In mayoral bid, former deputy both embraces and distances himself from a controversial administration.
How much of Rudy Giuliani is just enough?
That’s the question facing Joseph Lhota, the city’s former budget director and deputy to the famously feisty mayor, as Lhota pursues the Republican nomination and victory in November’s City Hall race.
Giuliani, who has an interest in a friendly administration that won’t reverse his policies or trash his legacy, has endorsed Lhota’s campaign, donated the maximum contribution to it and will likely join him on the stump.
But Lhota is known to be far more of a coalition builder and consensus seeker than his old boss. In 1999, The New York Times called him a “Calm Voice for a Combative Mayor.”
And as he seeks to build his own political legacy, Lhota does not hesitate to say where he differed from Giuliani’s style, looking back at some of the most storied incidents of an era in which the mayor and his aides (notably his lawyers) spent much of their time fighting the City Council, Albany, civil liberties groups and a wide range of critics.
“One of the things I always tried to do in the Giuliani administration was to be collaborative, because internecine warfare doesn’t always allow you to move forward and progress in a certain direction,” Lhota told Jewish Week editors in one of his first extensive interviews since stepping down as chairman of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority to run for mayor.
"One of the reasons why Giuliani selected me to be deputy mayor for operations is that during that point in time I might have been one of those budget directors everybody liked, even though I had to say no to everybody.”
He noted his role in gathering diverse political figures, including former mayor and Giuliani rival David Dinkins, to join together in 1999 and publicly protest the state Legislature’s repeal of a commuter tax that was worth more than $300 million in annual revenue to the city. "I remember being in the back of the Blue Room for a press conference and thinking this is the way it should be," he said.
Recalling one of the most contentious episodes of the Giuliani era, the 1997 battle over city funding to the Brooklyn Museum after it featured an exhibit that offended Catholics, Lhota said he tried to convince the museum to use more of its private funding for the exhibit. At the time he backed the mayor’s effort, ultimately blocked in federal court, to defund the city’s share.
With the benefit of hindsight, Lhota now says that while it was wrong to feature art that, in the view of many, denigrated religion, “If a government entity gives money to an art institution it’s totally unrestricted, [it] can use that money any way that it wants…. Government can’t give money and then say “no, you can’t do that.”
Asked if support from Giuliani was a double-edged sword since so many people have strong opinions one way or the other about him, Lhota said he’s heard that analysis, but noted that the mayor’s “one city, one standard” mantra proved popular, as did his successful tactics to reduce crime.
He added: “I don’t think there’s any community in this city I won’t talk to. There won’t be any elected officials I won’t participate in discussions with.”
Asked if it’s fair to claim, as many do, that the city’s minority communities had no voice in City Hall during the Giuliani years, Lhota said, “The minority community had a voice, but some people had more of a voice than others.”
He noted, however, that Giuliani made a strict practice of holding monthly town hall meetings throughout the city so that he and his commissioners could directly hear complaints, and the mayor made a point of visiting areas where he was least popular. "He didn't hide from those communities," Lhota said. "He would always go for the toughest one."
Lhota said only once was a meeting skipped, following 9-11, and two meetings were held the next month. "I think it's very unfortunate the current mayor hasn't done this," he added. "It wasn't scripted in any way, shape or form. People were allowed to ask any question ... And what I did as deputy mayor was made sure the follow-up happened, and it wasn't just lip service."
On another piece of Giuliani legend, the mayor’s ejection of Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat from a United Nations gala at Lincoln Center in 1995, Lhota noted that the mayor’s prior history as a federal prosecutor at the time when Leon Klinghoffer was killed by PLO terrorists on the Achille Lauro liner affected his decision.
But while asserting his support for Israel — he is planning his first visit to the Jewish state later in the campaign — Lhota would not say that he would have done the same as mayor, saying the question was too hypothetical. “Rudy felt [Arafat] was a murderer, and that’s how he treated him,” Lhota said.
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As a Republican who paved the way for a majority of Jews to break from traditional support of Democrats, Giuliani was an important figure in recent Jewish political history.
Propelled into office in the aftermath of the deadly Crown Heights riots, his tough talk on crime and racial politics resonated, promising no such disturbance would be tolerated on his watch.
That proved popular not just among the Orthodox and political conservatives: He won about two-thirds of the Jewish vote in 1993 against Democrat Dinkins and slightly increased that share in 1997 against a Jewish challenger, Ruth Messinger (now the executive director of the American Jewish World Service).
Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a Republican in his first two campaigns, also fared well with Jews as Giuliani’s designated successor, and Lhota hopes the Jewish dalliance with the GOP will continue.
“I will do everything I can to get a sizable vote in the Jewish community of all five boroughs, as with other communities,” he said. “One, because it is large and two, because it is a higher percentage of the turnout.”
But Giuliani’s endorsement may prove less of a boost today than it was for Bloomberg in 2001, says Tom Allon, a Republican who dropped out of the mayoral race in March and now writes about it for his newspaper, City and State.
“In the Republican primary, which [Lhota] has to win first, his ties to Rudy Giuliani in some circles is probably a net positive,” said Allon.
“But he risks winning the battle and losing the war because in the general [election] he would probably turn off more voters because of his connection with Giuliani.”
Allon, who is not supporting any candidate, estimated that the Republican turnout in the general election could be as small as 40,000 to 50,000 people.
Since leaving office, Giuliani has lost some of his luster as “America’s Mayor,” as Time Magazine dubbed him following 9/11, as evidenced by his stumbling 2008 presidential campaign. “I think people will forget that transformative time from 1993 to 1997 and how he changed the city, and more people will remember him for the over-reaches of his second term and failed presidential bid,” Allon said.
Asked about his view of the city’s diverse Jewish community Lhota, whose maternal grandmother was Jewish, said, “The community is not homogenous,” and that pursuing Jewish votes was similar to pursuing Latino votes, in that both communities are segmented. “You can’t just say the Jewish vote. When I give my view on Israel there are some parts of the [chasidic community] where that’s not going to fly.”
Lhota declined to specify prominent members of the Jewish community with whom he consults, other than Michael Fragin, a former Jewish liaison to George Pataki when he was governor, who has also worked on Bloomberg’s 2009 campaign. Fragin is now Lhota’s Jewish liaison.
Among Lhota’s contributors, according to campaign finance board records, are businessman James Tisch, former president of UJA-Federation; lawyer Kenneth Bialkin, a former chairman of both the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York and Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations; former New York Post publisher and former MTA chairman Peter Kalikow; public relations mogul Howard Rubenstein and Mets Chief Operating Officer Jeff Wilpon.
(Interestingly, Bloomberg’s daughter, Emma, senior planning officer of the anti-poverty Robin Hood Foundation, also made a $1,000 donation to Lhota.)
An issue of key concern to Orthodox voters is aid for yeshivas and parents who pay tuition. In the interview, Lhota said he favors some type of tax relief that would benefit people who pay parochial school tuition.
“People who pay various different property taxes, sales taxes, corporate taxes should be allowed to have credit … not the full amount, clearly we can’t afford that,” Lhota said. While he supports the concept of direct vouchers to support private education, he sees it as politically unfeasible ."There was a time on vouchers when I was very big on it, I dont see how couches will actually happen in this country at any level," he said.
Like most other candidates for mayor in both parties, Lhota supports finding more ways to relieve expenses for religious schools without compromising separation of church and state.
“I’m a product of parochial schools. I remember when I was in Catholic school in the Bronx there was a movement to start taking away textbooks … and actually fighting for it, going to Albany It was my very first lobbying when I was in fourth or fifth grade.”
He added: “There is nothing wrong with the government funding non-religious textbooks or funding security at schools or school buses.” Lhota said he would favor extending the city’s existing School Safety force to patrol private as well as public schools, but does not favor arming them.
With regard to a controversial circumcision procedure (called metzitzah b’peh) that the city’s Board of Health believes is dangerous to infants, Lhota said his thinking in the matter has evolved from an initial belief that the consent decree imposed by the city but challenged in federal court was “a reasonable response.”
He now sees it as a “slippery slope” that can lead to infringement on religious practice, such as deciding that the implements used to baptize a baby are not sufficiently sanitary. “In no way, shape or form should the government get involved as long as they tell the parents what the risks are,” he said.
He said that as mayor, he would bring the circumcision issue back to the Board of Health, whose members are appointed by the mayor, with an eye toward repealing the consent decree.
Whether the issue is oral suction at circumcision, supersized sodas or the salt content of food, Lhota said, the city should inform the public about risks and then step back.
“I find … the nanny state form of government, telling us what we can drink or can’t drink or eat salt goes a bit too far. “
One issue that tends to move New York Jewish voters to the right is crime, and Lhota said he would continue two controversial police tactics under Commissioner Ray Kelly aimed at reducing street crime and fighting terror: Stop-and-frisk, and surveillance of Muslim communities, even outside the city, to gain intelligence on potential terrorist plots.
Lhota said that in the interest of reducing tensions, police officers should undergo relevant continuing education, as lawyers are required to do, and stressed the importance of keeping cops in the same precinct long enough to know the leaders and institutions.
But he noted that African-American leaders, including Dinkins and Rep. Charles Rangel, have publicly said that stop-and-frisk takes guns off the streets and makes them safer.
On the issue of surveillance, Lhota said, “Anything you can do to save lives of New Yorkers is a good thing,” as long as the department adhered to guidelines established by the courts.
“There have been 16 or 17 terrorist events we have been able to stop,” he said.
Assessing his chances of winning, Lhota pointed to another former mayor, Ed Koch, whom pundits had counted out immediately prior to the 1977 Democrat primary.
“He won because he went out there and appealed to what New Yorkers wanted to hear, that he would be the consummate New Yorker, keep the city safe and [show fiscal responsibility].”
Unlike presidential elections in which people are more likely to vote along party lines, Lhota said "people don't vote for mayor on philosophy, they vote for the person who does the Ed Koch thing, rolls up his sleeves and gets the job done."
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