NEW YORK (AP) — The top two Republican candidates for New York City mayor debated Sunday for the last time before the party primary on topics including the New York Police Department’s policies and the city’s handling of the emergency response on 9/11.
In often testy exchanges, former public transit chairman Joe Lhota accused grocery store magnate John Catsimatidis of being a billionaire businessman with no government experience while Catsimatidis countered that Lhota was a bureaucrat out of touch with New Yorkers.
“I’ve served in government in different ways that I choose not to talk about,” said Catsimatidis. “I’ve also served in the (Greek Orthodox) church, and if you talk about church politics, that’s much worse than New York City politics.”
Catsimatidis described Lhota as “more of a technical person,” contrasting that quality with what he called his own visionary capability.
“I’ve been a CEO for 44 years, and I am used to hiring people to perform technical tasks. I’ve hired hundreds of people with the qualifications of Joe,” he said. He added, “But you need a visionary, you need somebody that creates.”
Lhota said he does have new ideas for the city that will benefit everyone from the homeless needing shelter to children whose schools are failing.
“A school that’s failing our children, it is immoral to keep it open,” he said, adding that he wants to involve more parents in education.
Lhota has had a consistent lead in polls over Catsimatidis, who blanketed the airwaves with ads in recent weeks. Low Republican turnout is expected in Tuesday’s primary in a city where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by 6 to 1.
The two men traded barbs and expressed exasperation during the heated debate, with Lhota often shaking his head as Catsimatidis spoke.
Asked whether they had questions for each other, Lhota stared straight ahead and declined to ask his opponent anything.
However, the candidates agreed on many issues.
Both expressed support for NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly, as well as the department’s controversial street stop policy and the NYPD’s surveillance of Muslims, as detailed in a series of Associated Press stories. Both called for hiring more police officers.
An uncomfortable moment in the debate came when Catsimatidis explained how he would teach his own son to deal with police, if stopped.
He would ask the youth whether he had “dressed funny” or was “walking funny,” or “if he had his pants half down with his underwear showing, if he had his hat turned backwards . walking down the street as if you were drunk.”
Days before the anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, Catsimatidis criticized Lhota for his role at the time as deputy mayor in Rudy Giuliani’s administration.
Catsimatidis questioned the city’s handling of flawed communications among first responders on 9/11, saying that after the first World Trade Center bombing in 1993, the city “had the ability to fix those phones.”
Lhota acknowledged the phone issue should have been addressed but that he and others succeeded in getting the city back to normal after 9/11, from traffic and parking to garbage and paychecks.
When Catsimatidis suggested Lhota was part of a decision to build the city’s emergency management center “on a high floor” in 7 World Trade Center, Lhota pointed out that it was on the third floor, which he didn’t consider “high.”
“John, get your facts straight,” Lhota concluded angrily.
Among Democrats, Bill de Blasio has surged in the polls. The general election is Nov. 5.