When Joe Lhota announced his resignation this week from the MTA, ostensibly to dive into the race for mayor in 2013, the reaction from political experts, the media and voters ranged from excitement to indifference. There seems to be a consensus that Lhota would be an interesting candidate–and potentially the most viable in a muddled Republican field where nobody has broken away from the pack–but there are those who believe that the obstacles in Lhota’s path make his ascension to the Republican nomination a tough road.
The main challenge for Lhota as he weighs whether to enter the race is defining himself politically to certain key constituencies. As a Republican in New York City, he may have to cater extensively to a business community that is perceived to be supporting City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, who is currently leading in the polls among the Democratic candidates.
“Lhota is obviously a formidable candidate, but he presents the biggest problem for Quinn because they share some obvious constituencies,” said one senior labor insider.
Kathy Wylde, the president and CEO of the Partnership for New York City, a nonprofit coalition of business leaders in the city, was non-committal when asked whether Lhota would have her organization’s support. Wylde said that while the business community remembers Lhota fondly from his time as a deputy mayor in the Giuliani administration, his path to the mayor’s office is far from defined. She did say that Lhota’s leadership during Hurricane Sandy, which left parts of the subway system completely incapacitated, showed that he had the ability to manage a crisis.
“Clearly one of the things the business community is concerned about losing in Mike Bloomberg are his extraordinary management skills, ability to attract talent and manage to an end,” Wylde said. “Joe’s showing in the storm represented great management and that’s a moment in history but it’s something that clearly caught people’s attention. I would think that it may have been a precipitating factor for those who urged him to run.”
Others were not as convinced that Lhota’s leadership through Sandy will be enough to blaze a path to victory. Hank Sheinkopf, a veteran political consultant who reportedly will be joining the campaign of Democratic mayoral candidate Bill Thompson, pointed out that all of New York City’s Republican mayors were elected on the heels of a crisis (Giuliani’s was crime, Bloomberg’s was 9/11) and that Sandy alone might not be enough to galvanize Lhota’s election. But Sheinkopf was mainly concerned that Lhota will have to play serious catch-up in fundraising at this late juncture of the race.
“In an election, there’s nothing like having done it before, or having the resources to do it,” he said. “Bloomberg had never done it before but he had the resources to do it. Lhota hasn’t done it before and doesn’t have the resources. Everyone else who’s running on the Democratic side has done it before citywide, except for Quinn. Experience matters.”
As for Lhota’s tenure in the Giuliani administration, in which he served as a deputy mayor, it is not clear if that association would help or hurt him as a candidate. Insiders suggest that Giuliani’s name doesn’t carry nearly as much weight with voters as it did 10 years ago, especially as the former mayor has strayed far from his moderate roots and become more of a political firebrand. Lhota also had a reputation as being somewhat brash and hot-tempered under Giuliani, though those that dealt with him back then say that they have seen a noticeable change in his approach.
“I think he has matured and gained a lot of experience from those Giuliani years,” said Charles Brecher, a research director at the Citizens Budget Commission, which had a contentious relationship with Giuliani and Lhota in the past. “There have been changes, at least that’s the impression I get from his tenure at the MTA. He’s been very responsive and cooperative in recent years.”
Despite his stewardship of the authority post-Sandy, even Lhota’s leadership of the MTA has come under scrutiny, as he leaves the authority after a mere nine months, in the wake of a subway fare hike and no new contract for transit workers. Labor sources maintain that Lhota is a serious candidate regardless of his shortcomings, but that he will have to work overtime to get the unions on his side.
“The guy’s a serious candidate, there’s no doubt about that. Whether or not he’ll get labor, the unions will have to get to know him,” said Ed Ott, a labor consultant. “The union and the MTA know him, they probably have good and bad or indifferent opinions about him depending on who they are. Everybody else, he’s got to make the rounds and I’m sure he will.”
Whether Lhota can overcome these challenges and appeal to millions of voters who know him only for his brief time at the MTA remains to be seen. At the very least, many are in agreement that Lhota’s potential candidacy makes this mayoral election one of the most competitive in years.
“This may be the first time since La Guardia that we will have two contested primaries in both parties of significance,” Sheinkopf said.