Leading GOP Contenders for Mayor Debate on NBC 4 New York

John Catsimatidis and Joe Lhota faced off for 90 minutes

The two leading Republican candidates for mayor faced each other in a final debate Sunday, with billionaire businessman John Catsimatidis trying -- sometimes awkwardly -- to explain himself and score points on his rival, former MTA chairman Joseph Lhota.

Lhota, a former Giuliani administration official who enjoys a large lead in polls, seemed to follow a strategy of disengagement, repeatedly passing up opportunities to attack Catsimatidis. Lhota often looked like an annoyed schoolteacher, scrunching his face or quietly shaking his head while Catsimatidis spoke. 

The candidates also exchanged sharp words throughout the 90-minute debate -- particularly when Lhota felt the need to defend himself.

The first such volley came during a discussion of keeping the city safe from terror.

Asked about their qualifications on emergency preparedness, Lhota cited his work as Rudy Giuliani's deputy mayor for operations, saying he'd been responsible for getting the city back to normal -- traffic, garbage, paychecks, assistance checks -- after 9/11.

Catsimatidis said vaguely that he'd "served in government in various ways that I choose not to talk about." 

Lhota squinted his eyes disapprovingly.

Then Catsimatidis accused Lhota of not accepting responsibility for the failures of police and fire radios during 9/11.

"They had the ability to fix those phones from 1993 to 2000," Catsimatidis said.  

He also suggested that Lhota was part of a decision to build the city's emergency management center "on a high floor" in 7 World Trade Center, a building at the site that collapsed the afternoon of 9/11.

Lhota said that the trade center was believed, at the time, to be among the safest places in the city, despite the fact it had been bombed before. The CIA and Secret Service also had offices there, Lhota said.

He also pointed out that the emergency management center was on the third floor, which he didn't consider "high."

"John, get your facts straight," Lhota said.

"I always get my facts straight," Catsimatidis said.   

Lhota and Catsimatidis — and a third candidate, Doe Fund founder George McDonald, who wasn't included in Tuesday's debate because he didn't meet Campaign Finance Board criteria for the leading contender debate — are competing for the votes of New York's relatively tiny Republican voting bloc to earn a spot on the Nov. 5 general election ballot.

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The winner of Tuesday's GOP primary faces tough odds, because Democrats outnumber Republicans 6 to 1 in the city, and polls consistently show the leading Democratic candidates beating a Republican by large margins.

But there is at least one historical fact in the Republicans' favor: the city hasn't elected a Democrat since 1989, when David Dinkins beat Giuliani. Giuliani won four years later, and was succeeded by Mayor Bloomberg, who ran as a Republican but switched to independent while in office.

Lhota has held considerable leads in recent primary polls, and has relied on support from Giuliani, who has appeared in campaign ads and is co-hosting a fundraising event on Monday. On the campaign trail, Lhota touts his experience in government affairs, and paints Catsimatidis as a rich guy with no government experience.

Catsimatidis, a blunt-talking, self-made billionaire whose business holdings include the supermarket chain Gristedes, has used his money to blanket the airwaves with ads.

Despite their frequent campaign-trail criticisms of one another, Lhota and Catsimatidis found a good amount of common ground during Sunday's debate. They agreed on a lot of law-and-order items -- both said they wanted to keep Police Commissioner Ray Kelly, would support appeal of a federal judge's finding that the NYPD's stop-and-frisks were illegal, would maintain the NYPD's intelligence-gathering operations on Muslims, and would hire more police officers. 

They also described themselves as middle-road, pro-business and socially moderate Republicans who would be capable of appealing to traditionally Democratic voters in the general election.

On Sunday, Catsimatidis called himself a "visionary" CEO with long experience creating jobs. He described Lhota -- whom he has called a "bureaucrat" in television ads -- as "more of a technical person."

"Joe is very qualified in technical items and there's nothing wrong with that. But you need a visionary and you need someone who creates jobs," he said.

Lhota said he wasn't a bureaucrat, but had plenty experience in cutting red tape.  

In one of the debate's odder moments, Catsimatidis said he was more electable because he had the "ability to reach out to the minorities."

"All of the minorities I've been to in the last three months, they love me," Catsimatidis said. "I have a love factor with minorities…They all give me hugs." 

Another cringe-worthy answer came when Catsimatidis was asked about his response in an earlier debate about how he'd respond if his son was stopped and frisked by police. Catsimatidis said at the time he'd ask his son if he'd been walking or dressing "funny."

Explaining that response on Sunday, Catsimatidis said: "If he had his pants half down with underwear showing or if he had his hat turned backward … walking down street as if you were drunk … you know, walking funny. That's what I meant."

Lhota looked mildly amused, but did not comment.

Both candidates said they disagreed with Bloomberg's remarks to New York Magazine that Democratic front-runner Bill de Blasio was running a "racist" campaign by featuring his mixed-race family in advertisements and on the trail. 

"The fact of the matter is, the choice of words was a little bit harsh," Lhota said.

But when asked about Bloomberg's statement in the same article that rich New Yorkers contributed taxes that helped poorer residents, Lhota said the mayor had it right. 

"That's the way our system works," Lhota said.

Then Lhota went on the defensive when a panelist brought up a campaign ad that notes Catsimatidis' past donations to Dinkins, a black Democrat. "He's not one of us," the Lhota ad says of Catsimatidis.

Lhota said that statement was aimed at Republicans, to show "who the real Republican is in this race."

Catsimatidis passed on an opportunity to criticize Lhota. But he said he supported Dinkins' Republican opponent, Giuliani, too.

In a "lightning round" question about the spread of electronic cigarettes, Lhota said they ought to be banned, just as regular cigarettes were under Bloomberg. Catsimatidis said he needed more information to make a decision.

By the debate's conclusion, it appeared that Lhota was having a difficult time restraining himself from criticizing Catsimatidis.

After hearing Catsimatidis repeatedly mention the changes he'd make upon taking office Jan. 3, Lhota, visibly annoyed, finally pointed out that inauguration day was Jan. 1, and has been for over a century.

"I thought it was Jan. 3," Catsimatidis said.

"No," Lhota responded.

The last question was supposed to be on the light side, about their responses to the MTA's decision last week to halt subways to avoid hurting two kittens that strayed onto the tracks.

Lhota, who said after the incident that he was against inconveniencing passengers for such reasons, insisted that he wasn't "the anti-kitten candidate."

"I have pets," he added. "I love pets. I grew up with cats."

Then, remembering that Catsimatidis goes by the nickname "Cats," Lhota gestured to his rival and said, "Not this Cats."

Catsimatidis, smiling, acted like he was insulted.

Lhota didn't seem to realize Catsimatidis was joking. "John, I don’t say anything bad about you. You’ve got to start telling the truth."

"I always tell the truth," Catsimatidis said.

"You think you do," Lhota said.

"I always do," Catsimatidis said.

The official debate series is administered by the New York City Campaign Finance Board. NBC 4 New York, The Wall Street Journal and Telemundo Nueva York are sponsors. 

NBC 4 New York is also sponsoring and airing the final general election mayoral debate at 7 p.m. on Oct. 29.

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