Huffpost New York
The Blog

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

Blake Fleetwood Headshot

'Everyone Else Running for Mayor Is Owned'

Posted: Updated:

So said John Catsimatidis, the blunt-speaking, bombastic billionaire grocery king, who is running as a liberal Republican for mayor of New York City, at Harvard Club breakfast earlier this week.

By this, he means that the other candidates are beholden to various interest groups and lobbyists for campaign funding and support -- pandering all over the place -- and cannot possibly make the best decisions for the city as a whole -- a situation that is unsustainable.

Money and special interests are the mother's milk of politicians, and they have corrupted city elections, state politics -- a cesspool -- and even national politics. This is not news.

"When the people find they can votes themselves money (out of the general coffers) that will herald the end of the republic," according to Benjamin Franklin.

Money follows money.

One thing is for sure: special interests are not us.

99.97 percent of Americans don't make political contributions of more than $200. Yet, more and more, it is big-moneyed special interests who are calling the political shots -- they are in the room when the agendas are set, and their interests are not always ours, and especially not the interests of the poor who need the most help.

"New York City could very well be Detroit in five years, (which has not done very well for its poor) if nothing is done about it," Catsimatidis told me.

2013-08-29-JohnCastimatidis.jpg

Municipal employees and unions: teachers, policemen, fireman, and 300,000 other city employees control politics in New York City and Albany and virtually hold the city budget hostage until their demands for pay and benefits are met.

An example Castimatidis cites is that of a young man who becomes a policeman at 21, retires at 41 and then is virtually on the payroll with medical benefits and pensions for the rest of his life, until he is 91.

"He works 20 years as a cop and remains on the public payroll for another 50 years."

"This is crazy. No business could work this way. The numbers don't work."

So far, no New York City, or Albany, politician has been able to stand up to the municipal employees, who with the families and friends, probably control more than a one million votes.

"I don't need your money... I have a ton of it," says the short, ample gutted Catsimatidis, who earned a three billion dollar fortune in groceries, real estate, and energy.

Catsimatidis is charming, well informed, very smart... not a packaged politician. Ethnic as all get out and extremely likeable.

His apparent weaknesses in appearance, blunt speaking style and manner may well turn out to be his ultimate strength, integral to his campaign. Despite his ton of money, Catsimatidis is the quintessential average New York success story, accompanied with a quintessential New York accent -- a self made man who does not forget where he came from.

"I clawed my way out of 135th street. I made it... So can you," he said. "I came to New York as an infant. My father was a busboy at Luchow's"

Catsimatidis is modest and self-effacing: "I wear $99 suits (rumpled and well-worn). I am not the smartest guy in the world, but one thing I do... that has made me $3 billion... is to hire guys who are smarter than me."

But he doesn't expect today's 135th street residents to make it on their own. "They need help. Right now, they are prisoners of our poor neighborhoods. Our education system is broken. We have a 40 percent dropout rate. Catholic schools and other religious schools have a 97 percent graduation rate.

"What are we doing wrong?"

"69,000 students apply to get into charter schools every year and there are only places for 19,000."

"Yes, I am for charter schools. If so many people are applying, they must be doing something right. In Japan, the top 25 percent of the graduates go on to be teachers. Here, the bottom 25 percent go on to be teachers."

We need jobs. We need more trade schools. In Germany, 40 percent of high school students get technical training, which feeds their wildly successful manufacturing base. In New York City, only a fraction of our students receive anything else beyond academic training.

Catsimatidis is right and may very well be the best candidate for mayor. I have always been attracted to rich, improbable candidates because they are often the tellers of inconvenient truths.

The reason is simple. They have nothing to lose. They have no interest groups to offend.

A mayor has got to be able to say "No" to the special interest groups and "Yes" to the needs of all of the people, especially the poor. It's a sad state of affairs when only wealthy candidates can do this.

"I gotta win the Republican primary and then anything can happen -- despite the reality that Democrats outnumber Republicans by a 6-to-1 margin. I want to give back to the city."

With billions at his disposal, Catsimatidis has a small chance, given the flawed candidates on the Democratic side.

Catsimatidis admits he is slightly behind in the polls but charges that his opponent is a technocrat with no larger vision. He also says that Joe Lhota doesn't have the temperament to be mayor and bring various factions together. A story in this week's New York Times notes that Lhota called Mayor Bloomberg an "idiot," called Port Authority police "Mall Cops" and he called the Patterson "Corrupt."

Catsimatidis claims that he is the only candidate who has promised to keep Ray Kelly as police commissioner... "Poor people deserved to be safe."

Last night in a CBS debate among Republican candidates in answer to a question, Catsimatidis declared "I think we should buy the strongest condoms that we can get."

The crowd laughed in appreciation of his unguarded, brash, blunt comments.

When asked about gay marriage, Catsimatidis replied "Let them do whatever they want on a personal basis. And if I know them, I will marry them."

2013-08-29-BASTARDS.jpgOur governments are bought and sold by special interests that rarely represent the people. Dylan Ratigan's book: GREEDY BASTARDS! How You Can Stop Corporate Communists, Banksters, and Other Vampires from Sucking American Dry and his Web site are a place to start.

Campaign financing reform will come someday, but we must realize that until the pernicious consequences, and costs, of special interest politics are fully understood, we may have to put up with wealthy candidates and some of the truths they have to say.