brooklyn-based, endorsed Lhota last week, saying he "has no political agenda.")
But William Helmreich, a sociology professor at the CUNY Graduate Center, said early low poll numbers inevitably create a sort of quagmire.
“Why back a person who is sure to lose when you can go with the winner?” asked Helmreich. “I have spoken to people in various industries around the city and people who depend on the city for various reasons, and they are all going to go with de Blasio because it’s a slam dunk.”
“The only endorsements he will get are from people who have no stake in the game or who really like him, because in politics people remember these things.”
At the Staten Island breakfast, Lhota spoke of his successful work as deputy mayor under Rudy Giuliani to shut down the despised Fresh Kills landfill, and promised to headquarter an unspecified city agency there. While noting that he visits the island several time.
When asked about the abundant appearances at Jewish events and in Orthodox neighborhoods, Lhota noted that Jewish community councils and COJOs tend to schedule their legislative breakfasts at this time of year.
But he added, “I have been courting the Jewish community. It is significant and has been helpful to me in the past and I hope it will be in the future. I worked with them … first as budget director when I worked with Agudath Israel and then as deputy mayor, on all types of issues.”
A centerpiece of Lhota’s campaign has been raising the specter of crime reverting to its early 1990s levels, wrapped around criticism of de Blasio’s promise to modify the NYPD’s stop-and frisk campaign. In endorsing de Blasio on Sunday, the New York Times accused Lhota of “basing his campaign on fear, apparently having concluded that he won’t win on managerial competence.”
“I don’t believe I’m running on fear, I’m running on what I believe the truth is, that [the policies of] Bill de Blasio will be reckless and endanger us,” Lhota told The Jewish Week in an interview. (De Blasio’s campaign has not responded to numerous recent requests for an interview, though he granted an interview during the primary in July.)
A controversial campaign commercial features an iconic scene from the Crown Heights riots. Asked if he believes the riots could recur, in spite of years of bridge-building work in the community over the past two decades, Lhota said “Anything can happen in the city of New York if you take your foot off the pedal of proactive policing.”
Apparently recognizing that police reform has been a catapult for de Blasio, Lhota noted in both his morning and evening addresses Sunday the need for more sensitivity: “I will give the resources to the NYPD to do their job, but I’m also going to reinvigorate what’s on the side of every police car: It says courtesy, professionalism and respect. I want to make sure all officers understand what that means … That’s a two-way street.”
When pressed on what specific policies he feels would boost crime, Lhota noted the Democrat’s support for greater oversight of the police through a civilian inspector general and for legislation making it easier to sue police officers; both would make cops feel like the ones who are handcuffed, he said, adding his belief that de Blasio favors stopgap measures rather than a war on crime.
“Last week he stands with the attorney general of the state of New York talking about smartphones and its need to have a kill feature,” he said, noting that theft of smartphones and tablets are the fastest growing category of crime. “… The issue is do you go after people who steal it or go after four or five people who are fencing it selling it. Auto crime went down because Ray Kelly closed down every chop shop and every [illegal] exporting company.”
Asked about his conservative views about religious freedom, which affect policy issues such as the city’s regulation of circumcision or chasidic stores posting modesty rules for women, Lhota said, “There is nothing a government can do to interfere with religious practice without violating the First Amendment. To me the First Amendment is sacrosanct and the idea that a government can come in and tell a religious group what they can and cannot do is just not correct.” He also blasted the Bloomberg administration’s position against granting access to public school space to religious groups.
“I just don’t see the logic in that,” he said.
Several Staten Islanders interviewed at the COJO breakfast said they appreciated his visit and planned to vote for him, but none said they felt he had a serious chance.
“He seems to be reluctant to raise taxes,” said Carl Eisenberg, 70, a retired government employee from Dongan Hills.
“I’m concerned about a return to the Dinkins years,” said Mitchell Lehrer, 60, an accountant from Granville.
Ernest Beuhler, 80, a retired accountant from Rose Bank, said “Up until recently I never heard of him.
Frieda Haimo, 60, a retired teacher from Great Kills, said she was voting for de Blasio because he had superior views on education. “The main issues are education and stop-and-frisk,” she said.
Later that evening Lhota said he was working hard to rise above politics and show his human side. “Different people try to paint me as something I’m not,” he said. “I came from very humble upbringing. My parents were very young when I was born. My father worked two jobs to pay the bills my mother worked two.
“I’m very lucky, I know that. I took advantage of the opportunities that New York has to offer, and I want to make sure that every kid in New York has those opportunities.”
Keeping a low profile in the campaign is Lhota’s ex-boss, Giuliani, who was blasted in a recent debate as divisive by de Blasio. Asked if Giuliani had lost some of his popularity since leaving office, Lhota said “he hasn’t lost any popularity to me. I’ll be campaigning with him this week.”
Lhota's campiagn schedule said he would appear with Giuliani Monday evening at the Manhattan terminal of the Staten Island ferry.
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