Former MTA Chairman Joe Lhota, right, meets with the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association.
Credit: Miles Dixon
It sometimes seems you could ask Joe Lhota a question on just about anything related to New York City and get an answer not only to your question, but several related questions it had not occurred to you to ask.
Lhota self-deprecatingly refers to his own "insatiable appetite for useless information," but his encyclopedic knowledge of the city he wants to lead would not be useless for a mayor to have at his fingertips.
When he speaks of the city — always phrasing it as "the city of New York" — there is a sort of reverence.
The burly former MTA chairman is "a kid from the city of New York": born in the Bronx, spent the last 25 years in Brooklyn, went to college on a Patrolmen's Benevolent Association scholarship because his father was an NYPD cop.
Lhota is the type of Republican who is palatable for New Yorkers: fiscally conservative but emphatically not interested in cutting services, speaking equally enthusiastically about affordable housing and managing the city's budget by doing away with irrelevant or redundant government agencies.
His belief in the importance of low and moderate income housing, day care, pre-K — all the Democratic candidate talking points — seems to be a product of his upbringing: His parents were very young when they had him, and until his father became a cop when Lhota was 10 years old, both of his parents worked two or three jobs to make ends meet.
"I remember it clearly," Lhota said. "I know what it means to be below the middle class."
Lhota pointed out that de Blasio's proposed tax on high earners in order to fund a $500,000 education plan actually comes out to less than one percent of the city budget. He wants universal pre-K too, he said. But he's confident he can find that money in the budget, without raising taxes.
Lhota is also very pragmatic, noting that this is the first year New York City has universal kindergarten, but it's only half a day. These are the sort of notable details that make Lhota stand out in a campaign season rife with quotable catchphrases and often lacking in concrete proposals or even simply straightforward answers.
A potential de Blasio-Lhota general election could be interesting, as the Republican is surprisingly not so unlike the ultra-progressive: As de Blasio is beating the war drums against the status quo, Lhota has an eagerness to push the limits of what is expected and accepted, insisting on a "need to think about how to structure the government of the city of New York and reorganize it to fit the world we're in now."
"The beauty of a new administration is that we don't know our limits," Lhota said. "I want to be able to hire people who understand anything is possible. The last thing I ever want to hear is the follow words: 'We've never done it that way before.' Those words are, to me, a challenge."
What to expect from Mayor Joe Lhota
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- Lhota feels a sense of urgency to deal with the city's contract issue, specifically that on top of an expected $2 billion budget gap in the first year, there are also 153 bargaining unions that don't have contracts: "I really don't want to wait until inauguration to start that process," Lhota said. "We need to sit down at the table, we need to break bread. I need to listen to the unions and understand their concerns and their issues, I will then talk about my concerns and my issues and then together we'll create a roadmap on how we can create a fair deal for all of the city workers."
- Much of Lhota's focus is on budget management in order to cut spending without cutting services. "The budget director's title is really the director of the office of management and budget," he explained. "I'm going to put the M back in OMB, making sure the budget director focuses with the mayor's office of operations on how to help reform the government, not reduce services, but provide savings."
- In dealing with the pension crisis, Lhota described a system more akin to what is seen in the private sector with 401Ks (though, ever the nerd, Lhota noted that in government it's called a 457 plan, not a 401K).
- Lhota is a defender of stop-and-frisk, which he noted has existed for decades prior to Bloomberg and Kelly, as far back as when his father was a cop in the early '60s. The issue as he sees it is inadequate communication with the public in explaining the program and the Handschu guidelines, which outline the NYPD's authority with regard to its Muslim surveillance program: "Everybody talks about transparency," Lhota said. "All transparency means is you talk more, you give information more, enhanced communication. They need to do that because you lose the argument if you don't participate in the discussion."
- He also would keep Ray Kelly as police commissioner if Kelly was interested in the job.
- Lhota will eliminate or merge departments in city agencies, which he said was effective in reducing government costs when he was budget director under Rudy Giuliani, when the transit police and housing police were merged under the NYPD, and the Department of Health and the Department of Mental Health were combined "because there was a significant amount of overlap," he explained. "We need to think about how to structure the government of the city of New York and reorganize it to fit the world we're in now."
- Lhota would continue to fight the stop-and-frisk federal ruling and the actions under the City Council's Community Safety Act, but he would drop Bloomberg's appeal of the decision blocking the soda ban.
- Lhota is interested in building affordable housing using "subsidy-type programs" that he worked on in the private sector when he got his start as an investment banker. He is also insistent there's extra space to be used in the city: "Some of the state authorities have surplus space in the city, the MTA clearly has surplus space," the former MTA chairman said. "I want it as mayor. I want to be able to build affordable housing there."