If grocery store billionaire John Catsimatidis wins the Republican nomination for New York City mayor, several top political strategists say, he has the best chance among the GOP field to win the Nov. 5 election.
With just a week to go before the Sept. 10 primary, polls show Catsimatidis' major opponent, former Metropolitan Transportation Authority Chairman Joe Lhota, leading. But the same polls put Catsimatidis within striking distance, where voter turnout of GOP voters will be crucial.
"If John continues to get his message out, he has an excellent chance of winning the primary," said veteran political consultant Ron Kaufman, who was White House political director under George H.W. Bush, "and if so, he has a good chance of becoming mayor of New York City."
Catsimatidis is worth a reported $3 billion, which, according to Forbes, makes him No. 132 on its list of richest Americans. Along with supermarkets, he has amassed wealth in petroleum refinery, real estate, and aviation.
"John is someone who comes at government from a completely different background," noted one of his strongest supporters, former New York Gov. George Pataki, in an interview with Newsmax.
"He began as a teenager stacking shelves in a grocery store in Harlem, and rose to create jobs of tens of thousands. That type of entrepreneurial experience is excellent, as is John’s understanding of people."
In explaining one of his rare pre-primary endorsements, Pataki stressed that "I don’t want to see New York go back to the days of rampant crime and a bloated welfare state. John won’t let it happen."
The popular former New York governor echoed what a number of top strategists are saying about the two significant Republicans vying for the nomination: "John has the best chance of winning in November."
This was a not-so-subtle reference to the entrepreneur-candidate’s ability to use his own vast resources to win nomination and election in overwhelmingly Democratic New York.
So far, Catsimatidis has spent $4 million — about 2½
times as much as Lhota — and supporters told Newsmax he will spend $8 million before the primary next week.
"Money is not an object," the candidate told The Wall Street Journal. "It's getting the message across to everybody."
And Catsimatidis' top advisers tell Newsmax their candidate will spend north of $20 million on the general election if he wins the primary — or, as one aide put it, "Whatever it takes."
Catsimatidis' supporters say money alone is not propelling their candidate, but also a clear message about keeping New York pro-business while maintaining law and order.
"Republican voters do like the idea of a successful businessman as a [mayoral] nominee rather than a bureaucrat," Catsimatidis' pollster John McLaughlin told Newsmax.
Lhota had earned high marks for his tenure as head of the city's transport system, and also served as deputy mayor under former Republican Mayor Rudy Giuliani. He has been strongly endorsed by the former mayor, a fact boosting his chances in the Republican primary.
But the demographics of the city have changed significantly since Giuliani served as mayor, and political observers think his endorsement may hurt Lhota wooing Democratic and independent voters come November.
McLaughlin added, "John is the only major candidate who has promised to keep [New York Police Commissioner] Ray Kelly on his job and the only candidate to mobilize support from voters and urge the City Council from enacting the Community Safety Act."
Originally vetoed by Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the CSA bans religious and racial profiling by police officers, creates an inspector general in the New York Police Department to hear complaints about profiling, and makes it easier to sue the city over profiling.
On Aug. 22, the City Council overrode Bloomberg's veto, and the safety act became law. The day before the vote, Catsimatidis joined with two of his prominent backers, former Rep. Vito Fossella, R-N.Y., and Pataki to denounce the measure.
"A retired detective at our news conference said that under this law, if a robber with one arm was fleeing the scene of a crime, he could not be described by officers as a 'one-armed man,'" Fossella told Newsmax, "This law will undercut law enforcement in New York. It’s lunacy."
Conservatives who back Catsimatidis freely acknowledge that their man is a moderate on some issues, but think he may be their best shot at winning. The gregarious, wise-cracking candidate is often likened to New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.
"I agree John Catsimatidis will win the primary," consultant-commentator Dick Morris, himself a native New Yorker, told Newsmax. "Tolls increased dramatically under Lhota's watch at MTA and, with help from John's campaign, Republican voters will conclude he raised tolls yesterday and he may raise taxes tomorrow."
As for November, Morris and other observers of Gotham politics with no favorite in the race told Newsmax that Catsimatidis is the strongest candidate the GOP can field in hopes of winning in November.
Morris believes a divided field of candidates makes a Catsimatidis win in November a real possibility. But he also suggested the Democrats' eventual nominee is the key variable.
"It would depend on who the Democrat was," said Morris. "[City Council Speaker] Christine Quinn and [2009 Democratic nominee] Bill Thompson both have problems among fellow Democrats and either would be vulnerable. I don't think that is the case with [Public Advocate] Bill de Blasio."
De Blasio could very possibly be the eventual nominee of the leftist Working Families Party, which endorsed him for public advocate in 2009.
Morris' view was strongly seconded by former Rep. Mark Kennedy, R-Minn., and director of the Graduate School of Political Management at George Washington University.
"Mayor Bloomberg has shown that a wealthy candidate with centrist credentials can be elected mayor of New York," Kennedy told Newsmax.
"You can say that John Catsimatidis has a more personal identification with New Yorkers than candidate Bloomberg. Many, but not all, were familiar with Bloomberg terminals when he first ran, while nearly all New Yorkers are familiar with Gristedes grocery stores.
"Catsimatidis' chances of winning in November hinge to a great degree on who his Democratic opponent is. His chances of winning are greater against Bill de Blasio than Christine Quinn," Kennedy said.
"It would a wild ride, almost akin to Abe Lincoln's 1860 victory over three Democrats," historian and best-selling author David Pietrusza told Newsmax.
"But should Democrats splinter wildly, Catsimatidis might triumph against a field consisting of a Democrat, Christine Quinn or Bill Thompson; a Working Families Party nominee, Bill de Blasio; and the Independence Party's Adolfo Carrion, a Puerto Rican Democrat and former Bronx borough president," Pietrusza said.
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