The Rat Czar Plots His Ascent


It was an ugly meeting last week when the Metropolitan Transit Authority’s board voted to raise transit fares. Members of the public were furious; even the MTA board members who voted for the hike called it “a sad day,” pointing out that, once again, poor New Yorkers were going to feel it most acutely.

But the board’s chairman, Joseph Lhota, didn’t want to let the meeting end on a down note. As soon as the increase was approved, Lhota moved on to sunnier news: After less than a year at the helm of his generally foundering ship, he was stepping down to explore running as a Republican to become mayor of New York City.

It takes some balls to walk away from an agency teetering on the edge of structural collapse, mere minutes after sticking straphangers with yet another bill, and then tell the press that your departure to pursue your own political advancement is “bittersweet.” But no one has ever accused Lhota of lacking balls.

Politically, Lhota is a creature of Rudy Giuliani, a man he has called “the most energetic and intelligent person I’ve ever had the chance to work for.” Lhota’s wife, Tamra, raised thousands of dollars for Giuliani’s mayoral campaigns, and a few months after Rudy was elected, he brought Joe on board. Lhota quickly ascended from being a deputy mayor’s chief of staff to finance commissioner, budget director, and deputy mayor.

Those titles all paled in comparison to “Rat Czar,” the vivid honorific Lhota assumed as the administration’s expert on pest-control issues. As Rat Czar, he tabulated the city’s rat complaints and extermination missions and urged residents to put lids on their trash cans.

But Lhota was even more useful to Giuliani as the Imperial Mayor’s top attack dog, taking to the role with gusto—and an overweening vocabulary. When the New York Public Interest Research Group’s Gene Russianoff knocked Giuliani’s charter revision commission in the mayor’s first term, Lhota told him to “apprehend your hubris and rethink your definition of democracy.”

In 1998, Lhota was busted for calling Wall Street firms to talk them out of attending a fundraising dinner for the Citizens Budget Commission, a watchdog group critical of Giuliani. In 2000, a New York Times reporter wrote about Lhota giving her the finger.

Even after Giuliani left office, Lhota ran interference for him. When it was revealed that Giuliani was using a taxpayer-funded police detail for security during his trysts with his mistress, Lhota said the creative accounting that hid the expense was commonplace and predated Giuliani. Confronted with the reality that the sneaky bookkeeping was, in fact, a Giuliani innovation, Lhota folded immediately, telling the press, “I’m going to reverse myself on that.”

This past February, Lhota had to apologize after picking a fight with State Senator Bill Perkins over his old pet topic, rat control. He had told The New York Times that “as a legislator, he does nothing but talk and talk and talk, and he does nothing.” By the next day, he was eating his words: “Bill is an excellent legislator,” he wrote. “I share his commitment to addressing the problem of rat proliferation in New York City.”

In September, when MTA board member Charles Moerdler pushed back on Lhota’s drive to reduce the number of times the transit board meets, Lhota exploded, challenging Moerdler to “be a man,” accusing him of “blubbering,” and daring him to step outside.

Last month, Lhota had to apologize again, for telling the press that Mayor Bloomberg was behaving “like an idiot” in offering projections of when storm-damaged transit service would come back on line.

As a mayoral candidate, Lhota’s got some ground to cover. A November Quinnipiac Poll found him pulling 9 percent versus a generic Democrat’s 60 percent.

But if New Yorkers aren’t ready for a return to Giuliani time, team Giuliani certainly is. Unnamed sources have already told the New York Post that “Giuliani’s circle believes it can raise $10 million for him to run.” After Rudy’s catastrophic presidential bid and general evaporation from the national stage, you can almost hear him and his crew dunning the Czar for sinecures and comfy consultancies. Maybe there will even be room for Rudy’s former right hand, Bernie Kerik, once he’s released from federal prison.

Of course, the “business community” is just as eager for a Lhota administration. Never slow with a dog whistle, they are already hailing the candidacy of a Rudy lieutenant as an opportunity for the city to consider what New York was like before America’s Mayor made it “vibrant and safe and livable.”

A Lhota campaign will at least make the mayoral race more interesting. As a former investment banker and the Giuliani standard-bearer, Lhota could give Bloomberg’s anointed successor, Christine Quinn, a run for her money with Wall Street. For that matter, the Bronx- and Queens-raised son of a cop and his wife could be a more comfortable choice for outer-borough blue-collar voters than Quinn and hers.

Even if Lhota’s candidacy is shorter than a rat’s gestation period (“21 days,” he once informed a reporter), the members of the press are glad he’s rolling the dice. However you describe him—frank, spirited, belligerent, bullying—he’s a damn sight more colorful than the gray-faced hopefuls in the race so far. Let the bird-flipping begin.

[email protected]