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Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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How 'J-Lho' May Keep Democrats Out Of New York Mayor's Office

Sep 14, 2013
Originally published on September 15, 2013 2:25 pm

Republican Joe Lhota wants to be the next mayor of New York.

His odds are long — Democrats outnumber Republicans 6-to-1 in a city President Obama won in 2012 with 81 percent of the vote.

But Democrats have been out of the mayoral office since 1994, when Republican Rudy Giuliani was elected, followed by Republican-turned-Independent-turned-Big-Gulp-banner Michael Bloomberg.

"J-Lho," as the New York tabloids have tagged Giuliani's former deputy mayor and recent head of the Metropolitan Transit Authority, can't rely on his plodding campaigning style. Or earnest lack of charisma.

But with Democrats still in limbo (a recount of Tuesday's primary votes and the counting of thousands of paper ballots will determine whether the party has a nominee or faces a contentious runoff), here's a look at where Lhota can, and has already begun to, exploit opportunity.

Divided Democrats

Lhota's best opportunity would be a forced Oct. 1 runoff between Democratic primary opponents Bill de Blasio, who appeared Tuesday to barely get the 40 percent of the vote needed for the nomination, and Bill Thompson, the distant second-place finisher who has refused to concede, despite party boss entreaties.

"Lhota would love for there to be a Democratic runoff," says Lee Miringoff, who heads the Marist Institute for Public Opinion. It would pin de Blasio in his move-to-the-left primary mode, and eat up money and precious time before the Nov. 5 general election.

Says New York Democratic strategist Dan Gerstein: "The positioning that de Blasio established during the primary has left him vulnerable on a couple big issues — crime and taxes."

He advocated a city tax hike for high earners, and attacked Bloomberg-era street policing that targeted minority residents.

The 'Bad Old Days'

New York City voters may be overwhelmingly Democratic, and want a change from the super-rich Bloomberg, his cronies, and his policing policies.

But Lhota is banking on the assumption that they also don't want to go back to the crime and chaos that convulsed the city in the 1980s and early 1990s.

"He's got to depict New York under a de Blasio as a return to an era of high crime rates, huge budget deficits, property abandonment," says Doug Muzzio, a Baruch College expert on city politics. "Bad old days, bad old days, bad old days — if he makes that part of the narrative, he wins or gets close."

Lhota's already practicing the narrative. His primary victory speech warned of Democrats promoting a "class warfare" that would "send our city back to the days of economic despair, fear and hopelessness."

'Stop And Frisk' Divide

De Blasio emerged as a Democratic front-runner in no small part because of his eloquent opposition to the city's "stop and frisk" policing tactic, recently found unconstitutional.

Lhota, whose father was a city police officer, has strongly supported what he calls "stop, question and frisk," and in his victory speech asserted that "handcuffing and demoralizing our police officers will have catastrophic consequences."

The union representing the city's police sergeants has filed a notice to appeal the court decision that halted the practice.

"The implication of the decision is that the cops in the city are racist," Gerstein says. "There's an opening for Lhota to go after de Blasio, not only for being potentially weak on crime, but for attacking the New York City police."

The Experience Factor

Lhota, a former Wall Street investment banker, went on to serve in Giuliani's administration as director of the city's Office of Management and Budget, and as deputy mayor.

He stepped down last year as head of New York's transportation authority.

De Blasio has been a school board member, City Council member, and, since 2010, the city's public advocate, a job commonly referred to as New York's ombudsman.

"It's an office that has no known function, so the question of experience all of a sudden comes to the fore," says Fred Siegel, a senior fellow at the conservative, free-market Manhattan Institute for Policy Research. "Lhota has to pursue this — he can say that New York could be faced with a crisis, and he was there on 9/11."

"He needs to talk about his managerial competence," Siegel says.

Says Gerstein: "This is Lhota's personal advantage: real experience, managing and dealing with tough problems. De Blasio has no record, and in a broader, diverse electorate, that's going to matter a lot."

Connections With Giuliani and Bloomberg

Lhota has said he agrees with about 85 percent of what Bloomberg has done, and he's inextricably linked to Giuliani. That's good, and bad.

"I think he will positively invoke his service in Giuliani's administration — cleaning up the city, crime, dealing with crime, with 9/11," says Donald Levy, director of the Siena Research Institute. "It's smart of him to do that — he's got to run on who he is and what he is."

And though there's a great deal of Bloomberg fatigue, Levy says, polls have shown that about half of New Yorkers approve of his job performance overall."

Lhota, socially liberal and fiscally conservative, may have to distance himself from the "nanny state" Bloomberg, Levy says.

Bloomberg announced Friday that he would not make an endorsement in the race. Though Lhota had said he'd welcome the nod, he may welcome the step back.

Smart money is on Lhota coming up short, in a city that's changed since the recession, since Bloomberg finagled a third term, since Occupy Wall Street, since "stop and frisk."

But the guy still has a shot, if not this time, maybe four years down the road.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.