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Published on NewsOK Modified: January 17, 2013 at 5:54 pm •  Published: January 17, 2013

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NEW YORK — To pump himself up for tense negotiations with the City Council, Joseph J. Lhota listened to the soaring theme song to the film "Top Gun," and, afterward, relaxed to the soothing tones of Gregorian chant.

Dispensing with diplomacy, he loudly challenged a 77-year-old Holocaust survivor to "be a man" at a public meeting of the region's transit authority, and he once gave the middle finger to a reporter in the rotunda of City Hall.

And, acting on instinct, he raced into the streets of Lower Manhattan on Sept. 11, 2001, to direct traffic and then, at day's end, delivered a copy of Winston Churchill's biography to Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani for inspiration.

In a city whose once raucous and colorful politics have become remarkably button-down and tranquil over the past decade, Lhota, who filed documents on Thursday to become a Republican candidate for mayor of New York, is something of a throwback: an unapologetically outsize personality, known throughout his career for big emotions and an uninhibited style.

His combination of experience — on Wall Street, in the Giuliani administration and, most recently, running the Metropolitan Transportation Authority — differs significantly from the backgrounds of the Democratic elected officials who have so far dominated the 2013 campaign, changing the character of the race.

But above all, Lhota's candidacy presents a question: Is the New York that elected Michael R. Bloomberg, a relatively measured, data-adoring technocrat, ready to embrace a larger than life, occasionally profane figure reminiscent of a more theatrical era in the city's politics — a man who as a deputy mayor once paused in the middle of a closely watched legal deposition to quote Aristotle and playfully contemplate the derivation of the word "ejectment" ("a new word form, when I first heard it," he told his interrogators).

Advisers to Lhota argue that his candor and authenticity are his disarming charm, inevitably distinguishing him from a field made up of candidates they see as predictable political players.

Asked about his flashes of hotheadedness in an interview on Thursday, Lhota replied "You forgot my humor."

''People should be respected for the strength of their convictions," he said. "And I also believe in freedom of expression. It is what it is."

Personality aside, even Lhota's supporters acknowledge that his challenges are daunting. He is largely unknown, and his party is vastly outnumbered: for every registered Republican in the city, there are six Democrats.

His most significant credentials are also his biggest liabilities. The transportation authority is a lifeline that New Yorkers love to hate, and Giuliani remains a polarizing figure in the city, especially with nonwhite voters.

Lhota said he was proud of his work with Giuliani. "I cannot be separated from Rudy Giuliani," he said. "But I am also not Rudy Giuliani."

Lhota described himself as a "practical Republican," determined to hold down spending and resist giveaways to public unions, even as he supports same-sex marriage and abortion rights. He described himself as a hunter who grew up around guns, but, he said, "there is no reason for anybody to have an assault weapon."

He declared that New York voters do not vote based on party labels — no Democrat has won a mayoral election in 24 years — and seemed to take pains to project a nonpartisan streak. He wore a bright purple tie and conducted the interview inside the Roosevelt House, on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, where he said Franklin D. Roosevelt had formulated his thinking about what would become the New Deal.


Lhota allowed that he had voted for several Democrats over the years, including Andrew M. Cuomo in his 2010 run for governor, but he did little to hide his reservations about President Barack Obama.

''Let's get it all out of the way," he said. "I have voted for a Republican for president every time since I started voting at age 18."


Lhota, 58, who was born in the Bronx and grew up on Long Island, has a biography that seems ready-made for a mayoral race: his father was a New York City police lieutenant, his grandfathers a New York City firefighter and a taxi driver. In conversations, he wields an encyclopedic knowledge of the New York history, architecture and politics.

After graduating from Georgetown and Harvard Business School, he became a leader in the fast-growing Wall Street business of municipal finance.

Like many young conservatives frustrated by the city's problems with crime and homelessness in the 1980s, he was drawn to Giuliani's tough-talking message of reform.

Lhota began showing up for weekly tutorial sessions — quickly called "mayor university" — for Giuliani, then the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York.

When Giuliani won election as mayor in 1993, he persuaded Lhota to join him at City Hall as an assistant in the economic development office, where Lhota's rise was rapid, even by the standards of city government. By Giuliani's second term, Lhota was deputy mayor for operations, overseeing three-fourths of the city's workforce and standing in as mayor when Giuliani was out of town.

Lhota was an influential figure in many of Giuliani's signature pushes — a huge reduction in the city's welfare rolls; the closing of Fresh Kills on Staten Island, the last landfill in the city; and a hard-nosed style of budgeting that sought to deprive the Council of coveted dollars it had relied on for years.

Lhota, working with Giuliani, pushed for drastic reductions in mainstays, like financing for the arts, knowing well that council members would demand their return. The resulting fury would be calmed by the return of basic financing, but often little else.

''Joe was the person who helped formulate that strategy," Giuliani said. "Joe knew the inner secret."

Still, in an administration known for relishing political combat, Lhota emerged as a figure with whom opponents could work.

Ronnie Eldridge, who represented the Upper West Side on the Council from 1989 to 2001, said Lhota was an uncommon ally in a truculent City Hall that, she recalled, once halted construction on a project she had championed because her husband, the newspaper columnist Jimmy Breslin, had criticized Giuliani's plans to overhaul Times Square.

''I had a terrible relationship with the Giuliani administration," she said in a telephone interview. "But not with Joe, ever. He was respectful, he was responsive and funny, and willing to at least give you the impression that he was agreeing with you."

After leaving City Hall at the end of the Giuliani term, Lhota returned to the corporate world, as a top executive at Cablevision and Madison Square Garden.


His return to public service, at the transportation authority in 2011, became the unexpected platform for a mayoral run. Under his supervision, the subway system made a rapid recovery after Hurricane Sandy, hastened by a decision to protect equipment by halting service before the storm.

But Lhota, who resigned as the authority's chairman last month, also left it with unfinished business, including unresolved contract talks with the transit union and a major downtown subway station still shuttered from the hurricane.

"The irony is, he didn't lift a finger to put the system back together," said John Samuelsen, president of Transport Workers Union Local 100. "He didn't settle the contract with us, and now, off the work that we did, he's trying to launch a mayoral candidacy."

What voters may remember, though, is the looming subway and bus fare increase passed under his watch, raising rates by a quarter, to $2.50, beginning in March. Advisers to a presumptive rival, Christine C. Quinn, the Council speaker, have already taken to calling it the "Lhota fare hike."

But Lhota had pointed words of his own for Quinn on Thursday, when she was described as his fiercest competitor. "I thought you would say Billy Thompson," he said, referring to a former city comptroller.

He minimized Quinn's experience and her role in city government. "Understanding the legislative side of how it operates is just one small area of what's necessary for a chief executive," he said.


@Over the past year, Lhota has endeared himself to a wider audience with an active and frequently impolitic Twitter account, where he offered unguarded commentary on sports, politics and his own alcohol consumption.

In his original Twitter profile, he described himself as a "9/11 cancer survivor," a subject he is not shy about discussing. @

Shortly after he received a diagnosis of cancer in 2005 — a result, he believes, of prolonged exposure to the air around ground zero — Lhota emailed friends with characteristic defiance and humor.

Anticipating hair loss from chemotherapy, he asked for "ideas for temporary tattoos to slap on the side of my head." He asked for prayers, but made clear he had already turned, once again, to Churchill, for words of comfort.

''Never give in, never give in, never, never, never," he wrote, quoting his hero.

Lhota's cancer is in remission, and he said he was ready for the rigors of a mayoral run.


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