“I’m inextricably linked with the Giuliani administration,” said Republican candidate for Mayor Joe Lhota during a Q&A session with journalists from New York’s community and ethnic media. The businessman and former chairman of the MTA claimed the legacy of the last two mayors, while carefully outlining “stylistic” differences.
“From a managerial point of view, Mayor Bloomberg assumes and tells every one of his commissioners that they are CEO of their agencies, and in the process of that, each and every one of these agencies really don’t communicate,” he said, citing miscommunication instances in the development of the Citi Bike program. “As mayor, I will make sure that all agencies work together and communicate with each other.”
Speaking at the session hosted by the Center for Community and Ethnic Media at CUNY’s Graduate School of Journalism, Lhota also took exception with Bloomberg policies like banning large soda containers: “I don’t believe the government should tell us what to do or what not to do,” but to “educate us on what is the right thing to do, and we make the decision”.
On the pressing issue of the thousands of open contracts of city workers left to be negotiated by the next administration, he stopped short of calling Bloomberg irresponsible. “Bloomberg is not leaving a labor reserve for the next mayor. That is a problem that I don’t agree with,” he said. Although he vowed to negotiate, he ruled out giving public sector unions retroactive wage increases because, he said, “the city can’t afford it.”
“The government of the city of New York has grown bigger than anything else in the city of New York,” he said, noting that the municipal budget doubled in 11 years from $36 billion to $70 billion.
Dubbed “the libertarian” candidate in some circles, he offered an array of free-market solutions for the city’s problems. On the defunding of the city’s public libraries, he proposed merging the three library systems (Queens, Brooklyn and New York) to save money and introducing cafés in the premises.
“Let’s figure out how to use commerce and put money in,” he said. On the closing of city hospitals, he mentioned the “need to find a way that hospitals become profitable again.” And to expand the city’s affordable housing units, he proposed “tax incentives for the private sector to build housing,” and using property not used by the government, such as post offices. “Let’s grab them and let’s use them for housing,” he said.
Lhota, who held different positions during the Giuliani administration – finance commissioner, budget director, deputy mayor for operations – said he would bring back some ideas from his former boss, such as cabinet meetings in the boroughs, and open discussions in community boards. “I think that part of openness in government needs to come back,” he said. “There’s a whole lack of civic pride in the city of New York right now. The feeling is that there is an aloofness in the government. It’s more technocratic than anything else.”
When he was reminded that Guiliani’s public discussions were often boisterous and divisive, he pointed out that “what’s important is that these meetings weren’t orchestrated.” Asked about whether he would react differently, he said, “I don’t know how divisive I would be… I guess I’ll have to wait to see what happens. Generally, when people yell at me, I try to calm them down.”
Lhota defended his former boss’s tenure, remembering the first time he ran for mayor in 1989. “Crime was rampant, fear existed all throughout the city. The number one goal that [Giuliani] had at the time was to make this city a livable place,” he said, pointing out that 20 years later, murder rates are “at an all-time low and continuing” to decline.
“We live in a safer city, our subways are safer, our streets are safer, and it’s unfortunate that [people] want to think about the divisiveness [of Giuliani],” he said. “I think of the number of people that would not be alive today had we not had these changes in our criminal justice system.”
On the contentious subject of stop-and-frisk, he refused to see it as a choice between fighting crime and surrendering civil liberties. “Stop, question and frisk, as defined in the penal code… is a realistic and viable tool for police departments,” he said. “The questioning becomes the most important part in the process. If there’s no questioning and it goes from stop to frisk, there’s a problem in there.” Such policy requires, he said, “that police officers be trained, be retrained and retrained again.”
As for the controversial surveillance program of Muslim communities, he said it needs to be monitored by the mayor and City Hall. “The feeling of the Muslim community, the infiltration, if that’s what it is, by the NYPD, it’s unfortunate,” he said. However, he supported the court ruling authorizing the police “to go in to prevent criminal action,” and said he didn’t think the NYPD has violated the rules.
Although he would not comment on the racial makeup of the Bloomberg administration, Lhota said, “My administration will reflect the diversity of the city of New York.” However, he eluded a question about diversity in his own campaign. “I have a very small campaign staff… I have lots of volunteers. Quite honestly, I have not looked at the diversity,” he said. “Clearly we have more women than men, I’ve noticed that.”
Asked about a report by the Center for Community and Ethnic Media, that the city spends less than 20 percent of its advertising budget on the city’s community and ethnic media, Lhota vowed to improve those numbers. “We should use those publications, and as mayor I will look for ways to do it more efficiently.” Lhota showed his familiarity with the March report by pointing out that one of the two agencies that place advertisements in the city is based in Nassau County. “We should give preference to New York City businesses,” he said.
On the subject of education, Lhota hailed the rise in academic scores during the Bloomberg administration, although he conceded that the statistics of high school graduates not prepared to do college work (around 47 percent) are “awful.” He vowed to continue Bloomberg’s mayoral control of schools, and defended his most controversial practice, the closing of schools due to bad performance.
“Closing schools is a legal term. When you close a school, you’re allowed to replace the principal and to replace 50 percent of the teachers,” he said. “What you’re doing is reconstituting the school. The building isn’t laid empty, the building continues to be used as a school with a new management.” He went on to say that to keep a school that does not teach properly open “is an immoral thing to do.”
Complete Q&A session: