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Can Joe Lhota Save Big-City Republicanism?

Becoming mayor is tough. But not as tough as restoring urban America's two-party system.

MTAPhotos/Creative Commons

On a recent weeknight, the nearly-broke Republican Party of Manhattan held a fundraiser at the National Republican Women’s Club, a stately townhouse on 51st Street. A few dozen people trickled in, like members of some near-extinct secret society. Two women came via Paratransit van; another, even more elderly, inched down the sidewalk with a cane and broad-brimmed hat, a vision out of Roald Dahl or Wes Anderson. A Young Republicans event the following night was not exactly hopping, either: The 40 people in attendance sat stonily when the club president asked if anyone wanted to contribute to its blog. When he asked whether anyone had read the club’s Twitter feed, one person raised his hand.

Such is life these days for the GOP in New York. There are just four Republicans on the 51-member City Council, and state legislators from the city are barely less scarce. Registered Democrats now outnumber Republicans more than six-to-one; Barack Obama won more than 80 percent of the city’s vote last November. It’s true that the current mayor, Michael Bloomberg, opportunistically ran as a Republican in 2001. But he made a mockery of his party ID before jettisoning it for good in 2007.

And yet, while you wouldn’t know it from the anemic programming at party headquarters, this year’s campaign has a real chance of producing a Republican mayor—something that seemed far-fetched until very recently. Joe Lhota, a deputy mayor under Rudy Giuliani, announced his candidacy just hours before that dour Young Republicans meeting.

New Yorkers may not like the GOP, but it’s easy to imagine them liking Lhota. He is in favor of gay marriage and marijuana legalization. While he’s a fiscal hawk—he was budget director under Giuliani—he seems to get that big cities need public services to function, and need them to function well. In his brief tenure running the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, he oversaw the remarkably rapid reopening of the subway after Hurricane Sandy, striding below ground in high boots to inspect conditions alongside Gov. Andrew Cuomo. Most importantly, perhaps, the 58-year-old lymphoma survivor exudes echt New York.

Raised a cop’s son in the Bronx, Lhota is capable of the casual, swashbuckling manner that New York tabloids and New York voters both tend to reward. He called Bloomberg an “idiot” for saying the Queens-Midtown Tunnel could be opened quickly post-Sandy—he later apologized, but the line surely gladdened the hearts of New Yorkers eager to see the billionaire mayor taken down a notch. Earlier, Lhota got into a public spat with MTA board member Charles Moerdler, a 77-year-old liberal Republican, telling him to “be a man.” “I’ll be the first person to say he’s a competent guy, a smart guy,” Moerdler told me. “I’m just sorry for him that he can’t control himself.” Lhota’s sense of humor ranges from asides about Williamsburg hipsters to self-deprecating quips about getting tattoos on the bald pate that sits above his owlish, bearded mien.

Lhota’s style almost guarantees that, in addition to bruising would-be allies, he wins plaudits from would-be detractors (and coverage of said plaudits in the media). The public-transit advocate Gene Russianoff recalls a time when he and others were at City Hall protesting Giuliani’s appointment of Lhota and another aide to the MTA board. A big bearded man walked over and introduced himself: Lhota. “In contrast to the thunderbolts coming from the Giuliani people, I thought it was big of him,” Russianoff says. “He just wandered my way when we were denouncing him.” More recently, Russianoff was gratified when Lhota reinstated Poetry in Motion excerpts inside subway cars, not a predictable Republican gesture. There was even a ceremony at Grand Central where Russianoff got to read a Frost poem, thrilling the man who makes his living critiquing the MTA’s leadership. “It was pretty savvy,” he says.

There’s reason for non-Republicans to wish Lhota well. As Harvard urban-studies guru Ed Glaeser—and plenty of others—have argued, a revitalized urban Republicanism would benefit both the GOP and the urbanites who so fervently vote against them. Glaeser laments: “The cities-as-foreign-territory approach is bad politics for the Republicans: after all, successful cities like New York and Houston surge with ambitious strivers and entrepreneurs, who should instinctively sympathize with the GOP’s faith in private industry. The Republican move away from the cities is also bad for the cities themselves, which have hugely benefited—and could benefit a lot more—from right-of-center ideas.”

We can debate whether the urban comeback is as due to Republican ideas on crime-fighting, education and welfare as Glaeser claims, but the bottom line is that a little more political competition would surely do cities some good. And a few more high-profile Republicans who talk about improving government rather than drowning it in a bathtub would likely do the country some good as well.

One irony of contemporary city politics is that even as urbanites have trended more and more Democratic on national issues, they have cared less about ideology at the local level. After all, if Lhota were to win, he’d be the third straight mayor to take office as a Republican. But he would derive almost no benefit from partisan apparatus created by his GOP predecessors—for the simple reason that they didn’t leave any. Bloomberg is the ultimate man without a party. Giuliani, now Lhota’s loudest champion, spent more time cashing in on his fame over the past decade than nourishing his New York network. Which means that while the two mayors had politically successful runs, they didn’t do much to revive a genuine two-party system.

Lhota’s camp doesn’t talk much about party identification, for obvious reasons. Instead, the theory of the campaign seems to be that New Yorkers will simply want a firm manager to keep the city from backsliding to the high-crime, high-spending disarray of the pre-Giuliani years. “Voters look at the Democratic field and are fearful of going back to the Democratic days,” says State Senator Marty Golden, a Lhota supporter from Brooklyn.

Following this script, Lhota's campaign appears set on running a constrained platform of managerial competence rather than personal style. “Everything in my background leads me to say that I’m better prepared to take on the role of chief executive,” he told me in a telephone interview, in which he was so numbingly on-message that he turned even a question about his impolitic flashes into a bland argument for his candidacy: “My personality really represents the diversity of the city.” (Lhota’s family name is Czech, but his maternal grandmother was Jewish, something local GOP types wish he’d broadcast more often.)

Lhota likewise dismissed a question about whether he could offer the Republican Party a new model for cities. “The national party is trying to find a direction for how they want to go and I’ll let them go with that,” he said. “My task at hand is to be elected mayor of New York.” (Stu Loeser, a former Bloomberg spokesman, suggests that the more beleaguered and distant the national GOP seems, the better it is for Lhota. “The argument can be made that the lack of any other real Republican support, the death of northeast Republican moderation is good for him because he’s not tied to any actual Republican Party,” he says.)

But a campaign based on public fears about a regression to New York’s Bonfire of the Vanities era faces long odds in a city where quality of life complaints now include over-crowding on the High Line. Not to mention that City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, the Democratic front-runner, exudes plenty municipal know-how of her own, making it less likely that a Democratic-leaning voter would vote Republican for competence alone. “Can you see the New York City public rallying around a budget?” asks Moerdler.

No, for Lhota to win will probably require him to give fuller expression to the man himself. Both Giuliani and Bloomberg did just that—though in their cases, they benefitted politically from a sense of crisis: crime in one case, 9/11 in the other. Lhota’s profile rose after Sandy, but by election time he’ll likely have to sell himself without a calamity to put his personality at center stage.

Even without Bloomberg’s billions and Giuliani’s crime-fighting legend, Lhota has the capacity to stir the egalitarian, mischief-making spirit of the city in a way that could present a real challenge to Quinn, who is entertainingly rambunctious in person but cautious to a fault in policy and governing—and who is running as Bloomberg’s heir apparent, despite the outgoing mayor’s conspicuous ambivalence. Russianoff sees a way to combine this sort of personal appeal with Lhota’s managerial chops: “You need to get people to believe that everyone else is a politician as usual and he’s going to make the trains run on time,” he says. This could also mean following the lead of Public Advocate Bill de Blasio in trying to tap into the outer-borough resentment over the growing gap between the city’s upper echelon and the rest, a gap exacerbated by Sandy’s devastation in Staten Island and the Rockaways. “There are hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers whose lives have been changed forever,” says Randy Mastro, another former top Giuliani aide. “Maybe not in the rarefied atmosphere of upper Manhattan, but a lot of New Yorkers recognize we face a crisis of rebuilding and a crisis of conscience in what we owe to these New Yorkers.”

A populist pitch might cause discomfort with some of Lhota’s business-class allies (he’s a former investment banker and Cablevision executive, and his wife is a longtime Republican fundraiser). It might also be hard to square with the MTA fare and toll hikes that were passed at the end of Lhota’s tenure, which Quinn’s people are already making sure to attach to Lhota. But there is certainly precedence for it succeeding. It would be somewhat in the mold of New Jersey’s Chris Christie, who has a more politically diverse constituency and a more bombastic manner than Lhota, but who would surely be linked with a Mayor Lhota as the trans-Hudson building blocks for Northeast Republicanism.

And then, of course, in New York itself there is the precedent of another fellow with little hair on top, a few extra pounds below and a knack for the quip: the late Ed Koch. As one of the many appreciations these past few days noted, Koch won his long-shot run for mayor in 1977 largely on the force of his personality, by being, in his own words, “unbelievably outspoken” before the voters. “I have to break out of the pack of candidates and get the people to know me as I am,” was how he described the challenge before him.

Lhota will probably need to do the same. But he’ll also need to do something else: Create an infrastructure—either within his increasingly anti-urban national party, or on a more provincial level—so that the future Joe Lhotas of this world don’t have to make it on personality alone. Then, and only then, will we able to see if he’s created a model for a big-city GOP.