Republican John Catsimatidis hits ‘maintenance’ man Lhota, thanks God for Obama

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Catsimatidis announces at City Hall. (Azi Paybarah)
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"All my life I've been winning."

"We all did well under Bill Clinton."

New York City "can't do without Ray Kelly."

"New York City deserves another World's Fair."

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John Catsimatidis, the billionaire owner of the Gristedes supermarket chain, launched his mayoral campaign this afternoon on the steps of City Hall, saying he sympathized with New Yorkers in unsafe neighborhoods and with small-business owners victimized by overzealous inspectors.

Catsimatidis was surrounded by about 100 supporters, many of them local Republicans from organizations he's given money to over the years.

A throng of reporters, including three reporters from the Times and a handful from Greek-language news outlets, were on hand for the event.

Asked about the difference between himself and his main rival in the Republican primary, Rudy Giuliani's former top aide Joe Lhota, Catsimatidis answered with a blunt reference to Lhota's truncated tenure at the M.T.A.

"I'm a visionary. I'm not a maintenance person," he said.

(Lhota's stint at the M.T.A. was generally well reviewed, but he left, at what is arguably a particularly sensitive time for the authority, to pursue his run for mayor.)

Aiding Catsimatidis was Rob Ryan, a Republican operative who worked on George Pataki's first campaign for governor, and Democratic consultant Eben Bronfman, a longtime aide to Robert Morgenthau, the legendary Manhattan district attorney who retired after 2009. Also there was Catsimatidis' wife, Margo (who recently broke her foot dancing), his son John Jr., his daughter, Andrea, and his son-in-law, Chris Cox, who happens to be the son of the state Republican chairman, Ed Cox.

While acknowledging his success in the business world, Catsimatidis tried played up his everyman qualities. He said his suit cost only 99 dollars. He jokingly said he wouldn't buy his daughter an $80 million apartment, and admitted he left New York University eight credits shy of getting a diploma.

Catsimatidis, who is full of surprises when he speaks extemporaneously, said "thank God" Dr. Martin Luther King's dream of America electing a black president came true.

Catsimatidis was an avid supporter and fund-raiser for Mitt Romney, and once said it was "ethnic pride" that led so many African-Americans to vote for Obama.

Asked to explain the apparent contradiction today, Catsimatidis said he didn't like the way Obama made a wholesale indictment of the business community.

"Every morning I woke up I was being attacked for being a successful American," he said. "If somebody did something wrong in the banks—listen to me carefully—prosecute that somebody. Don't prosecute 280,000 employees in the whole bank. That's wrong. Prosecute individuals, not companies."

Catsimatidis said he was likely to get endorsed by Pataki in the coming weeks and showed off a pair of cufflinks he said he got from the NYPD commissioner, Ray Kelly, as a gift. As he went to leave, reporters swarmed him to ask questions. He told David Chen of the Times that he'd accept contributions from supporters, but would largely fund the campaign himself.

Celeste Katz of the Daily News asked if he was nervous about being a candidate. Catsimatidis said that after piloting an airplane with only one engine—something he apparently did—nothing made him nervous.

Catsimatidis also reminded a reporter hovering by him that he was the finance chairman for one of Democrat Fernando Ferrer's mayoral campaigns.

When told of Catsimatidis' comments, Lhota's campaign spokeswoman Susan Del Percio emailed to say. "Joe welcomes John to the race and looks forward to a robust debate."