As Gristedes supermarket mogul-turned-Republican mayoral candidate John Catsimatidis worked the room at a senior center last week, a woman inquired, "Are you applying for mayor?"
A delighted Catsimatidis responded, "I'm applying for the job of mayor!"
"I'm 65 years old," Catsimatidis informed residents repeatedly that day at various senior centers around Queens. "All my friends are retiring, and I'm applying for a new job!"
There is indeed a degree to which Catsimatidis appears to see his mayoral run as yet another business venture — perhaps not an especially lucrative one for the billionaire, but one in which his business acumen can be put to use.
His proposed approach to dealing with the city pension crisis Mayor Michael Bloomberg has repeatedly warned of draws heavily from private-sector practices: a push toward a model of paying workers "more money up front so they can live better and have them create their own 401K plan."
"You can't have a 70 percent benefit plan where you're paying a person $100 but it's actually costing the city $170," he explained.
But he said the same approach likely can't be applied to current employees, whose situations will likely remain largely the same. Even though those employees are in need of new contracts, "it doesn't mean you're going to shortchange them," Catsimatidis said.
His use of the word "shortchange" is notable for its appearance in a fairly recent New York Post report that an appeals court sided with a Manhattan federal judge and against Catsimatidis, ordering Catsimatidis to pay almost $3.9 million in legal fees to the lawyers of workers "who sued over being shortchanged."
The appeals court maintained the workers "were not paid proper overtime premium compensation for all hours that they worked in excess of 40 in a workweek since April 30, 1998," and affirmed allegations of "reduction of hours [and] withholding of overtime," among other complaints.
And earlier this year, the Daily News reported on a settlement with female Gristedes employees who said they were pushed into lower-paying, part-time positions and denied jobs at the management level. Catsimatidis reportedly told the Daily News that he settled to avoid paying lawyer fees, which he had been ordered to do in the other suit.
Catsimatidis prides himself on not being a career politician — unlike "professional politicians [who] depend on lobbyists to go from job to job."He is the classic billionaire candidate: He does not need special interests' money and seems to care little for political correctness.
At one senior center, a woman approached the candidate and asked, "Are you planning on hiring retarded commissioners?"
Catsimatidis looked at her questioningly, and the woman went on to explain that "functional" commissioners wouldn't need an inspector general, as has been ordered for the NYPD. She repeated her question.
"You're right," he affirmed.
Later, as staffers deliberated on how to fit a reporter into a crowded car for an interview, Catsimatidis turned to a young male staffer and, gesturing to the female reporter and a female photographer, asked, "You don't mind squeezing between two girls?"
The staffer smiled and responded that he did not mind, and Catsimatidis turned to the female reporter and asked with a grin, "Can you handle him?"
WHAT TO EXPECT FROM A MAYOR JOHN CATSIMATIDIS
- New city workers would be given higher salaries upfront and be responsible for their own 401K plans, like private sector workers. Current workers' situations would remain largely the same.
- Catsimatidis would push for an inspector general to oversee the MTA "to really, really find out what's going on," as well as changes to benefit Brooklyn and Staten Island residents, though he didn't specify what those changes would be.
- He will not keep up Bloomberg's appeal of the ruling blocking the large soda ban: "What I want to do is education our youth better where they shouldn't be going around drinking 32-ounce Cokes."
- Catsimatidis wants to "modify the bike lanes," though he did not specify how: "I believe in bicycles, but I don't believe in the big concrete monstrosities."
- Perhaps surprisingly for a man of his means, Catsimatidis is supportive of an increase in the minimum wage, and even said he has "talked to some of the Democrats and Republicans in Albany" about a plan for a progressive increase: 16- to 22-year-olds would have a lower minimum wage because, Catsimatidis said, because they are likely living with their parents. Those over the age of 22 would have a higher minimum wage, based on the notion that they are likely supporting themselves and their own households.
- Catsimatidis has several ideas for the NYPD. Some are specific, such as arming officers with electronic devices so they can scan people they stop and not have to make physical contact. Others are less so, such as making patrolmen "more mobile to be able to get around faster" and "more knowledgable of their surroundings of what's going on within a half a mile or a mile of each patrolman." Others land somewhere in the middle, such as connecting patrolmen to the 911 system.
- He would make unspecified changes to the Department of Education and Department of Buildings.
- Catsimatidis would keep up Bloomberg's legal fight against the City Council's inspector general bill, "but if it's the law ... I will obey the law."
Follow Danielle Tcholakian on Twitter @danielleiat