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New York – John Catsimatidis wants to be your next mayor
Four years ago, New York billionaire John Catsimatidis felt he had “done what I can in business, but I feel I have a higher calling” and talked about running for mayor.
But then fellow billionaire Mike Bloomberg decided to overturn term limits and run for a third term as mayor. This year John Catsimatidis feels the same itch, Bloomberg is finally retiring, Catsimatidis has taken the lay of the political land and thinks he can take on all comers (barring his friend Police Commissioner Ray Kelly entering the race) and he says he is running and already in campaign mode.
“I enjoy getting around, I enjoy people,” he said four years ago with his patented sleepy smile and New York attitude (he was born in Greece but was brought here when he was six months old). “I think a politician has to like people. I meet so many politicians that hate people. They close the door instead of opening it. Bill Clinton loves people and people love him.”
He told an admiring story about Bill Clinton holding up an Arthur Sulzberger cocktail party because he just couldn’t say good night. “Arthur looks at me, I look at him, he says, ‘What do we do?’ I say, ‘What are you going to do—let’s hang out!’”
John Catsimatidis is a trusted friend of politicians (several of the wall of photos in his office are of fundraising dinners he’s hosted with his wife), but the kingmaker was serious about being king and he was willing to commit millions of his own money to become New York City mayor.
“I’m very serious,” he said. “If I get the nomination I would commit $30-40 million for the campaign.” He admitted: “There’s a lot of people who ran with a lot of money and lost. Ron Lauder is worth billions, he lost. Michael Huffington is worth millions and millions, he lost. Money helps, but it doesn’t get you over the top.”
What would get him over the top, he said, is that “I feel for people, I communicate with people, I’m not an elitist, I don’t like elitists and I think the more communication you have, the better it is,” he said. “I grew up on the poor side of town. I grew up on 135th Street by City College. I went to school in the Bronx. I went to public school in Brooklyn. Brooklyn Tech High School. I’m very comfortable whether I’m eating with kings or presidents or eating souvlaki with my friends. I feel comfortable in both worlds and not too many people are.”
That’s because, he said, he’s a working stiff. He’s the guy who dropped out of NYU to run a 7-Eleven on Broadway. “You can’t work ninety hours a week and sleep thirty and go to school at the same time. Something has to suffer. My parents cried, screamed. ‘We sent you to school na yinis hamalis?!”
Soon after, he launched his first Red Apple and shocked the industry by opening on Sunday. “I gave out checks on Friday and I needed enough money in the bank Monday morning to pay for those checks!” he said.” He bought over Gristedes, Sloans and Pantry Pride and eventually owned 140 supermarkets doing $700 million in business.
But then he fell in love with the airline industry (supermarkets are now only a fraction of his business) and in the 1980s he operated the 11th largest airline in the world. He’s also a licensed pilot and got to fly some of his own jets. “You know what I miss?” he said of those days. “The world was my office. I didn’t have to sit behind any one desk. I had offices in Frankfurt, London, Central America. At the age of 33, I enjoyed the travel. Now,” he said, with his sleepy smile, “I enjoy staying home.”
The company’s main assets are now in oil and it owns a large refinery in western Pennsylvania (“We supply most of the petroleum needs between Buffalo and Pittsburgh”). But the man his wife Margo calls a “genius” in business admits he always has an eye out for more deals (“Retirement is not in my vocabulary”) and, of course, there is perennially the challenge of public life.
“They might as well bury you if you’re not going to make a difference,” he said.
Is it official now? Are you running?
We filed the appropriate paperwork and we’re going forward and we feel it’s the right time right now: we’re losing the leadership of Mike Bloomberg that we had for the last twelve years. Previous to that, eight years of Rudy Giuliani. New York City to me is the greatest city in the world and we have to maintain it. You have to remember: New York is the empire city. Money flows here from Europe, from Russia, from the Middle East, from the Far East, from South America. This is the safe ground: people come here and they feel that their money is safe and they are safe. And we have to maintain that because depending on where the leadership is of the city that’s what’s going to maintain that.
So people have to feel that a smart businessman has to be running the city?
I think they have to feel it’s somebody who cares about their safety, cares about the viability of business, like this Russian guy who bought an $80 million apartment for his daughter, how much do you think an $80 million apartment would be worth if you have a sahlamares government? Half price? I think that’s very important. People want to feel that there’s somebody doing the right job—a leadership that worries about the taxpayer’s money, as well as worries about people themselves, and a leadership that is fair to everyone, no matter who he is.
Do you think that Bloomberg outstayed his welcome by going for a third term?
Some people will tell you that, but Mayor Koch has a great expression: if 70% of the people like what you’re doing that’s as good as you’re gonna get. So there’s no perfect world out there. You’ll never achieve 100%.
Do people from the outer boroughs think city government is Manhattan-centric?
Unfortunately it’s always been like that, for as long as I can remember. I have a relationship with the outer boroughs and I believe I can do a good job for the people of the outer boroughs as well.
(Former Staten Island Borough President) Guy Molinari said you don’t have the fire in the belly to run.
I’ve heard him say that, and I could buy a big 200-foot boat and do the Greek islands and do the islands of Fiji and Tahiti, or I can work hard and get myself attacked in the newspapers every day. (LAUGHS). When you look at a choice like that you scratch your head, right?
What would be the difference between you and Bloomberg?
I’m more of a people person, where Bloomberg builds a wall between himself and people.
Your office is like Bloomberg’s office—you don’t have the cubicles.
I work with the people. I’m accessible even to the porter in the building.
You think your ethnic background helps?
I think that helps—with my Greek background I tend to give everybody a hug.
And Bloomberg is not known for his hugs?
Not known for his hugs.
You called yourself the man of Main Street as opposed to Bloomberg being the man of Wall Street.
You have to remember I grew up running stores on Broadway. I knew what it was to run a store—to have the headache of making payroll every Friday. To have the headache of making sure the stores are open when it’s snowing. He never went through those kinds of experiences. I feel the pain of the common store owner who gets all the parking tickets when he’s trying to get a delivery to his store. Nobody feels that pain. I lived through it.
What would be the agenda of your administration in your first term?
I think New York is falling behind on education, as well as our whole country, and our kids come number one before the teachers. I would say education is one of the most important things. And then the safety of our people in the street, whether it’s from criminals, whether it’s from terrorists, under my administration they better leave town.
Where would you find the money and more security, let’s say for the Police Department?
I’m going to give you a statistic that not too many people know: under Bloomberg in the last ten years we went from 240,000 city employees to 290,000. But the Police Department was down from 40,000 down to 30,000. So I would say it’s priorities. That’s how a mayor, how a CEO, how a leader assigns priorities. The money is there.
How do you get the cooperation of the Teacher’s Union for reform?
I think by calling on the teacher’s themselves. Being a product of the public school system, I believe 90%, if not more of the teachers, really care about their students and really want to do their jobs. And the other 10% that support the union are just scared about their jobs and the jobs of their union members. I am not anti-union. I believe unions are good, by and large. But don’t forget that kids come number one.
Can you divide and conquer the members from their union?
By and large, teachers care about their kids.
What do you think about the Right to Work movement in some state governments where people don’t have to pay union dues?
I would have to look at it carefully because all they’re saying by that is that a person has the right to work where he doesn’t have to pay union dues and I can understand both sides of the equation. By and large, most of the union members these days in New York are honest, hardworking people. But in some unions around the country you have bad leadership, where the union leaders have their brother-in-laws, their fathers, their cousins, everybody on the payroll where, how do you say it in Greek, oli troyoun. I can understand in some cases how a union member might say why should I be paying in so this guy can live the life of Riley? My stores have been union stores for the last 45 years and we’ve had good relationships with the unions and we never had a strike.
Do you think the school system right now is in decent shape?
No. I think it needs improvement. When the kids are number 36 in the world in mathematics what do you think?
Would you support redeveloping some of the beachfront areas hit hardest by Hurricane Sandy, such as in Staten Island and Rockaway, Queens?
I don’t mind developing, but don’t forget that a lot of problems happen when you build decks—wooden structures that can’t withstand a hurricane. Not a single building had a problem.
How about the problem with losing power in a storm to these areas?
That’s a separate problem. Con Edison said the other day that it would take $60 billion to redo the electrical grid: to put underground cables instead of cables susceptible to the wind and the trees falling. I’m not gonna say to you that I’m gonna solve that problem in four years.
Crime has been going down in the city, but some people think the cops are too proactive. Do you think so?
If you’re talking about Stop and Frisk, don’t forget that where the problems are greatest are in poorer neighborhoods, in immigrant neighborhoods, I think if we should get the right police in there who have the proper scorecard—what do I mean by that? When you have 30,000 police you’re going to have a few that are abusive. I’m talking about a scorecard where if a policeman stops and frisks and he has a batting average of zero, zero, zero, what do you do? It takes some common sense. But it offers protection to the people of that neighborhood. For instance, the activists, and I don’t know who they support, are yelling and screaming—meanwhile kids in those neighborhoods are getting killed.
Would you keep Ray Kelly as your commissioner?
Ray Kelly is a very, very good friend of mine. I’ve urged him to run for mayor and it’s up to him. He’s a great guy.
You still say that if he decides to run you’re going to pull out?
I said to Ray that if he wants to run he’s welcome to have that position.
What about MTA Chairman Joe Loda?
Joe Loda is a good manager, he’s an accountant, he’s a financial person, I welcome him that he should run for comptroller. I’m not sure he has the leadership abilities to make the tough decisions.
What about City Council Speaker Christine Quinn?
I think Christine Quinn has worked hard for the city and in a Catstimatidis administration there’ll always be a position for her.
Aside from your business background, what can you bring to the city?
Leadership. When you say let’s go forward, people follow. One of these big things I was advocating when I was running for mayor four years ago was I wanted to build the World’s Fair of 2014, which was the 50th anniversary of the world’s fair of 1964. It would have been great for tourism, it would have been great for the construction industry, it would have been great for the entertainment business, the taxicab business, the hotel business, it was good for everybody. But I couldn’t get Mike Bloomberg to go along with it. But I think it’s not too late to think about 2015.
Why didn’t he go along with it?
He was pushing the Olympics. And I said to him, Mr. Mayor, the Olympics is three weeks. It’s like a flash cube. You know what a flash cube is?—the brightest thing in the sky for about one-tenth of a second. I’d rather be a 100-watt bulb that shines for years. And the World’s Fair of ’63-’64 was four months long. And given what the weather is in New York City these days I think we can do five months in 2014 and five months in 2015, versus a three week Olympics. That’s more value for the taxpayer’s dollar and that’s what I have respect for.
What’s happening with the ethnic makeup of the city?
One of the problems that Mitt Romney had is that he didn’t attract any ethnics. He lost 73% of the Asian vote. He lost 75% of the Hispanic vote. He lost 70% of the Jewish vote. Ready for this one—he lost 66% of the single women’s vote. Halia.
Isn’t being an ethnic your advantage?
And the fact that I love people, I love to engage people, and I got my training for Bill Clinton.
Are you campaigning now?
Yes. I’m out every night to four-five events.