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Ahead of tough N.Y. mayor's race, Republican Lhota courts his base

New York City mayoral candidate Joe Lhota (L) speaks to people attending the Greek Festival while campaigning in the Staten Island borough o
New York City mayoral candidate Joe Lhota (L) speaks to people attending the Greek Festival while campaigning in the Staten Island borough o

By Edith Honan

NEW YORK (Reuters) - If elected New York City mayor, Republican Joe Lhota hopes to keep Ray Kelly as police commissioner, build parking lots at the end of subway lines and hold monthly town hall meetings. But first, he wants to fix the potholes on Staten Island.

"This is New York City, the greatest city in the world," Lhota said at a weekend campaign event on the island, the most solidly Republican but least populous of the city's five boroughs. "The roads should be pristine."

Staten Island is a natural base for Lhota, who was former Mayor Rudy Giuliani's budget director and later his deputy mayor for operations. While Giuliani remains a divisive figure 12 years after leaving office, he is beloved on Staten Island, and his name came up repeatedly as Lhota ambled through a Greek food and music festival.

"Number one, he was with Giuliani - who was good for us," 81-year-old local Republican leader Miffie Fierro said after shaking Lhota's hand vigorously and promising him her vote. "We're big on Republicans here."

On the eve of Tuesday's primary, Lhota is polling strongly against rival Republican John Catsimatidis, founder of the Gristides grocery chain. But the Democratic race has overshadowed the Republican contest and may continue to do so if two Democrats move on to an October 1 run-off.

In America's largest city, registered Democrats outnumber Republicans six to one. But New York has not elected a Democratic mayor in two decades.

If Lhota does prevail in the primary, he will inevitably face a wave of scrutiny, including his defense of practices by the New York Police Department; his role in Giuliani-era controversies, like the denial of funding to a city museum after an exhibition was deemed anti-Christian; and his management style, including a penchant for losing his temper.

As chairman of the Metropolitan Transit Authority - the job he left to run for mayor - Lhota famously got into a shouting match with a board member, telling him to "be a man."

But he also won high marks for his performance during Superstorm Sandy, which ravaged parts of the city, including a long stretch of low-lying Staten Island, last fall.

The MTA's decision to shut down the subways early is credited with helping to minimize infrastructure damage, allowing the city to bring some of the city's subway lines back online within a few days of the storm.

For now, though, Lhota is concentrating on the party faithful, which means talking about bridge tolls, potholes and storm planning on Staten Island, where almost everyone drives.

'PREPARED TO BE MAYOR'

Lhota has stayed out of the Democratic contest, where liberal Public Advocate Bill de Blasio has overtaken City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, an ally of current Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

But in a debate with Catsimatidis on Sunday, the two Republicans offered a starkly different vision for the city than the Democrats did. The Democrats, to varying extents, have challenged the police tactic of stop and frisk, calling it unconstitutional racial profiling, but Lhota and Catsimatidis defended the practice.

"Why are we penalizing the NYPD when we should be applauding them?" Lhota said. Both men support keeping Ray Kelly, who has served alongside Bloomberg for three terms as police commissioner.

Both also defended the city's surveillance of Muslims.

On the campaign trail, Lhota, much like the Democrats, bemoans the rising cost of living for middle-class families.

"The city is getting very expensive," he said. "We're running the risk of losing the middle class."

For Lhota, a central challenge will be the role Giuliani plays in his campaign. The former mayor is still well-regarded for guiding the city through the aftermath of the attacks of September 11, 2001 - with Lhota often at his side. But Giuliani is also remembered as a mean-spirited and divisive figure who inflamed racial tensions.

"Look, it's a different time," Lhota told Reuters. "Rudy's area of expertise was public safety."

Giuliani, who joined Lhota for a press conference following the debate on Sunday, said he had no desire to relive his days in City Hall through his former deputy.

"He understands the city of New York probably better than anyone I can think of," Giuliani said. "He is prepared to be mayor tomorrow."

(Reporting by Edith Honan; Editing by Scott Malone and Lisa Von Ahn)

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