Republican mayoral hopeful Joe Lhota has never been to Israel. He didn’t join Mayor Rudy Giuliani on his trip to Israel in 1997 because he was acting mayor when Giuliani was overseas. Nevertheless, Mr. Lhota shares something in common with Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu: they both have faith in Arthur Finkelstein. For those who don’t know, Arthur J. Finkelstein masterminded the merger of Likud and Yisrael Beitenu in the most recent Israeli Knesset election, which retrospectively granted Netanyahu his third term as Prime Minister (but also cost both parties more than 10 seats). Mr. Finkelstein also helped Netanyahu get elected as Prime Minister in 1996. Among his current clients are Nir Barkat, the mayor of Jerusalem, who is running for reelection in the upcoming municipal vote, in October.
The Brooklyn born Finkelstein, who was raised in Levittown and Queens, scored his first significant win as a pollster/strategist in 1970, when James Buckley ran on the newly minted New York Conservative Party line and unexpectedly won a Senate seat in a three-way race. Finkelstein went on the help elect New York Republicans to office such as Alfonse D’Amato and George Pataki.
According to the latest Campaign Finance Board filing, the Lhota campaign paid Mr. Finkelstein $49,500 for polling. In a conversation with this reporter, Mr. Lhota confirmed that Mr. Finkelstein was hired as a pollster for the campaign.
Interestingly enough, John Catsimatidis, Lhota’s rival in the Republican primary, hired John McLaughlin, who worked as a pollster for Bibi Netanyahu in the Likud primaries in 2005, and later as a Likud campaign adviser in 2009.
Mr. Lhota also recalled his personal relationship with former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who served as mayor of Jerusalem at the same time Mr. Giuliani was mayor of New York. “He used to come to New York all the time. He would spend time in my office. We used to go cigar smoking,” Mr. Lhota recounted. “I was so proud when he became Prime Minister,” he added.
Joseph Lhota, born October 7, 1954, is considered a Jew according to Jewish law. His maternal grandmother, Ita Steinberg, was born in the U.S. to a Russian Jewish family but married a Roman Catholic. She died in 1964. In an extensive interview with this reporter, Mr. Lhota said he had been aware of the fact since he was a very young man, but wouldn’t use it as a tool to court Jewish votes. “I think that would be patronizing,” he said.
“I am extremely respectful of the Jewish community. You know, I am Christian. I think of Jews as my older brothers. I mean, there wouldn’t be Christianity without the Jewish religion. There is a direct connection between the two of them,” he added.
Asked about his personal relationship with the Jewish community, Mr. Lhota spoke of his time as budget director and deputy mayor in the Giuliani administration. “As budget director, I had great personal relationships with the folks at the MET council; With Agudath Israel; With various different COJO’s, in various different parts of the city. It was very instrumental in making sure daycare vouchers were made available, and I continued that when I was deputy mayor. I maintained those relationships throughout the community. During the Giuliani administration, the Jewish community was understood, and I think there was a reciprocal affection in the administration for the Jewish community,” Mr. Lhota noted.
How do you intend to earn the Jewish vote? We asked.
“I had been spending, since mid January–when I announced–a significant portion of every day fundraising, because I have to. I am running against a guy who is self funding. I am also against people who have been fundraising for the last 3 and 4 years. So I have a lot to catch up,” Mr. Lhota said, explaining his absence from Jewish events. “I am making more and more inroads in very different parts of the Jewish community as the summer develops.”
Speaking of the issues that are of great concern to the Jewish community, Mr. Lhota acknowledged that he still has a lot to learn. Nevertheless, he expressed great knowledge of the issues the individual in the Jewish community faces in daily life. “Every time I go to the Jewish community, the issues are the same. It’s about education. Not just public school education, but also how unfairly yeshivas are being treated in comparison to others; it’s about affordable housing; it’s about jobs! The unemployment rate in the Jewish community is not really talked about. And crime. Even though the number of murders has dropped, other felony crimes are up. And last but not the least, treating the community fairly and equitably,” Mr. Lhota said.
Mr. Lhota promised to fight hard for school choice vouchers. “The mayor can use the bully pulpit to advocate in Albany for private schools,” he said. “It’s important that our children are properly educated. The role of the government and the role of the state is making sure they have the proper textbooks; making sure they are secure; making sure that they have transportation. The children that go to parochial schools and yeshivas are residents and the children of taxpayers in the city of New York, and they are not getting their fair share. They are just not,” he asserted.
“On the issue of tax credits, I have been in favor of that. I have yet to find a way that it would cover the full tuition, but some form of a tax credit, to give relief to parents who pay for property tax as well and all the other taxes in New York, and are also paying tuition,” Mr. Lhota proclaimed.
Would you pledge to fight for it and get it done in your first term? We pressed.
“Would I start fighting for it in my first term, using my bully pulpit? I will start doing it in my campaign. However, the mayor doesn’t have a vote in Albany. But rest assured, I will fight as hard as I possibly can to make sure it happens in Albany,” he pledged, adding, “I couldn’t make a commitment that I will get it done in the first term.”
With regard to affordable housing, Mr. Lhota said he’s in favor of returning to the Mitchell-Lama program that gave tax credits to private developers as long as they remained in the program, and low-interest mortgages, subsidized by the federal, state, or New York City government.”We need to the same thing again. Those programs have lapsed. The government needs to partner with the private sector. The government shouldn’t build the houses; the government should provide the financial incentives to developers who build the housing, and keep the rentals affordable,” he said.
Mr. Lhota also raised the issue of City and State owned vacant properties, as a possible option to get more land to build affordable housing.
The third area is the federal government, Mr Lhota pointed out. “The federal government talks about closing most of the post offices. There are about 30 post offices in New York City they want to shut down. I want that property. Most post offices are surrounded by tall buildings. We would be able to take those buildings and use them as a location to put new housing, and coordinate that with some tax incentive plan.”
In conclusion, out of many conversations this reporter had with Jewish voters, the following story is the weirdest so far: on the first night of Shavuot, as I was walking home from Shul, I came across a cousin of mine who asked me what I do for a living. When I told him I cover the race for mayor he started asking me this and that etc. A friend who was following him interrupted the conversation, saying that out of all the candidates, Yoely Lhota stands the best chance. “I am telling you, this Yoely Lhota knows what he’s talking about. He was already in government. He’s a fiscal conservative. I trust him,” the stranger said.
As I was walking home, I was thinking why would this guy call Mr. Lhota, whose real name is Joseph, “Yoely?” I came to the conclusion that when uttered in one breath, Mr. Lhota’s full name sounds like Joel Lhota, especially among Hasidim, whose every second or third child, if born to a Satmar family in the 80′s and 90′s, is named Joel (affectionately: Yoely).
When I recounted the story during our sitdown with Mr. Lhota, he laughed. “Call me Yoely from now on,” he said.