NEW YORK CITY — Joe Lhota sat in the back of his Lexus SUV over the weekend flipping through photos on his iPad. He pulled up a black-and-white image of a young, bearded man in glasses holding a trio of cups, smiling at the camera.
“That’s me in college,” said Lhota, still bearded and with glasses, flashing a subtle, irreverent grin. “And yes, those cups are filled with beer.”
A minute later he had another one ready, but needed to preface it. “I can see the headline now: ‘Nude Photo of Lhota.’”
Indeed, the image was of Lhota in the buff—at about 6 months old.
While most of the media attention has focused on his rival Democrats' primary deathmatch, Lhota's under-the-radar campaign has methodically built a big pad in the polls and is poised to win the GOP primary.
The ex-Giuliani aide who also served as MTA chairman under Gov. Andrew Cuomo firmly believes New York City voters will continue a two-decade-long tradition of putting the GOP in Gracie Mansion.
“New Yorkers, when they vote for mayor, don’t vote party line. They vote for the person who’s independent,” Lhota said, adding that he’s found new respect for the old adage that there’s no Democrat or Republican way to pick up the garbage.
“A mayor does something that every other elected official doesn’t do. He has an impact on their life everyday,” he continued. “You walk out of your home, you walk out of your apartment building, you see garbage on your street, the first thing you think about is, ‘What is the mayor doing about this?’ The subways are slow, you think ‘What is the mayor doing about this?’”
But with a 6-to-1 party enrollment advantage and a belief that the city is ready for a new direction, Democrats have long believed this is their year.
"It's partly the Dusty Springfield syndrome," said Doug Muzzio, a political science professor at Baruch college. "They're wishin' and hopin'.
"They think it's their year because you don't have the $27 billion gorilla in the room, and you have the registration advantage," Muzzio said, referring to Mayor Michael Bloomberg and his largesse.
Looking for Swing Voters
If Lhota has a chance of winning, he’ll need to win over voters like Mary Anne Cornell, whom he met during a visit to a Howard Beach block party over the weekend, pollsters said.
Cornell, a retired teacher who says she backed Bloomberg in the past, is considering voting for a Republican for mayor this year. She knows the teachers union is backing former city comptroller Bill Thompson, but she referred to him unenthusiastically as “uncharismatic.” She also had reservations about the other Democratic candidates.
“I think he’s a good man,” Cornell said of Lhota. “I think he may even be better than some of the Democrats.”
After Cornell described her ambivalence to Lhota, he said he’d check back in with her after the primary.
Lhota also found a receptive audience on a recent trip to Breezy Point, Queens. The mostly upper-income beachfront neighborhood was the site of some of the worst destruction during Hurricane Sandy, including the raging fire that destroyed dozens of homes and left the community shattered.
It also happens to be a key source of votes in the Republican primary.
Walking alongside former Rep. Bob Turner — a Breezy Point native, whose own home was destroyed last year and is only now in the process of being rebuilt — Lhota received a warm and consistent reception during an annual end-of-summer parade.
Families lined up along the route as it snaked between the bungalows, many still in some form of repair. Lhota, wearing a white linen shirt and a PolyPrep hat, shook hands and chatted up supporters.
At one point, a woman grabbed Lhota’s hand, telling him she supported him because she believed he was the best hope for Breezy Point. “We need you to help us,” she said.
“I will, I will,” Lhota replied.
Gunning for Opponents
Later, Lhota took aim at leading Democratic candidate Bill de Blasio. He ripped into de Blasio's message that New York City under Bloomberg had become a “Tale of Two Cities,” where the poor suffered as the rich got richer. Lhota called the rhetoric “class warfare.”
“I have been talking about the need to make the city affordable, and I want to be positive about how to deal with this,” he said. “I don’t want class warfare, I don’t want people pigeonholed into a class because that’s not what America’s about.”
He added that the city has “doubled the amount of revenue in the last 11 years,” but said that under Bloomberg's watch, spending also rose. “The reality is we have an expense problem, we have a spending problem.”
But Lhota's sharp tongue and off-the-cuff comments — the two most oft-recited being when he told a 77-year-old Holocaust survivor at an MTA hearing to “be a man” and called Port Authority police officers “mall cops” — have been an Achilles heel his foes have siezed on during the race.
“Lhota first of all has a temperament problem,” supermarket magnate John Catsimatidis said during a phone interview last week. “During Sandy he called Mayor Bloomberg an idiot. You don't do those kind of things.”
Catsimatidis, who describes himself as a "liberal conservative," has also spent close to $4 million in the primary against Lhota and Doe Fund founder George McDonald, according to the latest campaign finance filings.
But in the latest Quinnipiac University poll, Lhota continued to dominate his opponents, with 48 percent of respondents backing him and only 25 for Catsimatidis.
But first he will have to win the Republican primary next week. Should the polls hold, Lhota's belief that city voters will continue to flock to the middle and leave Democrats high and dry again will be put to the test.
"There's no guarantee that it is their year," Muzzio said.