(I conducted an investigative profile on Mr. Joseph Lhota, one of New York City’s mayoral candidates. This was part of an assignment for a course in Investigative Reporting. I primarily made use of original sources, publicly available archival material and news articles from the early 2000′s in my reporting.)
In the summer of 1999, the Chairman of Cattaraugus County, sent the then Deputy Mayor of New York City, Joseph Lhota, a strongly worded letter. The city was in the process of shutting down the gargantuan Fresh Kills landfill, and then Mayor Rudy Guiliani had decided to take out the trash by signing ‘host community agreements’ with communities near-by that would agree to accept the City’s garbage, which in 2001, amounted to nearly 650 tons a day.
Mr. Fitzpatrick was not pleased. Not only were these “communities” vaguely defined- they could mean anything from a town to a county to simply a “neighborhood”- other counties neighboring these “host” communities would find themselves besieged with thousands of dump trucks ferrying trash to and fro from New York. In his letter, Mr. Fitzpatrick asked Mayor Rudy Guiliani whether New York City would keep its promise “not to send New York City solid waste to any community that does not want it.”
A week later, Joe Lhota, then First Deputy Mayor of the city, replied curtly, stating, “The disposal of municipal waste is a business. It is an enterprise which creates numerous jobs, valuable economic activity and, when conducted in an environmentally sound manner, is profitable to both the private sector companies and local communities involved.”
This view of governance, which views good management and healthy profits as its epitome runs through Mr. Lhota’s campaign to be mayor of New York City, and is evidenced in his background. Mr. Lhota makes no bones about his strong belief in this MBA-style view of governance; when asked what he believed the role of the mayor of New York City to be, Mr. Lhota replied, “New York City is like a company, and the mayor is its CEO. The CEO’s job is to ensure the education, employment and well-being of his share-holders, the residents of New York. “
Mr. Lhota believes his experience in the private sector sets him apart from the other candidates, and makes him uniquely positioned for the position of “CEO” of New York City. His image as a “regular Joe” from the Bronx, along with his admittedly impressive resume certainly make him a threat. But the question remains- do these translate into votes?
Mr. Lhota certainly believes they would. “I’ve had a career where I’ve managed millions in money and had thousands of people reporting to me. I definitely think this works in my favor as a candidate,” he said.
However, Mr. Lhota’s views on governing may not make the most convincing argument in the current political climate. Over the last 5 years, private corporations have certainly taken a beating to their image; the trope of the greedy corporate CEO was especially strong even in the latest presidential election, where candidate Mitt Romney was unable to shake off the bad publicity his stint at Bain Capital brought with it. Current Mayor Bloomberg, a billionaire several times over, is criticized with being too out-of-touch with the reality of most New Yorkers. While Mr. Lhota escapes Romney and Bloomberg’s curse of being “too rich,” his career as an investment banker and business-friendly bureaucrat could end up being a double-edged sword.
Big Business And City Hall
One segment of the population Mr. Lhota has convinced, however, is big business, and his business-friendly rhetoric has certainly not harmed his campaign donations. His campaign, led by his wife Tamra Lhota who was also campaign fundraiser for Mayor Guiliani’s campaign, managed to raise $730,000 over the first two months of campaigning, giving Mr. Lhota an early lead in funds raised.
And Lhota’s contributors look like a list of the who’s who of the business world- James Dolan, President and CEO of Cablevision (where Lhota was executive vice president for several years), Mitchell Modell, CEO and President of Modell’s Sporting Goods, Home Depot founder Ken Langone; sports-equipment magnate Mitchell Modell, former Citigroup and Time Warner CEO Richard Parsons; Jeff Wilpon, the son of Mets owner Fred Wilpon as well as current Mayor Bloomberg’s daughter, Emma Bloomberg have donated to his campaign.
Yet, Mr. Lhota is wary of declaring himself big businesses’ man. “I wish I was their man, but the fact is, I’m not. You can’t believe everything you read in the papers,” he says. “My rivals, especially Christine Quinn have raised far more money than I have.”
Another group whose support Mr. Lhota seems to count on are his old friends from City Hall, the “inner circle” of the Guiliani administration. Former Mayor Guiliani has publicly supported Mr. Lhota and campaigned for him, but other ex-members of the Guiliani administration, such as former Deputy Mayors Peter Powers and Randy Mastro, as well as their family members, have also donated to his campaign.
Since Mr. Guiliani draws polarizing reactions from New Yorkers today, would his constant presence on the campaign trail harm more than hurt Mr. Lhota’s chances? Mr. Lhota himself emphatically disagrees. “He was a great mayor, and he changed the city for the better, he cleaned up crime, created jobs… he did a lot of good for the city. His presence can only help me,” he says.
With his biggest supporters being big-business luminaries and former high-level government officials and his public as well as private sector experience, Mr. Lhota certainly believes in a cozy relationship between business and government. “The two are inextricably linked,” he says. “Business provides the jobs, and it is government’s role to provide the right environment for this.”
However, not all of Mr. Lhota’s former City Hall colleagues have come out in his support. His one- time chief-of-staff Vincent La Padula, who left that position to work with Mayor Bloomberg on his campaign, has refrained from contributing to Lhota’s campaign, instead donating $1500 to Christine Quinn, Lhota’s closest rival and the Democratic candidate, despite himself being a Republican. Mr. La Padula refused to provide a comment.
Working Class Roots
Another aspect of his background that Mr. Lhota has played up is his roots as a regular guy who grew up in a working class family in the Bronx. His narrative is certainly one that is built on the classic “American dream,”- born into a family of Catholic cops and firefighters, Mr. Lhota became the first one in his family to attend college, graduating from Georgetown University to go on to business school at Harvard and a successful career in investment banking and public affairs after.
According to George Fransiscovich, currently a Vice President at the Nielsen Company in New York and a friend of Mr. Lhota’s from the Catholic high school they both attended, St. John The Baptist in West Islip, NY, no one was particularly surprised by Mr. Lhota’s climb to power.
“I’d known Joe since middle school, and he was just an ordinary guy. We’d listen to John Hill in the break and do normal stuff like other teenage guys,” he says, “but we all knew Joe was going to do something.”
However, unlike most other teenage boys, Mr. Lhota’s love of politics began early, when at the age of sixteen, he was involved in campaigning for James Buckley of the Conservative Party’s bid for Senator of New York in 1970.
“One night we travelled to Washington to go to James Buckley’s victory party when he became senator. Joe had been active in the campaign and got us all in to the party,” says Mr. Fransiscovich, “We were all only sixteen back then.”
Mr. Lhota was also involved in local government while in high school. “We went to Catholic school and there was a legislation pending that was going to make government aid available to Catholic schools,” says Fransiscovich. “Joe took the lead and organized a campaign to get it passed and we would all go up to the legislature in Albany for that.”
While the legislation finally did not get passed, Mr. Lhota’s involvement in public affairs had only begun.
Metropolitan Transit Authority
Apart from his experience in investment banks and companies, Mr. Lhota’s last job before his mayoral bid was at the Metropolitan Transit Authority, a quintessentially public-private body. While his stint at the MTA lasted only a year and a half, Mr. Lhota received substantial positive publicity in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, when the MTA worked tirelessly to resume service to New York after the storm flooded subway stations and tracks.
While the MTA’s workers’ union, the heavily Democrat-leaning TWU Local 100 is almost certainly not going to endorse Mr. Lhota in the upcoming election, the group’s spokesperson, Jim Gannon, is grudgingly complimentary of Mr. Lhota’s work at the MTA.
“He was certainly a very able man and was respectful of the union and the work we do,” said Jim Gannon, a Local 100 spokesperson.
However, Mr. Gannon believes that Mr. Lhota himself had little to do with the post-Sandy cleanup. “The MTA has extensive systems in place to handle these situations. If anyone is to be credited, it is Mr. Lhota’s top management team, people like Penderghast and Bianchi who have had years of experience and have been involved in developing these systems for many years, as well as the workers on the ground who spent months on the cleanup,” he says.
Another aspect of Mr. Lhota’s tenure at the head of the MTA was the unpopular fare hikes that went into place soon after he announced his mayoralty, which if associated with him, would do little to endear him to the nearly $5.5 million straphangers that use the city’s subway systems daily
Although incremental hikes have been occurring on almost an annual basis over the last five years, Mr. Gannon believes that Mr. Lhota could have done more to prevent them from happening.
“Lhota made no attempt to minimize, the hikes while he was here, although he did delay the increase for 3 months,” he says. This delay ensured that the hikes would only go into effect once Mr. Lhota had left the MTA. “He could have done more, but he was walking out the door and transitioning to a politician’s role, so it probably wasn’t wise for him to do anything about it at that point.
While Mr. Lhota could have done little during his short stint as Chairman of the MTA, his earlier role as Deputy Mayor may have played a role in the MTA’s finances being the way they are. While presiding over a budgetary recovery in the 1990’s and early 2000’s, Mr. Lhota and the Guiliani administration he represented share some of the blame for Mr. Lhota pushed through several expensive capital expenditure plans including the Second Avenue Subway line, which is yet to be completed. The MTA is now several hundreds of million dollars in debt, and with no tax revenue to pay for it.
As head of the Office of Management and Budget prior to becoming Deputy Mayor of Operations in 2004, Mr. Lhota made his mark on the city’s finances as well. In 1997, while Lhota was city budget director, New York City was approaching its debt limit and did not have the ability to issue any more general-obligation bonds. He was instrumental in creating the New York City Transitional Finance Authority, which would, as a proxy, finance New York’s infrastructure projects. A few months later, the Authority and Lhota came out in favor of future-tax bonds, which were loans secured on the future income tax revenues of the city. These bonds have consistently retained a high rating and have enabled the city to borrow at low cost by lowering its credit rating.
According to Mr. Lhota, these bonds were required to build up the city’s infrastructure. “We needed the money to improve facilities,” he says.
Yet, mortgaging the city’s future revenues (to the tune of $497 million as of 2007), may not have been the most fiscally responsible move. According to Maria Doulis, a spokesperson of budget watchdog the Citizens Budget Commission, future revenues should not be mortgaged to pay for on-going costs. “Doing that is only responsible when there is an emergency, like 9/11 or Hurricane Sandy,” she says.
On social issues, Mr. Lhota has described himself as a “classic Northeastern politician” and has come out in favor of same-sex marriage and marijuana legalization. However, he will have to escape Mayor Guiliani’s long shadow on civil rights. In 1999, Guiliani put in place a law that removed homeless people from the streets, arresting them if they refused to cooperate. Lhota defended this action in a letter to the Reverend Thomas V. Daily, stating that he believed the policy was in accordance with “the Holy Father’s encyclical,” and that “it is compassion that is driving our policies.”
Another incident that indicates a degree of insincerity in Mr. Lhota’s new-found liberalism is his participation in the joint outrage displayed by the Guiliani administration when a painting of the Virgin Mary, executed in elephant dung, was displayed at the Brooklyn Museum of Art as part of an exhibit called ‘Sensation,’ which displayed the works of wealthy private art collector Charles Saatchi. Mr. Lhota took on the role of moral guardian of the Guiliani administration while controversy around the exhibit raged and threatened the Museum, a public institution, with cuts in funding.
While Mr. Lhota has recently distanced himself from his actions during the controversy, it does bring into question his commitment to liberal values which is all-important New York City.
However, Mr. Lhota clearly believes him and his values represent New York City. “Blue as New York City is, it has voted a Republican as mayor for the last 20 years,” he says. “Being a Republican doesn’t hurt my chances, the challenge lies in convincing the city you’re the best man for the job.”