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Joe Lhota Warns of Return to Dark Days if Democrat Elected Next Mayor

By Jill Colvin | January 28, 2013 6:53am

NEW YORK CITY — A return to crime, high taxes and quality-of-life complaints.

Welcome to former MTA Chairman Joe Lhota's vision of New York City if the wrong person is elected mayor later this year.

"All of the advancements that have happened in the city over the last 20 years — all of the quality-of-life changes, all of the increases in jobs — I believe are quite fragile," Lhota, who's running on the Republican ticket, told DNAinfo.com New York during a wide-ranging exclusive interview.

The biggest risks, Lhota warned, involve the city's budget, which faces a multi-billion dollar deficit and expired contracts with municipal unions.

"That is something that is very, very fragile," he warned, vowing not to raise taxes and to do more with less. "I'm not sure you're going to get the same type of response from anyone else running."

Many assume the Democratic candidates will be more accommodating to the unions, which are expected to play a large role in their primaries.

The plainspoken former MTA honcho, who also served as Rudy Giuliani's deputy mayor and budget director, is hoping to ride a wave of goodwill in the wake of the transit agency's response to Hurricane Sandy.

And he hopes his combination of tough talk and private-sector chops will appeal to a business community wary of his Democratic rivals and the impending loss of Mayor Michael Bloomberg "one of [their] own."

"As I observed and watched all of the candidates running for mayor, and knowing how important and how complex the city of New York is, I thought my background and my experience fit what's needed to bring New York City to its next level," he said.

Asked what voters should know about him, Lhota touted his "everyman" background — born in the Bronx, the son of a cop, the grandson of a firefighter and a New York City taxi driver.

Lhota's top priorities, he said, would include improving education with the introduction of new teaching methods, more tablets and a conversation on longer school days and years, creating jobs and maintaining public safety and quality of life.

He defended the controversial NYPD stop-and-frisk tactic as a key law enforcement strategy that should continue.

"It is a strategy in which anyone who says that it must be eliminated is going to put the city, or anywhere, at risk," he said.

On transit, he said the next mayor must start a public conversation about how to improve the current funding scheme for the cash-strapped Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which he ran for a little less than a year before stepping down to campaign for mayor.

"The system is starting to crack a little bit," he said.

While he's not in favor of new tolls on the East River bridges, he indicated he's open to a revised version of congestion pricing that limits strain on the outer boroughs — "a great place to begin the debate."

Lhota's Republican challengers are expected to include supermarket magnate John Catsimatidis, Manhattan Media CEO Tom Allon, Doe Fund founder George McDonald and, potentially, former Bronx Borough President Adolfo Carrion Jr.

But Lhota faces an uphill battle. He's running in a city where Democrats outnumber Republicans 6-to-1. And the vast major of voters don't yet know who he is, according to a recent poll.

The poll also showed that, despite wide praise for the MTA's handling of Sandy, voters disapproved of Lhota's job performance at the MTA by a margin of 46-36.

Disapproval was especially high among minority voters and on Staten Island — where many remain angry about toll hikes on the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge that were passed the day Lhota resigned.

But Lhota said he wasn't worried about the polls or the political landscape, noting that it has been 20 years since the city had a Democratic mayor.

"I don't buy into the political punditry that believes that New Yorkers vote based on party lines," he said.

"I believe New Yorkers are very independent. They will vote based on the person who will help them and help their city go to the next level. That's what this campaign's going to be about."

He'll also have to contend with the legacy of Giuliani, a polarizing figure who has reportedly been working behind the scenes to build support for Lhota and has already made media appearances on his behalf.

Lhota has tried to stress that he's no Giuliani 2.0. But along with influence, he brings baggage.

"I think that [Lhota] would be challenged as the continuation of Rudy Giuliani," said the Rev. Al Sharpton, a Giuliani critic, when asked about Lhota after a candidates' forum in Harlem.

"He’d be very much challenged in this community to get votes, and in communities of color around the city that were not supporters of Mr. Giuliani."

One Democratic strategist said that emerging from Giuliani's shadow will be a tough task.

“This guy was Rudy’s right-hand man," he said. “It's impossible to divorce him from that."