What we don’t know about Joe Lhota

Lhota in Westchester. (Flickr)
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What's the real problem with Joe Lhota's prospective mayoral bid?

We don't really know yet.

Yes, we know that no matter what, Lhota would have an awful lot to overcome if he ran for mayor. Notwithstanding the media's fascination (right here!) with Lhota as an unlikely transit champion, most New Yorkers don't know or care who he is, even after Hurricane Sandy.

There's no simple way for him to overcome this. Lhota doesn't have a vast personal fortune at his disposal. And he'd be running as a Republican, assuming he gets the nomination, in a very Democratic city without a guaranteed spot on a minor-party line.

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A consultant for Council Speaker Christine Quinn—who is running as the business-friendly grown-up and who therefore theoretically has the most to lose if the Lhota thing ever catches on—reacted to initial reports of his mayoral plan by pointing out that Lhota will have been responsible for hiking transit fares, which is generally not a way to become popular. (Coincidentally or not, he's leaving the authority just as the hike is being proposed.)

On the other hand. Lhota, who was appointed to run the M.T.A. by Andrew Cuomo, could have a real constituency if he ran, beyond the New York Post editorial board and the conservative-leaning voter-pockets of the city in which his old boss, Rudy Giuliani, is still regarded as a goodguy. He'd also have a real shot at winning over that Bloomberg-loving, union-fearing business establishment, which is clearly skittish about its current options, with all that entails in terms of financial support.

(As a candidate, Lhota would have the "opportunity to remind us of what New York was like 25 years ago," said Kathy Wylde, president of the Partnership for New York City, referring to that long-ago era of Democratic mayors of New York.)

And while the fare hike won't endear him to anyone, as Lhota has admitted, the uncomplicated reality is that fares were going to go up in the near term no matter who was running the authority, absent more support from Albany. The hike alone would only be a disqualifier if Lhota turned out to be too incompetent to explain that fact to voters.

The real reason Lhota can't be taken entirely seriously as a potential mayor yet is that the public, and in fact pretty much everyone outside the Lhota family, knows very little about what he actually believes about the world.

We know something about how he behaves as a manager, and in terms of his broader worldview, we know that he's a Republican who considers himself a libertarian, and that he believes in low taxes, legal marijuana and federal recognition of same-sex marriage.

We only know those last two things because he mentioned them to Dana Rubinstein in a recent interview. When Lhota was asked by Daily News transportation reporter Pete Donohue Wednesday at an M.T.A. hearing, as a sort of joke, what he thinks about other issues, Lhota responded, also as a joke, by referring back to that interview.

Which, for now, fair enough. He's still "exploring," and not actually running for anything yet.

But who knows what interesting views Lhota, a confident and opinionated man, has on education policy, stop-and-frisk, gun control and U.S. policy in the Middle East? (He'd be running for mayor of New York, remember.) Who knows how he'd react to a mayoral-gauge personal vet from the political press corps, or how Giuliani-like his instincts would be, all these years later, in the case of a racial incident involving the police?

Bloomberg wasn't really a Republican when he won; his policy beliefs actually looked a lot like Mark Green's, and he was running on the Republican line because it was easier than trying to get through a Democratic primary.

Giuliani on the other hand was a Republican, but back then, before he got religion in the service of his run for president, he was still a very distinctly New Yorky one—the sort who chose to endorse Mario Cuomo over George Pataki.

We'll find out what kind of politician Lhota is, too, if he runs, and we'll find out what he believes. And that's going to matter a lot more than any fare hike will.